Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Self-Organization and Learning Disabilities: A Theoretical Perspective for the Interpretation and Understanding of Dysfunction

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

Self-Organization and Learning Disabilities: A Theoretical Perspective for the Interpretation and Understanding of Dysfunction

Article excerpt

Abstract. Central nervous system dysfunction is common to most definitions of learning disabilities (i.e., the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, P.L. 101-476 (IDEA), the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD), the Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities (ICLD)), although not always explicitly stated. Yet, many practitioners and diagnosticians of learning disabilities (LD) do not have a sufficiently comprehensive understanding of the neurological system to be able to interpret disabling conditions from this view. "Specific" learning disability may be an erroneous concept when one considers the underlying dynamic and recursive interactions within the neurological system. A self-organizing systems (SOS) perspective offers a comprehensive framework for understanding and interpreting the complexity of LD and suggests that classification schema tend to undermine the complex nature of the learning disorder. In this article, self-organizing systems principles are explained, and research is reviewed concerning reading and math disabilities and the roles of language, attention, working memory and executive functioning as they relate to LD. Assessment practices are also considered in light of conceptualizing learning disabilities from a self-organizing systems framework.

Given that learning disabilities (LD) are an extremely complex construct with a vast and diverse literature base, attempts to develop unified theories regarding the underlying causes of LD and consistent, systematic classification practices have thus far been futile. As a result, the field of LD appears to be spinning its collective wheels. Over the course of many years, numerous theories have been proposed in attempts to understand the disorder. Perceptual-motor theorists, language theorists, brain-based learning theorists, neurological theorists, behavioral theorists and meta-cognitive theorists have attempted to incorporate their perspectives and assumptions about learning disabilities (Bender, 2001). More recent views of LD are based in constructivist thinking or multiple intelligences, which is "founded in the broader field of psychology and educational psychology, rather than exclusively in the area of learning disabilities" (Bender, 2001, p. 16). Self-organization is another perspective that helps to elucidate complex systems such as those that occur within biological and chemical systems. It also serves as a foundation within the domains of psychology and mathematics. Therefore, it is an inevitable undertaking to speculate how this perspective relates to the field of education and disabilities.

Some readers will consider this perspective in direct opposition to their current thinking. Systemic disequilibria may occur. We hope this article will help "equalize" such disequilibria by clarifying the theoretical foundation of self-organizing systems and its relationship to LD. Remaining speculative, however, is good. Research is fostered and theories are developed by engaging in dialogue and we believe that the study of self-organizing systems "can allow investigators to explore a variety of areas from new and promising angles, ones that many may have never before considered" (Barton, 1994, p. 13).


Siegel (1999) describes the current status of the LD field remarking, "if one examines all the books and journal articles that have been written about learning disabilities, the state of the field seems chaotic" (p. 305). Learning disabilities are indeed an enigma and relentless efforts are being made to understand them. To date, there has been no universal agreement, and the endless inquiries are akin to searching for the Holy Grail. Instead of uncovering definitive answers and reaching consistent conclusions, researchers seem to be raising more questions regarding the nature, depth and breadth of the disorder(s).

Some researchers seek to provide answers concerning LD and identify this disorder(s) based upon existing research on supposed "specific" disabilities (e. …

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