Beyond Culture as Group Traits: Future Learning Disabilities Ontology, Epistemology, and Inquiry on Research Knowledge Use
Artiles, Alfredo J., Thorius, Kathleen King, Bal, Aydin, Neal, Rebecca, Waitoller, Federico R., Hernandez-Saca, David, Learning Disability Quarterly
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.
learning disabilities, culture, future research
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. It also concluded that learning disabilities are located in the mind of the individual, and it identified response to (well-implemented evidence-based) intervention as a viable identification alternative in light of the growing dissatisfaction with, and empirical evidence against, the traditional discrepancy formula (Bradley et al., 2002). Identifying LD early and accurately was a critical focus of this initiative, although the role of cultural influences was absent in the featured literature reviews. Hence, culture was largely invisible in the knowledge base synthesized in the LD Initiative, which implicitly suggests that scholarship about culture in LD is regarded as orthogonal to work on the definition and measurement of LD.
In summary, the LD field is still grappling with fundamental questions about the nature of LD and how its research knowledge base is used in local settings, while the influence of culture (and its attendant attention to equity) has remained in the background of LD theory and research. Whenever culture is taken up in LD research, it tends to be defined as a person's trait, for example, when race or ethnicity is used as a proxy for culture. The implications of this practice include demands for population validity in educational interventions, and proposals for educational approaches that are aligned with groups' presumed cultural codes (e.g., learning styles). This perspective has been criticized for implicitly distilling culture down to people's fixed traits and assuming seamless homogeneity within cultural groups (Artiles, Kozleski, Trent, Osher, & Ortiz, 2010).
In this article we challenge the long-standing narrow conception of culture used in the LD field and problematize the culture LD dichotomy. We make the case for using a more sophisticated view of culture in the LD field that places culture at the core of all human activities, acknowledges its historical underpinnings, and uses it to understand institutional practices. For this purpose, we argue that the traditional view of culture as group/individual traits (symbolic culture) must be integrated with a process-oriented perspective on culture (material culture) that permeates substantive aspects of the LD field's identity, namely the nature of LD and how LD policy and research knowledge are used in local settings. Specifically, we (a) challenge the orthogonal relationship between culture and LD by drawing from interdisciplinary scholarship that assumes that learning and human development are ontologically cultural (Cole, 2007), (b) reframe the work on the research-to-practice gap by overlaying a cultural lens, and (c) open an analytical space in discussions about culture in the LD field by using seminal work from the sociology of science on "boundary work" (Gieryn, 1983)--that is, the demarcation practices used to maintain a field's identity. Scientific fields invest efforts to demarcate their boundaries through particular practices. For example, funding agencies in medicine create standards so that only individuals with certain kinds of training and credentials have access to financial support; journal editors develop publication criteria for manuscripts to meet agreed-upon requirements and align with the conventions of scholarly reports. Demarcation does not only constitute an analytical problem; there are indeed material and symbolic consequences for the enforcers of boundary work that affirm and enhance their own intellectual authority, afford them professional opportunities, and ensure autonomy to the field (Gieryn, 1983). We use insights from this work to raise consequential questions about the unique place, meaning, and visibility of culture in the LD field. We expect that by theoretically refining the idea of culture in the LD field, the research community will be compelled to re-frame fundamental assumptions and enduring controversies about the meaning of LD in future research, policy, and practice within our pluralistic society.
LD in the 21st Century: The Need for a Cultural Theory of Learning
Central to the identity of the LD field are theories of learning that shape identification, assessment, and intervention efforts. Although the definition of LD has changed over time and its underlying theories of learning have shifted from biological to psychological and, increasingly, to neuropsychological, behavioral and cognitive models still dominate how learning is characterized in LD diagnosis and treatment (e.g., Bradley, Danielson, & Hallahan, 2002). For instance, this is apparent in the current and emerging work on Response to Intervention (RTI). Indeed, RTI still endorses a view of LD wherein unexpected performance linked to cognitively associated impairments is the only plausible explanation for problematic academic progress in the presence of evidence-based instruction. RTI assessment and instructional technologies continue to focus on isolated skills and tasks as a means for indexing student learning (e.g., Vaughn, Linan-Thompson, & Hickman, 2003). These cognitive tasks are generally stripped of the contextual influences typically available to people in everyday life that play key mediating roles in individual performance (e.g., meaning and purpose of tasks, range of performance options to achieve tasks, including assisted performance; Artiles & Kozleski, 2010).
In addition, a biological turn is increasingly visible in the social sciences, including the LD field. The advent of genetic and brain research and the rapid development of medical technologies are leading LD researchers to conclude that "there is rapidly accumulating evidence that at least some [LD] ... [i.e., phonological processing deficiencies] are associated with a clear ... and modifiable ... neurological substrate" (Gerber, 2005, p. 522, emphasis in original).
These shifting emphases in the LD field mirror longstanding tensions in disciplines like psychology, sociology, and anthropology, in that the roles of culture, cognition, and biology are treated as self-contained factors whose influences have been debated in explanations of human actions, development, and learning. Missing in the mainstream of these disciplines, as well as in the LD field, are research and theoretical frameworks that integrate attention to biological, cultural, and cognitive forces and that place them in the historical, institutional, and ecological dimensions of human activity. Such an ambitious framework is urgently needed in this age of globalization and unprecedented population and cultural transformations.
It is important to note that psychologists, neurobiologists, and researchers from other disciplines are already advancing frameworks that integrate interdisciplinary research strands in which biological, psychological, and cultural forces are systematically assembled in explanations of human development (e.g., Cole, 2006, 2007; Li, 2003). There is emerging consensus in this work about the fact that "the co-constitution of culture and biology can no longer be ignored in studies of human learning and development" (Cole, 2007, p. 245), particularly because, as psychobiologist Henry Plotkin concluded, "biology and culture relate to each other as a two-way street of causation" (as cited in Cole, 2006, p. 642). This recent work transcends long-standing dichotomies (e.g., nature-nurture; brain-mind) and focuses instead on the study of dialectical integrations of forces that propel change (Sameroff, 2010).
Consistent with these interdisciplinary advances, we encourage LD researchers to integrate research strands not traditionally combined so that a comprehensive theory of learning that systematically accounts for the role of culture can be used in future LD research. Such theory must aspire to integrate cognitive, social, biological, and cultural factors in explanations of human development and learning. In the absence of a theory of learning that addresses these considerations, suggested answers to the conceptual and empirical questions that have haunted the LD field will fall short of responding to the enduring complex academic, sociohistorical, and economic issues that permeate the education and experiences of students with learning problems. In the remainder of this section, we outline a few emerging findings from research on social neuroscience, developmental psychology, and informal learning that have the potential to enrich an integrated and culturally minded theory of learning that could inform future LD research.
Social Neuroscience and Developmental Psychology Advances: Implications for a Cultural Theory of Learning
There is growing consensus about the need to account for complexity in theories of learning and development in fields like developmental psychology. As Sameroff (2010) explained in his Presidential address to the Society for Research in Child Development:
... sophisticated statistical models have been sought to separate the behavioral signal of interest from the noise of real life. This effort has led to some frustration in the decreasing amounts of variance that can be attributed to any single factor when everything imaginable is controlled and obscured the possibility that the unexplained variance, the noise, might contain the signals of many other dimensions of the individual or context that are necessary for meaningful long-term predictive models. (p. 7)
Contemporary research across a number of disciplines supports the robustness of nonlinear models in which dialectical relationships drive change. As Sameroff (2010) concluded, "It is striking that the nonreductionist systems thinking that those who define psychology as a natural science have avoided is now a central part of their colleague disciplines of biology and physics" (p. 19). In contrast, attention to complexity (beyond an individual unit of analysis) has not distinguished LD research, and the search for the elusive cause(s) of LD too often ends up grappling with the nature-versus-nurture dilemma. Even the RTI literature frames the explanation of LD along these terms (i.e., poor instruction vs. disability; Fuchs, Fuchs, & Speece, 2002).
The next significant challenge for the LD field is to add programs of research that examine the interfacing of individual with contextual, socially regulated, and representational models. Let us remember that the response to the cognitive revolution in the study of learning was followed by the emergence of sociocultural, situative, and distributed cognition models in which contextual forces play key roles (Sawyer, 2006). These research programs showed that "outside of formal schooling, almost all learning occurs in a complex social environment, and learning is hard to understand if one thinks of it as a mental process occurring within the head of an isolated learner" (Sawyer, 2006, p. 9).
Recent work, for example, demonstrates how social meaning-making processes in interpersonal interactions are central to the social-interactional nature of language learning and behaviors. These interpretive social processes include how individuals use social cues about what is relevant to learn, how learning is enhanced by the social context of an activity (e.g., play), and the role of interpersonal neurocognitive systems in learning (Meltzoff, Kuhl, Movellan, & Sejnowski, 2009). This research also suggests that learning is mediated by social contexts and supported by individuals' neurocognitive systems, which allow them to align their own actions with their perceptions of the actions of others (Sawyer, 2006). Research suggests, for example, that there is substantial variability across cultural groups on a trait with presumed universal neurobiological substrates, namely theory of mind--that is, the "ability to predict other individuals' intentions and behavior ... such as attributing desires, engaging in shared attention, and monitoring eye gaze" (Li, 2003, p. 186). How, then, might potential cultural variations in theory of mind affect the assessment of social skills in students suspected of having LD? Although there is a wealth of research on the social skills of students with LD, attention to the mediating role of culture in such skills has been negligible in the research knowledge base. Broadening the unit of analysis to understand individuals' performance as situated in sociocultural and historical contexts promises to enrich significantly LD theory.
