Welcome to Game Changers - where you meet empowered women that are transforming the world for the better.
Meet Carla McNeil, the director of Learning Matters which helps parents and teachers to support children who experience dyslexia and other learning differences.
I am fortunate to have met Carla in the context of supporting my son who has dyslexia. Her work is changing how we perceive dyslexia & learning differences as well as how we support and empower our children to thrive.
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- What was your journey to establishing Learning Matters?
I was in a role as a school principal and was parenting a dyslexic son. I came to realise that I didn't know enough about dyslexia and/or how the brain learns to read. How could I lead others if I didn't know myself?
As a parent I had felt helpless. As a school principal I was unable to help my teachers shift those students who were struggling year after year. They had been on intervention after intervention to no avail. There had to be a better way. I needed to find that and bring it to the classroom floor in New Zealand.
I had been frustrated with how there were so many programmes that sat in isolation and so many tutors who worked in isolation but no organisation who believed in aligning classroom teaching with any external support.
My mission became very clear. I had been very successful in this role and had come to realise that I had developed both the skills and knowledge that may in fact be useful to make a bigger shift in education across New Zealand.
I’m always up for a challenge. Life's not a dress rehearsal!
- Learning Matters tagline is ‘Because Learning Differences Exist’. What learning differences are you referring to & how many people are affected?
I am referring to dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. 1 in 5 people will be dyslexic. The figures on dysgraphia and dyscalculia are not as readily available but these are likely to be 1 in 20.
- You believe that all dyslexic children in New Zealand have the right to receive and benefit from evidence-based literacy education. What is meant by this?
Evidence-based literacy refers to teaching that aligns with the findings from studies of the Science of Reading (SOR). For years there have been wars over how we best teach children to read, write and spell.
It really is quite sad and frustrating that so much of the teaching practice in New Zealand reflects theories of years gone by that have now been disproven.
With the introduction of technology our world of teaching and learning now has access to the latest findings of how all brains learn. This is such an exciting time in education and I suspect, well, I know, there is such a great change in literacy education pending in New Zealand.
- How can parents or teachers of children with learning differences empower their children?
In the first instance I believe it is important for us as parents to develop our own understanding. It is impossible to have empathy with others and empower them if you don't truly understand what is going on for them. Build your knowledge first because with understanding comes empathy and then appropriate action.
Identify your child's strengths; celebrate and foster these. Help them to see these themselves. Likewise be open about and acknowledge their challenges. Everyone has challenges in life irrespective if we have a SLD (Specific Learning Disability).
In my experience children with a SLD go on to develop resilience and perseverance when they are in an environment full of acceptance, encouragement, realism and support.
It is a tough road but it is one we can all grow from. Talk about it openly and be realistic about how your expectations of them (in relation to their challenges) come across.
- A game changer challenges existing beliefs. Learning Matters mission is, ‘We want to change the status quo of evidence-based literacy and mathematics instruction across the country’. What needs to change and how do we do this?
Whoa, how long have we got! There is a big shift required in education in New Zealand.
We need the Ministry of Education to acknowledge that there is a Science of Reading. We need them to accept that the science is clear and the brain learns to read and spell in one way. We need them to officially acknowledge the other SLDs I have discussed above. We need them to resource schools appropriately.
We need the government to hold the Ministry to account. The first step here being an independent review of interventions such as Reading Recovery.
We need the Ministry to lean into the conversation around the reality of illiteracy in our country and to commit to taking action that is suggested in many national and international research papers.
We create this change by being proactive. We partner with like minds. We find our village, the people that have a greater purpose to make a difference and have the collective skills to lead change. Leading change is a mammoth undertaking. It is one that is unrelenting, tiring, emotional but oh so rewarding.
We must act with integrity and respect, understanding that no matter what is happening we are working with people with their own beliefs and experiences who are doing what they believe to be best.
Building community, working hard to develop shared understandings and gathering evidence of the difference that evidence-based education makes is all a part of what we do at Learning Matters. Ultimately, we get out there and we show how it's done. We don't stand back and point the finger, we lead the way and take people with us.
- Who and/or what inspires you to thrive in life?
My family are my inspiration. My husband, my sons and my extended family. They have not only led me to this journey but they motivate me and support me.
I am also motivated through the conversations I have with school leaders, teachers, parents and other professionals in this area.
- What gives you the most fulfilment from the work that you do?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is the people! I am so privileged to do what I do. I meet the most amazing people and am so grateful to be a part of their journey. I learn as much from them as they do from me.
- What are the gifts/talents that children with learning differences have? How do we honour and celebrate these gifts?
There are so, so many and these vary from child to child. We must acknowledge those gifts as we do with all children. I am a firm believer that every single one of us is comfortable in our own skin, accept who we are and be proud of our individual differences. That's what makes us who we are.
In my own parenting experience it is this strength that has seen my own son get through his tough schooling years. His great sense of humour trumps his challenges and his ability to forge relationships has seen him develop a strong sense of belonging.
Find what it is that helps your little or big person know themselves and help them grow into this by acknowledging it. As a parent I have had to check my bias and consider how my parenting beliefs had previously aligned to my own childhood of "children being seen and not heard". My how times have changed and so much for the better.
- Is the work that you are doing creating opportunities for children to freely live, have opportunities and experience human rights?
- Yin Yang questions –
Sauna or spa? Spa
Vegetables or fruit? Vegetables
Skiing or hiking? Hiking
Taj Mahal or Eiffel Tower? Eiffel Tower
Digital watch or analogue? Analogue
- What is one book and/or documentary everyone should read/watch? Why?
Just one - haha. I encourage everyone to listen to Emily Hanford's ‘Hard Words’ interview. This will give a great insight into how education has been shaped and how important it is that we become aware of what the science is telling us about how our babies learn to read. Here is the link -
- Do you believe it takes courage to be a game changer and has there been times when it has been difficult for you to challenge status quo?
Is this a trick question? Courage, vulnerability, being brave - oh YES! It's a bloody tough gig being a game changer. I wouldn't say it has been difficult to challenge the status quo as such but there are definitely times where I have to check myself.
Passion breeds fire in my belly and at times my soapbox becomes a little high! I am really conscious of taking people with me on this journey, of building shared understandings, respecting other's beliefs, appreciating the fact that many haven't been afforded the time to learn all that I have.
How can I change the game if I don't have people on my team? Putting yourself out there takes guts, and it is human nature to worry about what people are thinking of your work and approach but I have Brene Brown firmly planted on my shoulders saying .... "if they're not in the arena with you Carla then they have no right to comment".
I love what I do. I love the difference we are making and I am so grateful for the opportunity and experiences that have led me to this.
To discover more about Carla & Learning Matters visit: