Archive for July, 2012

If there is no fixed standard of educational success, do learning disabilities exist?

July 31, 2012

Cathy Davidson asks

“Here’s a thought experiment.  Let’s try to imagine a society (there were lots of them before modernity) where there is no interest in measuring educational success.  Let’s imagine a society where the only goal of teaching (it’s a high bar) is to help every children master what they need in order to lead the most fulfilling life they are capable of leading —productive, creative, responsible, contributing to their own well-being and that of their society.  No grades.  No tests.  Just an educational system based on helping each child to find her or his potential for leading the best (Socrates would call it “happiest”) life possible.  In such a world, do learning disabilities exist? ”

“If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?  If there is no fixed standard of educational success, do learning disabilities exist?”

As David Eddings wrote, there is always something in the forest to hear the tree fall.

Similarly, if human learning is underway there is someone who will notice the performance of an individual and compare it with others.

Perception of difference is part of human nature, and thus exists in all cultures.  The difference between cultures that Davidson writes of is the different response to perceived difference, not the perception of difference.  Pre-industrial societies were quite cruel to those perceived as stupid in valued areas- see history on village idiots, deaf-mutes, military-family members who were sickly but clever, etc- and to those who were both unacceptably gifted and tactless.

Is machine learning a way to get around the perception of difference?  An ideal computer-learning program should have the set-up to adjust the size of steps in new understanding to match the past speed of improvement of the learner, and to suggest human intervention if there is an extremely unusual speed of learning. In machineworld or in class, it is important that the teacher notice any profound mismatch between the standard rate of introduction of new material and the speed of learning of a student: gifted or struggling, both need individualised tasks if they are to reach their potential, and may need individual or small-group professional assistance if they are too far from the class mode.

And now, assume that I was writing  of a riding teacher with 6-year-olds.  Or a gardener teaching adults how to grow plants.  Or a carpenter teaching them basic skills.

The great advantage of standardized testing and defined levels of performance that they allow us to mark the relations between intelligence(s), abilities, and performance in various situations; to find the causes of any unusual performance levels; and to adjust teaching to the learner’s specific needs.

I am the parent of an individual with a specific learning disability who gained access to needed support  largely because the NAPLAN results in year 3 and class results were terribly below the potential suggested by formal individual testing. (The difficulty of arranging formal individual testing is another matter.)  Ves performance now is closer to that suggested by the individual testing, and ve no longer is self-destructive, and ve no longer sees verself as “stupid”. I  have read widely in history and anthropology, and I can think of no previous society where ve could have come close to reaching ves potential.

Yes, learning disabilities would exist even if the society had no “defined standards of educational success”: they are part of the neuronal structure of some humans.  It would just be much harder for the fond parents to find out whether their child’s talents are as great (or as limited) as they think, when ve cannot do what the other children can. It would be that much harder to prove that one method of teaching is better than another for a particular personality type.  It would be that much harder for experts to recommend the direction of training to capitalise on strengths.

It would be that much harder for many of those who are non-standard, not easier.