For instance, there is considerable cultural variance in the ways in which mental states, emotions, and actions are verbalized and even conceived (e.g., linguistic groups can differ markedly in the number of emotion words available; Cole, 2006). How is performance on ability tests that require interpretation of others' actions, mental states, emotions, and intentions mediated not only by the children's access to such vocabulary in their native language but also by their cultural proclivities in expressions of mental/emotional states? Other studies show that teachers' culturally shaped ways of delivering instruction have an effect on students' acquisition of recta-cognitive skills (e.g., memory, computational strategies; Li, 2003). Thus, how do the interpretive social processes embedded in the delivery of teachers' classroom instruction (e.g., reading of social cues) mediate teachers' theories of student competence and subsequent special education referral decisions? These advances in research call for the analysis of relational processes to trace the intertwining of cultural, biological, cognitive, and social influences in student school performance, and have the potential to enrich future inquiries into the definition, assessment, diagnosis, and instruction of students with LD.
In addition, recent interdisciplinary research on cultural influences on language's orthographical mappings between graphemes and phonemes offers potentially useful insights into the field of LD (Li, 2003). The English language, for instance, has many ways of representing a relatively small number of phonemes. In contrast, the Spanish language has a substantially smaller number of graphemes to represent a discrete number of sounds. These differences, in turn, can significantly impact an examinee's performance on timed tasks, such as word and nonword reading. How are these cultural differences across languages taken into account in LD assessment and identification procedures or, for example, during the universal screenings utilized in RTI models to identify students "at risk" for reading difficulties? How are these cultural differences in languages associated with substantially different prevalence rates of dyslexia among linguistic communities (e.g., Italian- vs. English-speaking students), and how do we explain the differences between these dyslexic groups' reading performance (Li, 2003)?
This emerging interdisciplinary work suggests that a robust theory of learning must be founded in the systematic integration of biological, cultural, individual, contextual, and social domains. This research is also compelling learning science investigators to transcend an exclusive reliance on research that empirically isolates and validates instructional strategy sets and to focus instead on the design and testing of learning ecologies. In this work, learning environments include the people involved (e.g., teachers, students), the materials/ technological resources and their roles (e.g., computers, scripted curricula), the physical setting and artifacts in the room (e.g., desk arrangements), and the social and cultural environment (Sawyer, 2006). Researchers can focus on isolated components of these environments, in the same way that most LD intervention research has done. However, additional programs of research on systemic aspects of these learning environments are also urgently needed to account for the contemporary complexities of schools and communities in this global age. Furthermore, as learning does not occur solely in schools, we turn now to discuss a body of research on how people learn outside the formal settings of schools and classrooms, and its implications for the field of LD.
Implications of Research on Informal Learning for a Cultural Theory of Learning
Informal learning usually takes place outside of school; however, the distinction between formal and informal is primarily concerned with contrasting learning that occurs as the result of didactic teaching and learning that occurs in everyday contexts and situations (Bransford et al., 2006), with the latter comprising the bulk of children's and youth's daily learning activities and affecting academic performance in schools (Banks et al., 2007). This research has been conducted in such contexts as community centers, Girl Scout troops, museums, zoos, and sports teams (Bransford et al., 2006). At least since the 1970s, findings have documented the distinctive features of formal and informal learning. Formal learning is grounded in universalistic performance standards and criteria, relies on language to promote learning and teaching, and is decontextualized (Bransford et al., 2006). In contrast, performance expectations in informal learning are particular to the people involved in the activities, observation is the medium through which learning emerges (see Note 1), and the emotional and cognitive dimensions of learning are inextricably integrated.
A key premise of some of this research is the cultural nature of learning (Nasir, Rosebery, Warren, & Lee, 2006). Indeed, learning is seen as the "acquisition throughout the life course of diverse repertoires of overlapping, complementary, or even conflicting cultural practices" (Nasir et al., 2006, p. 489). A key contribution of informal learning inquiry is the requirement to use a broader unit of analysis, so that, for example, identity transformation and participation in cultural activities are placed at the center of learning theory (Lave, 1996; Rogoff, 2003). This assumption allows researchers to understand that students form complex identities as they participate in cultural activities. For this reason, a cultural perspective on learning is required so that we understand that "the predictive power of individual differences is constrained by how different cultures value and proscribe different behaviors" (Sameroff, 2010, p. 20; see Note 2).
Participation in cultural activities can nurture the acquisition of learning habits through the formation of what Crowley and Jacobs (2002) call "islands of expertise"--the social processes through which children accrue rich knowledge about topics and activities of interest (e.g., a keen interest in dinosaurs or insects). These identities and islands of expertise are not always acknowledged or valued in formal learning environments (particularly in the case of minority students), thus, leading educators to miss important learning resources. Informal learning research offers potentially productive insights for the education of students of color, many of whom are diagnosed with LD, in particular because of the devaluation and negative identification many have experienced in school contexts coupled with societal stereotypes based on race, gender, language, or social class that may influence these learners' academic participation, affect, and performance on assessments (Steele, 1997). Similarly, informal learning research has important implications for the LD field. The following two points illustrate this assertion.
