Tag Archive for 'misunderstanding'

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Willingham making sense of brain research

In what will be his last guest column for the Washington Post education column, “The Answer Sheet,” cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham advises people to be skeptical about the poppycock that masquerades as scientific advice about brain-based education. Under the headline “Willingham: 3 brain facts every educator should know,” Professor Willingham explains clearly and with the force of evidence and plain, ordinary reason why “most of what you see advertised as educational advice rooted in neuroscience is bunkum.”

Professor Willingham contends that there are three facts educators should know.
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LD opinion survey: good news, bad news

For the fourth time, the Roper Public Affairs &’ Corporate Communications group has reported a survey of US opinion about Learning Disabilities to the Tremaine Foundation. Although the report is entitled “Measuring Progress in Public & Parental Understanding of Learning Disabilities,” it also includes data about the views of the general public, teachers, and school administrators. It’s worth reading the entire document, but here are a few notes to whet the appetite.
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TZP is “Like Stars on Earth”

Darsheel Safary as Ishaan
Darsheel Safary as Ishaan

Those who remember Taare Zameen Par will find Like Stars on Earth very familiar. For others, who are familiar with the usual stories about children with disabilities who benefit from concern on the part of a
caring adult, the story will be familiar, too. I remark on it here as a reminder about Dyslexia Awareness Month and ’cause I’m sometimes a sucker for smaltzie uplifting stories.
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Yet another misuse of LD

In “City Pushes Shift for Special Education,” New York Times reporter Jennifer Medina made the same mistake that many reporters before her have made. She used “learning disabilities” as a synonym for “students with disabilities.” I wonder what Ms. Medina’s editor thinks the term “learning disabilities” means.
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New syndrome: Audible delays?

Does anybody know what is meant by “audible delays?”

According to a newspaper report by Bethany Hart who writes for the Washington Court House (OH, US) Record-Hearald, a woman named Tanya Cottrell noticed her child “was learning things in school a bit slower than the other children. He was diagnosed [with] having audible delays which is considered a learning disability.”
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Miguel might show us what’s wrong

Under the headline, “Age-Old Problem, Perpetually Absent Solution: Fitting Special Education to Students’ Needs” in the Washington Post, Jay Mathews writes about the case of Miguel Landeros:

Miguel Landeros is a lanky, well-spoken 12-year-old about to begin seventh grade in Stafford County. He is severely learning disabled, with reading, writing and math skill levels at least two years below his peers, and needs special teaching, according to a licensed clinical psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and other specialists.

Last February, Stafford officials refused to accept that evaluation and left him in regular classes. He performed poorly, failing all core subjects. Recently, they promised to give him more specialized services, but not the ones the experts who examined him say he needs.

I admit that education writers in general, and I in particular, write very little about learning disabilities and the many failures of federally mandated public school programs to help students who have them. I often say the cases are so complicated I have difficulty translating them into everyday language, and even then readers struggle to understand.

Mr. Mathews’ admission of a lack of understanding about special education (in general) and Learning Disabilities (in particular) is unsurprising to me. Not only is there a lot to know (and, sadly, too often educators do not even know what there is to know), but lots of people who view educational issues through the lenses of finance, policy, and social justice simply don’t get (a) the evidence available about effective educational practices and (b) the personal side of education.

Had Miguel had early access to effective instructional practices, which have usually been more readily available in special education, during his early years of schooling, he probably would have at less substantial problems as he moves into middle school. Special education has been education’s reservoir for research about effective teaching methods over the past 20-30 years.

Dan Hallahan and I cited a series of innovations that emanated from LD (e.g., systematic monitoring of progress, explicit instruction in strategies for solving academic tasks) and are now widely adopted in education. In Michael Gerber’s memorable phrase, Learning Disabilities served as blue-green algae for education, forcing us to abandon antiquated notions of classification and instruction and move toward more flexible perspectives, just as blue-green algae precipitated a change from Linnaean taxonomy to classification based on evolution.

The case of Miguel illustrates how educators reject reasonable and evidence-based methods in favor of ideologically driven policies. In place of employing powerful instructional practices and adapting instruction to individuals, schools too often explain away students’ difficulties. They make what amount to excuses!

