School lessons from Branson

Last Updated : 05 September 2012, 13:16 IST
Last Updated : 05 September 2012, 13:16 IST

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Today’s schools could benefit a great deal if they paid attention to the man behind the eight-billion dollar conglomerate, Virgin Group, who broke rules and struggled with dyslexia and poor grades, says Michael Patrao

Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson has no fancy degrees from elite colleges or a B-school. In fact, he just about managed to scrape through high school. Yet his criticism of certain school practices are noteworthy and his innovative ideas inspiring.

He is also a role model for students who have difficulty in learning. He was a dyslexic himself.In his autobiography, he recalls, “I was in trouble and always in trouble. Aged eight, I still couldn’t read.

In fact, I was dyslexic and short-sighted. Despite sitting in front of the class, I couldn’t read the blackboard. Only after a couple of terms did anyone think to have my eyes tested. Even when I could see, the letters and numbers made no sense at all.

Dyslexia wasn’t a problem in those days, or put more accurately, it was only a problem if you were dyslexic yourself. Since nobody had ever heard of dyslexia, being unable to read, write or spell just meant to the rest of the class and the teachers that you were either stupid or lazy. And at prep school you were beaten for both. I was soon been beaten once or twice a week for doing poor classwork or confusing the date of the Battle of Hastings.”

Branson describes how he managed to overcome his handicapped and even built upon it to his advantage. “My dyslexia was a problem throughout my school life. Now, although my spelling is still sometimes poor, I have managed to overcome the worst of my difficulties through training myself to concentrate.

Perhaps my early problems with dyslexia made me more intuitive: When someone sends me a written proposal, rather than dwelling on detailed facts and figures I find that my imagination grasps and expands on what I read.”

Dyslexia may have worked in favour of Branson, but it did not in the case of Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who became a notorious mobster and criminal. His story has been recounted by Peter Maas in his book, Underboss.

 Gravano was the underboss of the Gambino crime family in the 1980s under John Gotti in New York. Born in 1945 in Brooklyn,  Salvatore was a dyslexic youngster, who was frequently mocked and teased by his peers. Due to his dyslexia, he could not recognise numbers or letters. He began stealing when he was only seven or eight. To the humiliation he suffered, Gravano responded with violence. He joined a youth gang, called the Rampers, and got involved in burglaries and stealing cars.

He had to switch to another Junior High School after hitting the principal who had made a derogatory remark about Gravano’s parents. Gravano did poorly in school. However, teachers dismissed his problems as “being a slow learner.” When Gravano reached age 16, the school refused to keep him any longer. Dyslexia was not known during Gravano’s time, as also in the case of Branson.

Even as a school boy, Branson decided to make some money. Undeterred by the school’s lack of faith in his ability with numbers, he saw an opportunity to grow Christmas trees and sell them when they were about four feet during the Christmas season. He also tried his hand at breeding budgies (pet parakeet). In both these initiatives he worked out the figures and the profit margins.

He recalls, “While neither of these schemes had the effect of making money, they did teach me something about Math. I found that only when I was using real numbers to solve real problems that maths made any sense to me. If I was calculating how much a Christmas tree would grow, or how much budgies would breed, the numbers then became real and I enjoyed using them. Inside the classroom I was still a complete dunce at Math.”

In recent times in Karnataka, the practical aspects of Math has been introduced in primary and middle schools. ‘Metric Mela’ held in schools and at taluk levels helps students to pick up concepts such as weights and measures and business transactions.

Students gain practical knowledge about maths which they learn inside the classroom through the mela. Children in rural areas bring fruits and vegetables from home or buy them and sell them in the mela gaining experiential knowledge. Stalls are set up to sell groceries, cafeteria, stationery and bookshops, which are run by the students, guided by their teachers. It encourages the school children to explore their creative and entrepreneurial skills.

IQ tests

Branson is also critical of IQ tests, “I once did an IQ test in which the questions just seemed absurd. I couldn’t focus on any of the mathematical problems, and I think that I scored about zero. I worry about all the people who have been classified as stupid by these kinds of tests. Little do they know that these IQ tests have been dreamt up by academics who are absolutely useless at dealing with the practicalities of the outside world. I love doing real business plans.”

On ‘measuring’ intelligence, Charles Darwin, who propounded the theory of evolution, is a case in point. “I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect” Darwin wrote in his biography. Similarly, when he was eight, Thomas Alva Edison overheard a teacher describe his mind ‘addled.’

Branson also criticises some cruel traditions in schools and refers to one at Stowe School, where he studied. He recalls, “Each boy had to learn a long poem and stand up in front of the entire school and recite it. If you made the slightest mistake or paused for a moment, the master hit a gong, and you had to leave the stage accompanied by great boos and jeers all round: You were ‘gonged’ off. Since I was mildly dyslexic, I found it extremely difficult to learn anything by heart, and for several years, was gonged off with relentless regularity.”

School rules are fine as long as they are reasonable. But Branson found them absurd. He says, “I have always enjoyed breaking the rules, whether they were school rules or accepted conventions, such as that no 17-year-old can edit a national magazine (in his case, Student).”

When he left Stowe in 1967 aged almost 17, his master’s parting words to him were: “Congratulations, Branson. I predict that you will either go to prison or become a millionaire.” Both the predictions were wrong. For he became not a millionaire, but a billionaire.  Unfortunately, it was Salvatore Gravano, the mafia man, who became a criminal. So much for our school system.

Published 05 September 2012, 13:16 IST

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