1. An informal learning lens can enrich assessment approaches in the LD field. Many children's and youth's cultural everyday practices are embedded with skills and habits of mind directly relevant to disciplinary knowledge structures in school subjects such as literacy, math, and science (Ball, 1995; Lee, 2007). For example, researchers have documented how sports (e.g., basketball) or games like dominoes recruit the use of key math concepts (Nasir, 2000, 2005), and nontraditional community organizations engage youth in the use of oral and written language practices that are germane to language arts curricula in schools (Ball, 1995). Other researchers have looked at the cognitive activities of blue-collar work practices (Rose, 2004; Scribner, 1995) and linguistic practices at home and in the community (Lee, 2007) that are germane to the learning of school subjects. The LD field could map children's and youth's everyday cultural practices that are relevant to literacy learning (as so many students with LD have difficulty with basic literacy skills) and examine how these learners perform in everyday activities that require the very thinking and literacy strategies that they perform poorly in formal learning tasks. This practice would afford the identification of culturally meaningful assessment tasks and also produce multidimensional profiles of LD learners' performance across formal and informal learning environments (see Solano-Flores, 2006).
2. The tenets of informal learning can broaden intervention research in the LD field. As explained above, the learning sciences are moving away from an emphasis on didactic models of teaching and learning to the design of learning ecologies that encompass the systematic integration of individual and context, and nurture deep learning (Sawyer, 2006). Culturally minded design principles that could be explored in future LD intervention research include the following (Nasir et al., 2006): (a) making the structure of the subject matter visible (e.g., Lee, 2007; see Note 3), (b) using participation structures that allow learners to assume roles and interact in such ways that they can identify with the subject matter by alternatively focusing on relevant everyday practices (e.g., Lee, 2007), (c) including opportunities for meta-level discussions about epistemological assumptions and dispositions of the subject domain and linking them to the learners' use of similar cognitive strategies in everyday practices (e.g., Collins & Ferguson, 1993; Warren, Ogonowski, & Pothier, 2005), and (d) restructuring the teacher-student relationship because teachers function as both experts and novices when students engage with practices and content they know very well; this principle enhances learners' identification with the subject matter and facilitates academic risk-taking (Lee, 2007).
This approach to research will allow LD intervention research to broaden the analytic spotlight beyond an exclusive focus on isolated instructional procedures and student responses to such tasks. It also promises to enrich the attention to culture in interventions for students with LD through the exploration of synergies in learning practices across contexts. This is a critical aspect of research because minority students' cultural practices (e.g., narratives, talk) are often devalued and positioned negatively in formal school contexts. LD research that draws from sociocultural learning principles has shown positive outcomes (see the review in Trent, Artiles, & Englert, 1998), but the research summarized in this section would significantly enrich future LD scholarship.
In conclusion, throughout its history, the LD field has privileged an individual (mostly cognitive/behavioral) model of learning that has been largely examined in formal learning environments. The research outlined in this section suggests new models that afford the study of learning complexities (beyond cognition) across formal and informal learning environments; these advances promise the field of LD a significant shift in direction and identity. More importantly, the research outlined here indicates that culture is an intricate (and unavoidable) aspect of learning. Acknowledging this will allow the field of LD to transcend the narrow treatment of culture as individual and group traits.
Research-to-Practice Gaps: Reframing the Relationship Between Research Knowledge and Local Use
A second way in which the LD field can benefit from engaging with broader, more sophisticated understandings of culture is through the analysis of scholarship on research knowledge use in practice. This has been an enduring concern in the field of LD (Andrews et al., 2000). Foremost in these discussions has been an interest in determining whether practitioners use research knowledge in their professional practices. The most common response to such a quandary has been that there is a "research-to-practice gap," and several explanations have been advanced for this breach (e.g., Bradley et al., 2002; Gersten & Dimino, 2002). We outline here the most common explanations used in this area of inquiry and then in the next section reframe the relationship between research knowledge and local use so that culture and power are explicitly acknowledged.
One favored explanation is the lack of communication between educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners (Hallinan, 1996). The paucity of communication has been attributed to the use of different genres and a concomitant failure to translate knowledge across them. For instance, it has been argued that "researchers underestimate the importance of the fact that teachers often do not know how to implement or integrate material presented in research because it is based on fairly abstract theories or formalized objectives" (Gersten, Vaughn, & Schiller, 1997, p. 467). Such an explanation assumes a seamless unidirectional communication system in which knowledge is produced by researchers and must be transferred to practitioners. The consequences of this assumption are played out in the strategies used for increasing knowledge utilization that focus on the dissemination, translation, or better delivery of research knowledge to practitioners (Forness, 2002; Gersten & Dimino, 2002). For instance, the NRC report on minorities in special education suggested that "teachers should be familiar with the beliefs, values, cultural practices, discourse styles, and other features of students' lives that may have an impact on classroom participation and success and be prepared to use this information in designing instruction" (Donovan & Cross, 2002, p. 373).
