Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Learning Disabilities, Schools, and Neurological Dysfunction

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Learning Disabilities, Schools, and Neurological Dysfunction

Article excerpt

The field of learning disabilities (LDs) appears to many to be in a state of flux. Perhaps the best evidence in support of this position is the current discussion about how best to identify students with LDa--a summary of which can be found in the proposed rules and regulations for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, Assistance to States for the Education of Children with Disabilities, 2005). In this document the United States government proposes that states discontinue the longstanding practice of identifying children with learning disabilities using a discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability (i.e., IQ). Several alternative approaches are suggested. The frontrunners are response to intervention approaches in which students are identified as having LDs if they do not respond well to "high quality, research-based general education instruction" (p. 35802). Others include using some absolute level of low achievement, examining strengths and weaknesses in achievement, or looking for discrepancies within some subset of relevant cognitive skills (Assistance to States for the Education of Children With Disabilities, 2005). Moreover, echoing the work of Weatherley and Lipsky (1977), some researchers argue that, in addition to using such methods, we must begin to explicitly take into account the contexts within which teachers and administrators must make such decisions (e.g., Mellard, Deshler, & Barth, 2004).

And yet, despite these seemingly remarkable developments we argue the field is not really in a state of flux at all. For despite movement in the area of how best to operationalize the construct of LDs--movement that raises serious questions about the validity of the theoretical definition of LDs in school contexts--this definition has changed remarkably little since it was first inscribed into federal legislation in the United States in 1975. It is this stasis in the theoretical definition and in particular the assumption of neurological dysfunction as it relates to the construct of LDs in school contexts that is of interest to us presently. We begin with a brief review of the development of the definition of learning disabilities between 1962 and 1975--a time in which the original emphasis on LDs as an educational label concerned with teaching and learning more than cause, was lost in favor of an emphasis on etiology and a focus on differentiating children with "real" LDs from others who struggled in school. Then, we discuss some of the gains and losses associated with the LDs field's strong focus on etiology. Next, we explore some of the reasons etiology trumped education in the definition. We conclude with a discussion of the merits of the assumption of neurological dysfunction in school contexts and propose an alternative educational conceptualization of the construct.

That there are individuals who have neurobiologically based difficulties with learning in areas like reading, we believe, is undeniable at present (see for example Grigorenko, 1999; Hynd, Clinton, & Hiemenz, 1999; Olson, 1999; and Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2003). However, that these individuals exist does not mean the category of learning disabilities, at least as currently conceptualized, makes sense in school contexts.

Early Definitions of Learning Disabilities

The field of learning disabilities has its roots in the neuropsychological research of the early to mid 20th century. A number of histories documenting the paths running from researchers like Gall and Hinshelwood to Orton and Monroe and from Goldstein to Werner and Strauss and ultimately to Samuel Kirk have been written (e.g., Carrier, 1986; Franklin, 1994; Hallahan & Mock, 2003; Hammill, 1993; Torgesen, 2004). We will not retrace that ground here. We begin instead in 1962 the year in which Kirk famously proposed the construct as follows:

   A learning disability refers to a retardation, disorder, or delayed
   development in one or more of the processes of speech, language,
   reading, spelling, writing, or arithmetic resulting from a possible
   cerebral dysfunction and/or emotional or behavioral disturbance and
   not from mental retardation, sensory deprivation, or cultural or
   instructional factors. … 
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