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

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.


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3 Responses to “If there is no fixed standard of educational success, do learning disabilities exist?”

  1. @blamer Says:

    One underlying issue might be individualised education Vs classroom education.

    I can imagine there exists historical examples where the son of a wealthy genius or king was home-schooled instead of being exposed like a commoner to peers, grades, and a bell curve.

    • erasmid Says:

      There are historical examples aplenty. Induividual is fine if the individual is the rare bird who does not crave agemates / mental equals, and if the family is psychologically sound, but is (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Paul_Schreber) a horror for others. For all, there is a risk that lack of comparison may lead to false beliefs about ability/entitlements / humanity at large. The socially selective schools also found problems that way (e.g. fagging at Eton, despising “lower orders” and “scholarship boys”.)

      In Western Australia’s State system, the official aim is to provide teaching aimed at specific individual needs within the class environment – requires top analytic and diagnostic skills mixed with miraculous control of group dynamics, and pays about as well as cleaning – and works reasonably compared with the old “forget those who will pass or fail anyway, work to thse who will pass only with help” triage.

      It is, however, NOT fun for the extreme outliers until their special at-risk status is officially recorded (and even then is difficult.) Individualised education in streamed classes has its detractors, but I have heard the relief in the vouices of students in at-level classes when they recall the mixed-ability class group-work – and know they have escaped it. They escape it through the evidence of the bell-curve.

      • erasmid Says:

        I omitted to add that there have been many cultures and times when people (of whatever age) were guided by teachers who had them work in like-ability groups with lessons planned to meet individual needs. Not only – or, in the vast human past, most often – academic lessons. In such cases, interactions with to peers and acheiving or excelling (teacher defined) performamance targets were commonly remembered as great experiences.

        The trouble I was concentrating on in my post was for those with specific learning disorders, who seldom “fit in”.even in the better situations. Few teachers in such situations got to see enough such people in their student groups to spot the patterns. (The problem of informal standards.)

        Even 1-on-1 teaching might not catch their needs if the teacher worked on common assumptions of performance showing underlying ability (as most do). Even then, the cultural requirement to fit local standards of behaviour might prevent the best style of teaching being chosen: every culture has “It’s just not done!” – I remenber the look of surprise when I said that I let a (one-on-one) student shout disagreement at me, because it cleared ves mind and ve could then suddenly see the point. In many places that student behaviour is so unacceptable that my decision to leave the social training for another situation would make me an unacceptable teacher.

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