Saturday, November 24, 2012

Further Probing into the Intricaies of Learning Difficulties

Original NLA Nov. 15, 1997 

I would like to commend Glenn Young for his very thorough response to the various issues I've raised about LD as well as for his analysis of related policy issues.  I won't comment on Glenn's statement in a systematic fashion, because I don't feel that would be useful and wasn't what David had asked of us.  Instead, I will examine some of the relationships among literacy, learning disabilities, and public policy as I understand them.  I am neither an LD nor policy analyst specialist, so I can only speak of these issues, hopefully, as a somewhat enlightened lay observer. 

I do have some background out of which I base my observations.  I managed a literacy program in Hartford, CT for a number of years and had direct contact with well over 1000 adult literacy learners.  Over the years, my colleagues and I at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford developed an extensive small group tutoring program and a collaborative learning environment that spawned student writing anthologies and texts of oral history narratives of adult new readers.  This student-generated literature speaks of a rich complexity of the lives of adult literacy learners in their grasp and analysis of their own past, in their understanding of the range of issues that they currently face, in their discussion of issues of race, class, education, family, work, and in the value, almost to a person, they attribute to adult literacy education. 

This field work has been informed by an underlying belief that all people of reasonable mental capacity are intelligent, and likewise, that all people have profound gaps in their learning and capacity to process information.  This belief is grounded in deep personal experience wherein I have felt much pain in not being able to learn (sometimes) in the manner of many others and have had to find my own way within the context of my own solitude and also with the support of some real significant others.  Does that make me learning disabled?  Sometimes it does, at other times it doesn't.  It depends on the context.  

I have also been deeply influenced by the progressive literature on literacy, particularly the work of Hanna Fingeret, Susan Lytle, Allan Quigley, Denny Taylor and C. Dorsey-Gaines, Elsa Auerbach, and Brian Street, although I am perhaps a bit more conservative in the importance I place on "scaffolding" or the potential bridge building function of the instructor in assisting students to develop new knowledge while building on the knowledge base and experience they already possess.  What these authors point to, and I concur, is the empowerment and agenic ingenuity people do exhibit by drawing on their own intelligence and community and neighborhood resources which may be more viable and nurturing than those of us who live in suburbs might imagine.  That may be the case even though they live in areas that are economically impoverished. 

I, in no way, want to deny the crushing impact of poverty in stifling the potential of many people, nor the potential role of literacy, and an LD diagnosis among those to whom it might apply, as one intervening variable among many in helping people to enhance their lives.  I do want to stress a more wholistic understanding of people's lives as discussed in the ethnographic literature, and the complex ways they (we) make their (our) way in the world.  On such a reading, constructs like LD are viewed more on a continuum that at times and situations have more relevance even for those deeply afflicted than at other times.  I am arguing, then, for a more developmental and contextual understanding of LD in its relationship to literacy and in the broader life challenges people face for whom LD seems clearly an issue.  But I take a more skeptical (rather than atheistic), cautious, probing stance in generalizing to large sectors of the population who may exhibit various LD-like symptoms, but also exhibit much empowering behavior  within the context of their own developmental trajectories. 

I would assume there is a physiological component to all of our mental processing and gaps, but if concepts like LD are culturally based, then logically, so are neurological disorders.  What may be innate is the brute experience of felt inadequacy in facing situations where one is at loss (this is pure speculation, but grounded in a certain logic by which I make my lay observations).  What seems psycho cultural is (a) the knowledge that is viewed as important by individuals within the contexts of their social environments, and (b) the various coping strategies required to move into more productive space (I think Glenn and I agree on this).  Some will have more difficulty than others, and I fully support the claim that for some, the difficulties will be harder, in part, for the range of reasons identified by the LD community. 

Getting (slowly) to David's [Rosen’s] question on what are the policy implications of a psycho-cultural interpretation of LD (and here, I'm really treading on water), is the need for practitioners and scholars to persuade policy makers to support more developmental and empowering visions of adult literacy education which also acknowledge the difficulties many people face in learning.  In my experience, it takes a long time, particularly for those adults reading at lower levels to attain anything resembling fluent, sustainable, independent literacy skills, although the ethnographic literature points to the use of enhanced literacy practices in highly specific contexts whether at work, home, or in the community that is gained in a shorter period of time.  That is development, but some people, including those with LD, may have more difficulty than others in achieving a desired or acceptable (as they and perhaps significant others in their lives define it), levels of growth in their capacity to mediate that part of the social environment that is critical to their lives.  I would like to see policy initiatives such as those that might be based on the Equipped for the Future project (for example) that might help people progressively master the challenges of the critical social roles that shape their lives, which should include support and accommodation needs for the type of learning difficulties (including disabilities) people may face.
For the short term, given the current law on learning disabilities (and I clearly bow to Glenn's expertise on this), greater emphasis might be placed on more developmental and contextual interpretations of learning disabilities rather than a proscriptive legislation that requires, say, a phonics first approach.  For the longer haul, a more complex public discourse needs to emerge on the nature of adult literacy and the relationship learning disabilities, difficulties, differences, styles, multiple intelligences and much else, to it.  Such a discourse would require literacy and ABE instructors, program practitioners, administrators, scholars, the press, and political servants from a broad spectrum to take a good, hard look at this issue.  I can't but help to express some skepticism about the likelihood of this happening, but the forum provided by the NLA is an important critical step in galvanizing a public discussion.  Through such discourse, a more enlightened policy on literacy and LD might emerge.  I am fully aware that many people are already fighting for this cause.

