Beyond Culture as Group Traits: Future Learning Disabilities Ontology, Epistemology, and Inquiry on Research Knowledge Use

Article excerpt

Abstract

The construct of culture has been largely invisible in the research and long-standing debates in the learning disabilities (LD) field, such as those pertaining to the definition of LD and how research knowledge is used in local settings. When used, the idea of culture tends to be defined as unrelated to LD and studied as restricted to individual/group traits. We challenge the culture-LD dichotomy and the limited conception of culture used in this knowledge base. For this purpose, we make the case for a cultural model of learning that can inform scholarship about the nature of LD, and we propose a culture-based model for the study of research knowledge use in professional practices. Moreover, we offer a third perspective on culture to study the strategies that the LD research community might be using to demarcate and maintain a cultureless paradigm of LD. Our discussion offers potentially rich opportunities for a culturally minded and reflexive stance in the LD field that is urgently needed in our increasingly diverse society.

Keywords

learning disabilities, culture, future research

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The construct of culture in the learning disabilities (LD) field has had, to borrow from Cole (1997), "a long past and a short history" (p. 183). That is, culture has always had a presence in the field of LD, but systematic efforts to understand the links between culture and LD, and how culture mediates research and professional practices, have been limited and fairly recent. The majority of the few efforts to understand the role of culture in LD have been traditionally operationalized as attention to student background. In this view, sociodemographic markers (e.g., ethnicity, race, social class, language background, gender) are proxies for culture. The most visible LD research based on this view relates to the disproportionate representation of racial minority students (Donovan & Cross, 2002). This four-decades-old problem intersects with enduring controversies about the nature of LD and how research knowledge is used in state/local practices.

Although debates about the construct validity of LD have ignored the role of culture (Fletcher et al., 1994; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Shinn, & McGue, 1982), this discourse has made visible the conceptual ambiguities of this disability as reflected in the variability of definitions across states and districts (Mercer, Jordan, Allsopp, & Mercer, 1996; Shepard & Smith, 1983) and the use of the category in school districts as a means to provide services to struggling learners, without apparent regard for definitional criteria (MacMillan, Gresham, & Bocian, 1998). The favored perspective used in research on the ambiguity of the LD construct has raised questions about the policy implementation process and how research knowledge is used in assessment and classification practices at the state and local levels (Fuchs, Deshler, & Reschly, 2004). These discussions have been framed primarily as a research-to-practice gap in which scholars lament the lack of attention to, or use of, research knowledge in professional practices. Again, the idea of culture is rarely acknowledged in these discussions.

The elusiveness of the LD construct and its repercussions for assessment and identification practices prompted substantial reform efforts in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Fuchs et al., 2004). An example of such efforts is the LD Initiative--"a multiyear process involving many activities and numerous stakeholders intended to probe, document, and discuss what we know about the identification and classification of children with [LD]" (Bradley & Danielson, 2004, p. 187). The LD Initiative generated comprehensive research syntheses that aimed to garner consensus in the field and guide future efforts in research, policy, and practice (Bradley, Danielson, & Hallahan, 2002). In the end, the Initiative concluded that learning disabilities exist and affect about 6% of the student population in the subject of reading. …