Sip Jan Pijl and Kees P.van den Bos
In social sciences it is not uncommon that several, often conflicting, theories are applied to one particular subject. When special education is the subject, things are complicated because the term 'special education' is a fuzzy and all-encompassing term. It can be used to describe the instruction of students with special needs, the use of special methods and materials or the activities of special teachers. Sometimes it refers to special and separate school systems. Therefore, theories of special education can have very different aims. When thinking about special education theories it is necessary to specify the aim under consideration. What do we mean by special education and what is special education ultimately about?
In this chapter the focus will be on relationships between general theories of special education and theories of learning problems of pupils. We are interested in the paradigm shifts that have occurred in the past decades, and especially in the contributions of the various theories to meeting the special needs of pupils.
For decades the main aim of special education has been the education of the mentally, physically and/or sensory handicapped pupils. More or less in line with medical procedures, a thorough diagnosis and classification of the child's handicap(s) is seen as an important first step. Assessment focused on a classification of the kind of handicap in order to decide on the treatment of preference. The approach is characteristic of the psychomedical paradigm, in which a detailed diagnosis of the child's handicap(s) was both a necessary and sufficient condition to commence a treatment. Diagnosis and treatment were seen as two different, yet closely linked, activities. Each clinical picture had its own treatment, analogous to the medical diagnosis of 'a broken arm' which led to the treatment of 'putting the arm in splints'.