 Thank you for the floor,

 George Demetrion

In Dialogue with Glenn Young (Nov 13, 1997)

Original NLA List Nov. 13, 1997 

Among much else, Glenn Young states the following: 

" research is showing that a large percent of our population in adult literacy programs do have central nervous system disorders that do affect their ability to learn to read" 

I'm curious about that from a couple of perspectives: 

1.      If (and I'm assuming, here) the large majority of that population has not been formally diagnosed, then on what basis can we make such a claim? 

2.      If LD is a form of neurological malfunctioning, then why would it be more unevenly distributed among particular classes of persons than more evenly distributed across the general population? 

Also, as Glenn seems to imply: 

"Since the difference between those with LD and those who are not reading due to lack of access, previous training or whatever, is that those with LD are not reading or reading well, due to a disability issue - as the  definition states - a presumed disorder of the central nervous system" 

Is there a great divide between those with and without LD or are learning disabilities part of a broader continuum as a subset of learning differences, which, in turn, might be viewed as a subset of multiple intelligences linked ultimately to various societal and cultural interpretations and forms of knowledge. 

As a non-specialist, let me step outside this Socratic question posing and venture forth into a speculation. 

My personal theory: 

There is a complex relationship between physiology, psychology, and the social construction of knowledge.  In a society where demands for literacy are pervasive, at least some of those who lack extensive reading and writing skills may experience that lack as a personal inadequacy that may induce shame, low self-regard and other negative emotions.  Such emotions have a physiological impact which not only seem to, but actually create "central nervous system disorders."  Those disorders will be intensified or abated depending on the various coping or supportive strategies people are able to enact.  Thus, they are not innate, but socially constructed and deconstructed as people negotiate the terrain between their own psychology and the culture.  To the extent that we are able to create empowering learning environments that draw on the creative potential of learners we will be better able to support people to maximize their own developmental capacities in part  through literacy, however minimal gains may seem on any 'objective" standardized tests.  I, then, agree with much of what Glenn says in the following: 

The key to addressing the needs of adult learners with learning disabilities is to look at it from a disability view and not a teaching view - therefore, teaching becomes one of many means that are brought to the table to address the needs, and depending on the capacity of the individual, teaching to read becomes either a major, moderate or limited part of the approach to help the person become functional.  The use of other tools, such as "accommodations" - meaning alternative methods of gaining and using information - books on tape, oral instruction, use of reading machines, etc. become the lead means of gaining inform, rather than relying on reading only. " 

What I like especially is Glenn's interpretation of literacy as one intervening variable among others in helping people to expand their life capacities.  Where I might differ is that I don't see this applying simply to LD students, but as a more generalized objective of adult literacy education.  Thus, perhaps in some ways, opposites do meet; Glenn, seemingly as interpreting "learning disabilities" as an innate physiological malfunction, whereas I look at knowledge and  felt "inadequacy" more as a psycho-cultural phenomenon and by doing so achieve a certain personal agency over such a labeling that in some compelling ways characterizes my own struggle and sometimes failure  to learn.  

Perhaps Glenn identifies more freedom through the diagnosis.  If so, I can respect that, but let's keep an open mind.