Nevertheless, even when translation efforts are made to apply research knowledge in practice, the challenges that arise create interesting tensions. To illustrate, a view of practitioners as learners is implicitly underplayed when the argument is made that "routines are difficult to change ... even when the alternatives are associated with improved outcomes" (Gersten et al., 1997, p. 466). On the other hand, practitioners' learning potential is honored when failed interventions are critiqued for having been overly prescriptive and allowing little room for teacher spontaneity or reflection. To wit: "One problem might have been that during the first year of implementation, the special education teachers were not given opportunities to 'think through' how this way of teaching math was different from their previous practice" (Gersten et al., 1997, p. 467). These examples illustrate the co-existence of two seemingly opposing visions of the practitioner, one that neglects the role of educators as active learners and another that regards practitioners as reflective agents that need time to process and debrief about their professional practices. Implicit in some of these discussions is the contextualization of practice as an assumed "place" fairly similar across contexts (D. Connor, personal communication, August 25, 2010).
Other explanations allude to the complex associations between practitioners' decision-making processes vis-a-vis the intended will in policy (i.e., the normativity of policy; Levinson, Sutton, & Winstead, 2009). For example, when practitioners must choose between the diagnostic label "mental retardation" and another diagnostic label (e.g., LD), "school personnel share the belief that the label 'mental retardation' is extremely pessimistic in its prognosis and are reluctant to use it"; they choose the more acceptable LD label (Macmillan et al., 1998, p. 323). Implicit in this logic, commentators argue, is practitioners' disregard for the research-based state disability taxonomies (MacMillan et al., 1998), or, we suggest, a resistance to categories or constructs that practitioners do not consider valid.
A variation of this explanation relates to the interplay between evidence-based diagnostic technologies (tests and other sources of evidence) and local decision-making processes. For instance, practitioners can disregard test score evidence when making diagnostic decisions, in part out of concerns about its instructional validity, and they place greater weight on academic performance and behavioral evidence, as well as classroom performance data (MacMillan et al., 1996). In contrast, Harry and Klingner (2006) found that evidence from English-based (psychological) test results played a significant role in diagnostic decisions, and other sources of evidence were ignored (despite their availability), such as Spanish test data and classroom- or home-based evidence.
A special case of the "practitioner decision-making processes" account versus the will-in-policy explanation faults practitioners for actively ignoring or lacking interest in or the capacity to understand the knowledge that is being disseminated to them. This explanation adopts a more simplistic view of teachers' work, and it typically leads to recommendations for exposing practitioners to research knowledge, while making sure that they see demonstrations about the effectiveness of the new information.
Yet, other explanations focus on scale (small vs. large) and/or intensity (fast vs. slow) considerations in research knowledge use. For instance, it was suggested that "sustained change in teaching practice is unlikely to occur when researchers attempt to tinker with small, seemingly trivial aspects of teaching behavior, or when researchers or policy makers demand radical, fundamental changes in teaching in a short period of time" (Gersten et al., 1997, p. 469). Finally, a cultural argument has been advanced to explain the failure to use research knowledge and can be represented as a "culture clash" between the culture of school and the culture of research indexed in the interventions tested in applied contexts (Gersten et al., 1997). In this view, culture is structurally regarded as determinative of what does and does not get accomplished in the world of educational practice. To illustrate:
Top-down approaches to change are often unsuccessful because it is the culture of the school or district that needs to actively embrace research-based practices. The norms and culture of the workplace influence the outcomes of the research. Researchers are often oblivious to this world and, until recently, envisioned their job as changing techniques and skills but virtually never as altering a school's culture. (Gersten et al., 1997, p. 473)
Reframing Explanations With Culture and Power in Mind
We can identify several important limitations in the models used in the LD field to address research knowledge use in practice. We identified above five preferred explanations in these discussions. Two focus on the practitioner (i.e., teachers as in/active learners; local decision-making processes), one focuses on teacher-researcher processes (i.e., communication and translation issues), the fourth view adopts the perspective of researchers or policymakers (i.e., scale, intensity), and the fifth explanation moves to a macro level (i.e., culture clash).
It is interesting that the five explanations tap critical though isolated elements of research knowledge use in practice. Nonetheless, we do not see efforts in this literature to systematically integrate these elements into a comprehensive model. A related weakness is the absence of theories of knowledge use in articulating these explanations; the arguments are generally presented as interpretations of evidence but without support from theoretical frameworks that would strengthen the depth of analysis and consolidate a theory of research knowledge use in practice. Future LD research on this topic includes the need to (a) enhance the theoretical breadth and depth of the notion of culture (beyond the dichotomy of individual/group traits and institutional culture), (b) rely on a more nuanced analysis of school contexts that transcends the view of context as physical setting, (c) integrate the view of teachers as active learners with analysis of cultural-historical influences so that local practices are examined in a situated fashion at the intersection of macro and micro scales, and (d) promote a reflexive stance in the LD field so that investigators remember that "research on practice is not the same as practice" (Gerber, 2005, p. 521) when conducting intervention research on knowledge use in practice.
We argue that attention in the LD field to these suggestions will fundamentally reframe the analysis of research knowledge use in practice. Recent scholarship on a critical practice approach to policy affords important theoretical insights into this reframing agenda (Levinson et al., 2009). A critical lens compels researchers to account for the role of power, while a sociocultural notion of practice affords a unit of analysis that bridges long-standing dichotomies in the social sciences, such as agency and structure. Several strands of social theory have influenced the creation of practice theories that define practice as "the process through which person, setting, and knowledge are mutually constituted (Levinson et al., 2009, p. 781.)