I have not seen the thick sheaf of papers that Miguel’s mother sent to Mr. Mathews, so I don’t know if that folder contains any of the following excuses for not serving Miguel. I suspect, however, that Kelli Castellino (Miguel’s mother) has heard some of them, and likely others:

  • “He’s just a boy; they mature differently”;
  • “He’ll get it when he decides to put his mind to it”;
  • “We don’t want him to have the stigma of special education”;
  • “He just needs a little extra time to finish things”;
  • “We can’t give every child a Cadillac education.”

(Parents and teachers, please feel free to add other examples to this list. Just drop ’em in the comments.)

In addition to the excuses, we educators often let ideology and half-truths trump the individual needs of children, which puts us at odds with parents. The innovation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was considering students with disabilities as individuals. Based on the unique educational needs of those students determined to be eligible, educators and parents are supposed to develop individualized education programs.

I suspect that Ms. Castellino also heard that (a) the least restrictive environment is a critical concern, (b) inclusion is the approach recommended by experts, (c) accommodations are all most students really need, (d) special education identification processes are subjective and arbitrary, (e) half of the students with LD don’t really have true disabilities, and more.

Many special educators, especially those in administrative positions, seem to have bought the idea that including everyone in general education is the goal. They point to the lesser outcomes for students with disabilities (e.g., higher failure rates on competency tests and greater chances of under- and unemployment after school, just to name a couple) and argue that those results are caused by special education’s separatistic and ineffective ways. For some unknown reason, they forget that there must have been something unique about the students that contributed to them being identified in the first place.

They also ignore the fact that some of the early, ardent advocates of inclusion have recanted. Take, for example, Mary Warnock’s change of position, as noted in this entry over on Teach Effectively:

Mary Warnock, the individual most responsible for promoting inclusionary policies and practices in Britain, has said that the effort to include students with disabilities in mainstream schools has “Has gone too far. It was a sort of bright idea of the 1970s but by now it has become a kind of mantra and it really isn’t working.”

For some students, inclusive schooling is just fine, but when it becomes the de facto standard, then it butts heads directly with IDEA’s foundational idea: individualization. When inclusion is invoked in cases such as Miguel’s, ideology trumps reason.

Mr. Matthews wondered whether a charter school for students with LD would be a solution. I suspect that one based on evidence about effective instructional procedures and practices (and there is plenty of research documenting them) would be beneficial for those students. But, those same methods could be put into practice in the public schools. A major impediment to doing so, in my estimation, is our current emphasis on how special education is something to be avoided, that it’s broken, wrong, misguided, and undesirable.

Another reason that the charter might work is that it might be freed from the shackles of ideologically-driven education. But I can already hear the howls about how awful such a school would be. The ideologues would complain that it was separatist, inconsistent with the real world, too expensive, and so forth.

Link to Mr. Matthews’ article.

Gerber, M. (2000). An appreciation of learning disabilities: The value of blue-green algae. Exceptionality, 8, 29-42.

Lloyd, J. W., & Hallahan, D. P. (2005). Going forward: How the field of learning disabilities has and will contribute to education. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28, 133-136.

AAP and AAO on vision therapy


Interview with: Walter M. Fierson, MD,
Chair of Learning Disabilities Subcommittee
of Ophthalmology Section, American Academy
of Pediatrics

In “Groups Assail Vision Therapy as Remedy for Learning Disabilities,” Crystal Phend of MedPage Today reported that the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Ophthalmology jointly issued a statement calling the use of well-known vision therapies unfounded and ineffective.

SAN FRANCISCO, July 27 — Behavioral vision therapy, eye exercises, and colored lenses have no role in treatment of dyslexia and other learning disabilities, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The academy came down hard on these “scientifically unsupported” alternative treatments in a joint statement with the American Academy of Ophthalmology and other vision organizations.

The AAP, which has published many valuable statements about Learning Disabilities in the past, made unequivocal statements about the problems with these therapies. In the accompanying audio clip, Dr. Walter Frierson provides good explanation of the rationale for the recommendations.