George Demetrion

Friday, November 23, 2012

Critical Issues on the Nature and Dfinition of LD

NLA Listserv October 25, 1997

The discussion on the relationship between phonemic awareness and LD is highly important and one that deserves considerable focus in the general literature and perhaps on the NIFL-LD listserv. (I have copied this message to that listserv).  In the following comments I will by-pass that discussion here, acknowledging that it needs to take place elsewhere.  Instead, I will concentrate on some broader concerns that I believe need to be factored into any discussion of LD from theoretical, practical, and/or policy perspectives.
The 1993 NCAL report, "Should Reading-Disabled Adults Be Distinguished From Other Adults in Seeking Literacy Instruction," by Fowler and Scarborough states that:
"This study suggests that in practice, if not necessarily in theory, there are fewer differences than traditionally has been assumed between adults with reading disabilities and adults with reading problems that ae thought to stem from lack of educational opportunity or from a gnerally weak aptitude for learning.  Consequently, the argument can be ade that much of what has been learned from research on reading is abilities may be pertinent to the identification and development of adult learners generally (p. ii)
The issue is not whether most adults who participate in literacy programs have a wide range of difficulties with reading and writing, but whether the concept of learning disabilities is the master cause of the 40%-80% among those for whom it is claimed that it is
The issue (in my mind) is not even whether methodologies and strategies utilized for LD students may be applicable to others.  In one of its Linkages newsletters(not in my current possession), the NAALDC has a wonderful checklist of effective learning strategies to utilize with LD students that would be applicable to most any adult literacy learner (the argument of Fowler and Scarborough). 
The issue is whether "learning disabilities" is an adequate and accurate characterization of the learning problems of a large segment of adult literacy students, particularly when any strict definition of LD rests on a neurological impairment of informational processing capabilities.  Even symptoms do not a learning disabilities make, but may point to a broad range of factors (genetic, psychological, socio-cultural, historical) that need to be examined before we can make well warranted judgments
about causes of "illiteracy" among adults.
In a recent article, "Adult Literacy, Learning Disabilities, and Social Context:  Conceptual  Foundations for a Learner-Centered Approach (Pelavin Associates, Inc., 1994), Osher and Webb argue, among much else that "Learning disabilities are a socially created category of rather recent
origin" (p. 4) "that filled a void in American education" (p. 5).  They maintain that it is a construct "which focuses attention on some factorsand excludes others" (p. 9).  What is excluded, they say, is:
  •  an examination of the social context of adult literacy education
  • references to learning differences or cognitive styles
The dominant view of LD:
"...focuses on factors that are intrinsic to the individual and excludes other disabilities that may co-occur or even produce the difficulties.  The definition rules out such extrinsic factors as cultural differences  and poor teaching" (p. 10), to say nothing of an irrelevant curriculum or nadequate resources.
The authors make the further point, quoting Gerald Coles (author of The Larning Mystique:  A Critical Look at Learning Disabilities.  Pantheon Boks, 1987) that:
"(L)Learning difficulties and any neurological dysfunctions associated wth them, develop not from within the individual but from the individual's interaction with social relationships.  Brain functioning is both a product of and a contributor to the individual's interactions, it is not a predetermined  condition" (Coles, 1987, p. xvii, cited in Osher and Webb, pp. 10-11).
The umbrella concept Osher and Webb favor is "learning differences" in which "learning difficulties" is a subset and "learning disabilities" is an even smaller subset.
This brings us to the important work of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences, pointing to the diversity of ways that people learn.  Gardner states that:
"...a human intellectual competence must entail a set of skills of problem solving--enabling the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he or she encounters, and when appropriate, to create an effective product--and must also entail the potential for finding or creating problems--thereby laying the groundwork for the acquisition of new knowledge" (Frames of Mind, 1983, pp. 60-61).
In a word, the intelligences are culturally produced rather than a product of individual minds and what is viewed as a disability is also a cultural artifact.
These are the questions I have:
  1.  How would proponents define learning disabilities?
  2.  Does that definition apply to a large or a relatively small portion of the adult literacy learner population?
  3.  Is learning disabilities the major cause of why significant numbers of adults who have attended school have attained limited reading and writing capabilities?
  4.  How would proponents place in relationship, learning disabilities, learning difficulties, learning differences, and multiple intelligences?
  5. Is there a continuum or a great divide between learning disabilities and other explanations for adult literacy among adults who have attended school?
  6.  Is there a continuum or a great divide between in instructional approaches for those with learning disabilities and other adult literacy learners?
  7. From a policy perspective can the field advocate away from deficiency toward more  developmental models that build on strengths and potential contributions to the culture that adults might make, in part, through enhanced literacy?

I do not deny that learning disabilities is not a valuable concept from theoretical, practitioner, and policy perspectives.  I am concerned that the term is a bit loosely used and that considerable clarification is needed on the range of its explanatory power even when stricter definitions pertain.
George Demetrion

From the NLA Archives--Learning Disabilities

I will be posting edited extracts and complete texts from the many listserv posts I wrote on the various adult literacy listservs from 1997-2006 or so.  This initial post is fom the original NLA list dated October 16, 1997  GD

Lloyd David writes in passing that " Most people if they have been to
school in this country and have not completed high school have a learning
disability. "

I'd like to hear more about that.

My understanding of learning disabilities in the strict clinical sense is
that there is some neurological impairment in processing or receiving
information that helps to explain the enigmatic gap "between ability and
performance" in the "absence of other primary handicapping conditions."
(Jovita M. Ross-Gordon (1989)  Adults With Learning Disabilities:  An
Overview for the Adult Educator. (ERIC, p. 3).

As I  undersdand it it is questionable to label large segments of the
population as "learning disabled" without a clinical diagnosis.

To push the issue a bit more, I would contend that  "learning
disabilities" like any other concept is more of an intellectual construct
that may have a certain heuristic value in opening new ways of looking at
experience that otherwise would be closed rather than reflecting anything
existing in "objective reality."

The concept of learning disabilities may contain a certain value if
rigorously examined, but broad categorizations about which groups do and
don't have  learning disabilities is a concern.

To be fair to Lloyd David, learning disabilities was not the main thrust
of his comments.  Still, the above passage does concern me.

George Demetrion