From this perspective, research knowledge use and policy implementation are regarded as constituted by complex, interdependent sociocultural practices that systematically link cultural, historical, individual, and contextual factors. This way, the weight of structural forces meets contextual contingencies, and local practices result from the dialectics of both; that is, situated action is determined neither solely from the top nor from circumstances at the bottom. Levinson et al. (2009) interpreted the notion of appropriation "as a form of creative interpretive practice necessarily engaged in by different people involved in the policy process" (p. 768). Yet, when unauthorized (informal) actors appropriate research knowledge, they actually create a new version of it. This new version is contingent not only upon the individual histories of the actors but also upon the contextual circumstances of practices, as well as larger institutional and historical forces.
These assumptions can enhance the breadth of LD research on knowledge use in practice. Instead of asking, "Was the reading intervention effectively used?" or "Was the learning strategy used as initially conceived?" or "Did it have the impact originally expected?," additional questions can be asked to reframe some of these issues, such as, "How is the reading intervention appropriated at this school or in this classroom and how did that mediate student outcomes?," "How are multiple appropriations of the social skill intervention negotiated among practitioners?," "What are the local dynamics (constraining and facilitating factors) that shape the will to use this reading comprehension intervention at this school, and how does it affect various groups of learners?," or even, "What unanticipated consequences and outcomes are observed as practitioners use this intervention?"
In other words, this approach allows researchers to account for local actors' sense-making processes while it situates them in trajectories of uses across institutional sites within classrooms and across schools. As local conditions morph, influences get configured in unique ways, thus shaping zones of mediation (Welner, 2001) in which multiple factors converge to constrain the ways in which research may be accessed, interpreted, and utilized. These factors include (a) inertial (e.g., time), (b) technical (i.e., resources and other local capacities), (c) political (e.g., funding, leadership, policy), and (e) normative (e.g., norms, belief systems; Welner, 2001) and have begun to inform special education research (Sullivan & Artiles, 2011). As zones of mediation shift over time, researchers can aim to track "windows of policymaking opportunity" (Hamann, 2003, p. 215). An example of such a window of opportunity for LD researchers lies within the zones of mediation emerging in state and district contexts, where there is increasing emphasis on the use of RTI frameworks as means of supporting all students' learning, but also as an alternative method for determining students' eligibility for LD services. Research from the perspective described above may seek to understand a variety of student learning outcomes as related to the sense-making processes of practitioners as they appropriate existing RTI policy and research in LD eligibility determination, as students are moved to the highest "tier" of an increasingly intensive system of supports, shaped by the convergence of the multiple factors listed above, including how meaning-making processes serve to maintain power relationships in schools that serve marginalized students.
LD Knowledge Production: Challenges of Boundary Work in Worlds of Difference
The third domain in which the field of LD can benefit from an interdisciplinary engagement with the notion of culture relates to the very process of research knowledge production and its consequences. This will require the field of LD to adopt a reflexive epistemological stance, particularly because a culture-free approach has prevailed in the study of LD. This approach is reflected in the lack of attention in the research knowledge base to even superficial markers of culture (e.g., race, ethnicity; see Note 4).
Despite the supremacy of this approach, it is important to mention that there are at least three ways in which culture mediates knowledge production in the field of LD. Due to space limitations, we only mention two of these uses and focus on the third one. First, it is not uncommon to find attention to culture in specialized or introductory volumes restricted to one chapter or section, or in journal special issues devoted to the topic. We usually find one or two papers on some aspect of culture (typically on "culturally diverse" students) in thematic issues of journals that focus on broad systemic issues (e.g., personnel preparation, interventions, assessment). This approach to culture has led to important developments, such as assessment considerations, monitoring regulations about identification and placement practices for various subgroups (e.g., racial, socioeconomic), and standards and professional practice codes in university programs and credentialing bodies. We have discussed elsewhere the limits and implications of using culture in these ways in the LD (and special education) fields (Artiles, 2003; Artiles & Trent, 1997; Artiles et al., 2010).
Second, a more subtle way in which culture mediates LD knowledge production is found in the very practices of researchers. That is, research procedures and methods entail cultural work among researchers and participants. Attention to researchers' cultural work can offer the LD field useful guidelines and strategies for research in cross-cultural contexts (see Arzubiaga, Artiles, King, & Murri, 2008, for a discussion on this point).
The third instance in which culture mediates the production of research knowledge is through the boundary work of research communities. Scientific communities have traditionally demarcated boundaries between their object of work and instances of nonscientific work, that is, "how to identify unique and essential characteristics of science that distinguish it from other kinds of intellectual activities" (Gieryn, 1983, p. 781). Boundary work is pursued in routine practices in the professional and policy arenas, as well. For instance, science curricula are designed to include (or exclude) evolutionary or creationist explanations, or textbooks on autism are written with (or without) certain kinds of information (e.g., the controversy about the potential causal influence of vaccines). Boundary work entails ideological (see Note 5) efforts with important consequences that include access to material and symbolic resources (e.g., access to funding, prestige, intellectual authority) and professional autonomy (e.g., from industry or government controls; Gieryn, 1983).