Learning disabilities, including reading disabilities, are commonly diagnosed in children. Their etiologies are multifactorial, reflecting genetic influences and dysfunction of brain systems. Learning disabilities are complex problems that require complex solutions. Early recognition and referral to qualified educational professionals for evidence-based evaluations and treatments seem necessary to achieve the best possible outcome. Most experts believe that dyslexia is a language-based disorder. Vision problems can interfere with the process of learning; however, vision problems are not the cause of primary dyslexia or learning disabilities. Scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or special tinted filters or lenses for improving the long-term educational performance in these complex pediatric neurocognitive conditions. Diagnostic and treatment approaches that lack scientific evidence of efficacy, including eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or special tinted filters or lenses, are not endorsed and should not be recommended.

Pediatrics 2009;124:837–844

Faithful readers of LD Blog will remember that there have been perhaps a half-dozen posts here on the mistaken (at best) therapies promoted to families of individuals with Learning Disabilities. It is valuable to have prestigious organizations such as the AAP and AAO issue statements that support the observations presented here.

Teachers, psychologists, and school administrators: Please advise the parents of your students with reading problems not to waste time and money on colored lenses, eye tracking and eye teaming, and other similar therapies.

Read Ms. Phend’s report. Download the full statement by the AAP. Visit the AAP Web site, especially its section on Learning Disabilities.

Functional Disconnection Syndrome

Here’s one for the faithful: “functional disconnection syndrome.” Let Dr. Kurt W. Kuhn, D.C. and Ph.D. explain:

Functional Disconnection Syndrome is a condition where there is a functional breakdown in the neurological pathways of the body causing the brain and its neural net to function asynchronously, at a decreased frequency of firing or at a functional level that is below that required for higher cognitive and health requirements.

A quick review of the medical literature will find the term “functional disconnections” used for all sorts of conditions that are the affect [sic] of neurological dysfunction. Symptoms ranging from behavioral and learning problems to pain and conditions of reduced general health. Functional disconnections can be caused by genetic, environmental, nutritional, stress, toxins, spinal subluxations and other causes.

Just for grins, I took the challenge. I searched the health sciences databases available via EBSCO, the venerable information management system that says it works with 79,000 publishers. I found one citation referring to “Functional Disconnection Syndrome”; it was a case study describing a psychiatric problem of a 23-year-old woman (Simon, Walterfan, Petralli, & Velakoulis, 2008, Neuropsychobiology, 58).
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LD and chiropracty–NOT

Chiropractors are likely to complain about the treatment that their methods receive in posts on this blog. I’ve posted recently that I find wanting the bases for the the (currently-on-tour, see-’em-in-your-neighborhood-soon) Brain Balance Music program. This post will be even more alarming to supporters of those sorts of treatments for LD.

The fundamental problem with the therapies for Learning Disabilities recommended by some chiropractors is that those therapies are bogus. They may be advocated by people who honestly believe that they’re recommending helpful stuff. The hypothetical relations among the neurological and behavioral factors may sound sensible, but that is, in large part, because we’re listening to the words rather than the facts. The folks may have seen what they believe are legitimate improvements in children’s academic and social behavior after the children received the therapy. Parents may have told them how much better the children seem.

None of that counts as scientific (i.e., objective, generalizable, refutable) evidence of benefits. The advocates may be as seriously misled as they mislead their potential clients. They just don’t have the data. Their explanations are post hoc and untested, at best.

In addition to the probably benign Brain Balance Music methods, consider one of the other chiropractic therapies: Cranio-sacral therapy: The hypothesis is that something about the connection between the child’s head and tail causes learning problems (even mental retardation and autism!) and it can be corrected by chiropractic manipulations.

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Irlen Kool-Aid consumed again

Yet another reporter has covered the benefits of providing colored lenses or overlays for improving reading performance. Based on subjective reports from a child and her father, Morgan Bond of television station KPVI in Pocatello (ID, US) described Irlen’s Syndrome as the cause and blue-tinted glasses as the solution to Noel Chapman’s reading problems.
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