Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

The Actuarial Turn in the Science of Learning Disabilities

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

The Actuarial Turn in the Science of Learning Disabilities

Article excerpt

Abstract. In the mid-1970s, Donald Hammill and his colleagues authored three scathing critiques of the two most trusted scientific traditions of learning disability treatment--movement education and psycholinguistic training (Hammill, 1972; Hammill & Larsen, 1974; Hammill, Goodman, & Wiederholt, 1974). These critical reviews of research rejected the older model of clinical science that had served as the foundation of the field of learning disabilities and celebrated an actuarial form of research. Was Hammill actually proclaiming a change in the orientation toward scientific research, a paradigm shift involving philosophical commitments and methodological practices? This article explores the history of both the foundational clinical science and the new actuarial science that rose to prominence in the field of learning disabilities in the 1970s.


Between 1972 and 1974, three articles authored by Donald Hammill and his colleagues turned the young field of learning disabilities in the United States upside down (Hammill, 1972; Hammill & Larsen, 1974; Hammill, Goodman, & Wiederholt, 1974). These critical reviews of the empirical literature at the time depicted the most prominent and trusted research and treatment programs in the field as something akin to traveling medicine shows. Not only did Hammill upbraid the two most trusted of the scientific learning disability treatment traditions--movement education and psycholinguistic training--he cast doubt on the very science itself, the entire tradition of neurological and psychological research that had developed the learning disability construct over many decades. At the historical moment when the field of learning disabilities was enjoying rising popular and political support--the construct would formally enter federal special education law in 1975--Hammill and his colleagues made the stunning claim that the scientific foundations of the field were deeply flawed (Hammill, 1993; Hammill & Larsen, 1978; Kavale, 1981, 1984; Larsen, Parker & Hammill, 1982; Lund, Foster, & McCall-Perez, 1978; Minskoff, 1975; Sowell, Parker, Poplin, & Larsen, 1979).

The scientific work that Hammill's group degraded was built over many years. Beginning with the research of Alfred Strauss and Heinz Werner (Strauss & Werner, 1938, 1939; Werner & Strauss, 1939) before World War II, the field of brain injury science (renamed learning disabilities in the 1960s) was a congenial alliance of somewhat parochial research units operating in a small number of American universities, institutions, and psychoeducational clinics. Charles Bazerman (1983, p. 171) coined the term "invisible college" to describe this kind of budding field of study, a small and loosely knit network of similar researchers whose informal communications greatly defined a field of intellectual practice.

By the late 1960s, this network consisted of two general avenues of scientific work, a movement education tradition that attempted to develop the child's neurologically based skills of perception and a psycholinguistic research line that emphasized a child's psychological capacity to process language. Researchers working within the two strands greatly respected and collaborated with one another. They typically viewed the two approaches as offering different yet mutually beneficial ways of understanding and addressing a shared set of childhood learning issues.

Movement Education Tradition

Drawing heavily from the work of Alfred Strauss, Heinz Werner, and Laura Lehtinen at the Wayne County Training School (e.g., Strauss & Kephart, 1955; Strauss & Lehtinen, 1947; Strauss & Werner, 1941, 1942; Werner & Strauss, 1943), the movement education tradition of learning disability research emphasized the young child's development of sensory motor and perceptual skills. This approach to science and treatment constructed learning disability as a brain-based disorder resulting in the misperception of environmental stimuli. …

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