Note that the distinctive nature of science resides not necessarily in its texts and practices but in its representations (Gieryn, 1995). Thus, boundary work has important implications for the production of research knowledge, for it shapes the legitimacy, authority, and persuasiveness of scientific representations (Gieryn, 1995). This work is constituted through ideologically grounded rhetorical styles that discern what counts as science. Specifically, boundary work comprises the attribution of traits to various facets of the institution of science (e.g., scientists, methodologies, bodies of knowledge, values, even organizational structures and processes) to differentiate what is scientific and what is nonscientific. These attributions are the result of situated practices, and thus the "boundaries of science are ambiguous, flexible, historically changing, contextually variable, internally inconsistent, and sometimes disputed" (Gieryn, 1983, p. 792).
Notice that the rhetorical strategies of boundary work are used not only for demarcating scientific from nonscientific (practices, activities, people) but also for the ideological differentiation of disciplines, specializations, or theoretical leanings within science (Gieryn, 1983). Sociologists of science have traced various kinds of boundary work (e.g., monopolization, expansion, expulsion, protection; Gieryn, 1995; see Note 6) driven by interests and strains that shape the ambiguity of ideologies used to discriminate what counts as scientific activity.
Like scientists in other disciplines, special education and LD researchers engage in boundary work. In fact, major debates in the field, such as the justification and implementation of inclusion, modern versus postmodern views of special education, and the issue of LD definition and its etiologies, are full of examples of boundary work. For instance, in a critique of postmodern theory's presence in the special education field, Kauffman and Sasso (2006) concluded that "postmodern nonsense is attempting to colonize special education in much the same way that it has taken control in other disciplines, and it is time for us to engage in what can be called boundary maintenance" (p. 67). Another example of boundary work is found in the field's debates about full inclusion and inclusive education models--for example, MacMillan, Gresham, and Forness (1996) asserted that "the impetus for advocates of full inclusion was never empirically driven, but rather ideologically driven, and spokespersons frequently employed offensive statements, misrepresentations of extant evidence, and tortured logic to attract followers" (p. 147). Brantlinger (1997) offered a counternarrative to the critique of full inclusion and inclusive education, which in the end also aimed to do boundary work. For instance, she described these critics as constructing standard-bearer status: "They [traditionalists] herald their own work as disinterested, objective, logical, neutral, pragmatic--a quality of work that supposedly sets them apart from inclusion scholars' rhetoric, subjectivity, advocacy, and ideology.... This self representation indicates that empiricist is an identity-bearing word or a 'master signifier'" (p. 443).
Thus, an analysis of the future of LD ought to examine boundary work as a means to understand the paradigms and cultural practices that are regarded as inside or outside this field. This analysis has implications for the establishment of a reflexive epistemology in the field of LD that can influence the breadth and diversity of its theoretical and methodological paradigms. Of particular interest to us is the boundary work that the field of LD might have done on questions and practices related to markers of difference (e.g., race, social class, cultural differences) and educational equity. As summarized above, we already know that attention to these issues has been scant and/or problematic. However, we know little about how the lack of attention to the role of culture in LD research has been attained. To what degree is it the result of boundary work? What types of boundary work have been done? What are the consequences or incentives for doing such boundary work? Let us mention a few potential future directions in addressing these critical questions.
Expert reviews for publication and research funding are critical gate-keeping activities in any scientific community. An analysis of boundary work in the field of LD could initially focus on these activities. A preliminary review of selected feedback to a few scholars from journal and grant reviewers illustrates instances of monopolization boundary work (i.e., ascriptions of authority and authenticity to one's claims and practices, while denying it to others deemed to be outside of the field) in which a view of LD where culture is unacknowledged trumps a culture-based (or culturally mediated) perspective on LD. For instance, one scholar described an exchange with journal editors who had edited a theme issue on the history of research in a special education domain. This scholar took issue with the lack of attention to cultural considerations in such a historical account of a system that serves a substantial proportion of minority students--finding only three references to the word culture and two references to the term diversity in the entire journal issue. Another scholar reported re-submitting a research grant proposal focused on LD after having carefully addressed the suggested revisions from the first review, only to learn that the proposal received an even lower score than the first time around. When an inquiry was made to the funding agency, the answer was, "We are not funding culture."
Embedded in this monopolization boundary work is a set of assumptions about culture and learning as ontologically distinct and neatly bounded entities. In his critique of the notions of culture, Wolf(1982) used the metaphor of billiard balls to describe assumptions made about cultures coming into contact. A ball collides with other balls, and the impact might form dimples on, or scrape, other balls' surfaces, but, ultimately, the crashing balls leap off one another ontologically intact. We use this image to describe the following assumption: that although the notions of learning and culture can come in contact with one another, they are ultimately ontologically distinct. In this view, the cultural mediation of learning is untenable. The examples recounted by these scholars suggest that their reviewers endorse a view of LD that has no link whatsoever to culture; in fact, the assertion "we are not funding culture" implies that LD and culture ought to remain as separate as possible.
A related theme in these scholars' experiences is the reviewers' use of the notion of evidence for two purposes, namely as a resource to undermine the legitimacy of a focus on cultural issues in the LD field, or to question the existence of equity concerns at the intersection of cultural diversity and LD. For instance, feedback from journal and grant reviewers relied on a sort of circular reasoning in which evidence is pivotal to the argument. Specifically, reviewers frequently questioned the link between LD and culture due to the lack of research on the topic. In other words, the lack of attention to culture in the LD field compels these scholars to pursue research and scholarly projects, but the worth of these efforts is dismissed because research evidence cannot be cited. Examples of this type of boundary work found in grant reviews include the following: "Some of the assertions such as that instruction for ELLs with disabilities in mathematics must entail extensive knowledge of culture and language are not supported with empirical research," and "Little research evidence is presented on the need for [culturally responsive instruction] with respect to students with LD."
Questioning the existence or magnitude of equity problems at the intersection of LD and cultural differences was a second use of the argument about evidence. This is a troubling instance of boundary work considering the ubiquity of scholarly discussions and increasing research and scholarly activities about this topic (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Waitoller, Artiles, & Cheney, 2010), as well as the sizable evidence on inequalities in the education of racially and linguistically diverse learners in the sociology of education, urban education, and anthropology of education literatures (Apple, Au, & Gandin, 2009). For instance, a grant reviewer pointed out that a scholar interested in conducting research on professional development related to cultural diversity did not present "data about the scale of the problem such as the extent of teacher needs for professional development, students in need of the treatment, and school capacity and activities to address the problems." Another grant reviewer concluded that the grant writer "established there was a law [alluding to IDEA's safeguards about discriminatory assessment and disproportionality], but did not document [the] case for [the] need of [such] law."
We used a few examples from the experiences of a small number of scholars doing work on culture and equity issues in the field of LD as a means to illustrate the idea of boundary work. Systematic analyses must be conducted of peer-refereed journal and grant reviews before we obtain a systematic understanding of the role of boundary work in the production of culture-free LD research knowledge and its consequences. Our message, however, remains: Knowledge production in scientific fields is historically shaped by boundary work with particular ramifications for what counts as legitimate foci of scholarly activity and research knowledge. We presented examples of circular reasoning about the availability of evidence on cultural differences in a "culture free" field shaping some of the boundary work in LD research. We also know that syntheses of research knowledge inform future research priorities and policy and can shape the future of a field--the LD Initiative and the research syntheses commissioned by the National Research Council are good examples. Thus, it is imperative that the field of LD invest in understanding how its knowledge base is built, how certain dimensions of the human experience are taken up or ignored in LD research practices, and the concomitant costs of such practices.
We started this article by stating an urgent problem in the LD field and then moved on to make an ambitious proposal. The problem is the marginal status and narrow conception of culture used in LD research. This traditional view rests on an ideational model of culture that presumes that members of cultural groups learn control mechanisms that determine their thoughts and actions. This state of affairs is situated in a faster and increasingly diverse world that requires interventions and solutions grounded in knowledge produced with complexity in mind.
Our proposal is based on the premise that we must end a presumed innocence that conveniently frees the field of LD from historical responsibilities related to equity that are reflected in the LD scholarship "regarding monolithic views of culture, essentialized perceptions of culturally different groups of students, and the power of representation" (Artiles, 2004, p. 550). Thus, we suggest strengthening the theoretical treatment of the idea of culture in LD research as solely ideational and add a material (process-oriented) model of culture that permeates not only individuals' action and thinking programs, but also the institutions and practices of individuals historically deemed to be cultureless (i.e., researchers). We discussed these premises in the context of two enduring concerns in the LD field: the ontology of LD and research knowledge use in practice. We review interdisciplinary research on the cultural nature of learning and policy as practice as a way to illustrate how a more sophisticated theorizing of culture can enrich LD scholarship. Our analysis has far-reaching implications for the development of assessment and intervention approaches that transcend individual cognitive skills and processes, as well as school boundaries. Thus, children's and youth's learning processes that take place in informal contexts could be used to inform the design of assessment and intervention tasks; this approach by itself would represent a sea change in the ways in which the knowledge of students from marginalized groups is used in the field of LD. Similarly, an interdisciplinary and systematic engagement with the notion of culture will afford the field of LD the possibility of tracing the key mediational roles that institutional practices play in the production of school failure and practitioners' appropriation of evidence-based strategies. In turn, these re-framings would reshape the meaning and treatment of LD in an increasingly diverse society.
Furthermore, we used a reflexive prism to examine the production of LD knowledge as a way of illuminating the boundary work that forges a particular vision for this field--a field that has maintained culture historically invisible. There is indeed an urgent need to examine systematically the kinds of boundary work that the field of LD has pursued with regard to culture and equity as a way