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"Learning Disability":A Rose by Another Name

Imagine for a moment that you are visiting a plant nursery. You hear a commotion outside, so you investigate. You find a young assistant struggling with a rose bush - he is trying to force open the petals of a rose, and muttering in frustration. You ask him what he is doing, and he explains, "My boss wants all these roses to bloom this week, so last week I taped all the early ones, and now I'm opening the late ones." You protest that every rose has it's own schedule of blooming; it is absurd to try to slow down or speed this up; it doesn't matter when roses bloom; a rose will always bloom at its own best time. You look at the rose again, and see that it is wilting. But when you point this out, he replies, "Oh, too bad, it has genetic dysbloomia. I'll have to call an expert." "No, no!" you say, "you caused the wilting! All you needed to do was meet the flowers' needs for water and sunshine, and leave the rest to nature!" You can't believe this is happening. Why is his boss so unrealistic and uninformed about roses?

Such a scene would never take place in a nursery, of course, but it happens daily in our schools. Teachers, pressured by their bosses, follow official timetables, which demand that all children learn at the same rate, and in the same way. Yet children are no different than roses in their development: they are born with the capacity and desire to learn, they learn at different rates, and they learn in different ways. If we can meet their needs, provide a safe, nurturing environment, and keep from interfering with our doubts, anxieties, and arbitrary timetables, then - like roses - they will all bloom at their own best time.

My heart goes out to those children who have been labeled "ADHD" ("attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder"), the latest "learning disability" label. Many educators and researchers believe that these children and their families have been cruelly deceived by the use of these labels. Dr. Thomas Armstrong, a former learning disabilities specialist, changed professions when he "began to see how this notion of learning disabilities was handicapping all of our children by placing the blame for a child's learning failure on mysterious neurological deficiencies in the brain instead of on much needed reforms in our system of education." Dr. Armstrong turned instead to the concept of learning differences, and wrote In Their Own Way, a fascinating and practical guide to seven "personal learning styles" first proposed by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner. Dr. Armstrong urges us to abandon convenient but harmful labels such as "dyslexia" and focus on the real problem of "dysteachia". He warns that "our schools are selling millions of kids short by writing them off as underachievers, when in reality they are disabled only by poor teaching methods." 

As Armstrong explains, "Children get saddled with diagnostic terms such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and the like, making it sound as if they suffer from very rare and exotic diseases. Yet the word dyslexia is just Latin bafflegab for 'trouble with words'... hundreds of tests and programs purport to identify and remediate these "neurological dysfunctions. Yet medical doctors have yet to clearly establish any measurable brain damage in the vast majority of children with these so-called symptoms. It seems clear to me after fifteen years of research and practice in the field of education that our schools are largely to blame for the failure and boredom which millions of children face..."

Are learning disorder labels the "emperor's new clothes" of the schools? Philosophers have an interesting tool called Occam's Razor, a handy device for cutting through preposterous theories: "the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that should be selected." What are the facts? It is a fact that many school children, mostly boys, have learning difficulties. But it is also a fact that there is a group of hundreds of thousands of children in the world, both boys and girls, among whom this "genetic" defect is absent: homeschoolers. In this group, learning difficulties are virtually unknown, except for those children recently in school.

If "learning disorders" are present only among children in school settings, and are absent elsewhere, the problem must lie in the learning environment of the schools, not in some mysterious, non-quantifiable "neurological disorder" within the children, or they would be present in homeschooling children too. After all, it is no secret that the schools are failing to do their job: in many areas, literacy rates have actually declined and have never reached the level they were before the existence of public schools. When John Gatto, New York State Teacher of the Year, calls compulsory schooling a "twelve-year jail sentence", we know that something is terribly wrong, and that the fault is not with the children.

Are the labels "hyperactive", "school phobic" and "learning disabled" smoke screens for the school's failure to understand and conform to the actual process of learning? No less an expert than Mary Poplin, a past editor of Learning Disabilities Quarterly, recently acknowledged that "Despite all the quantitative research... there is no evidence that learning disabilities can be objectively identified... attempts at establishing objective criteria for verifying human problems is a convenient illusion behind which we can hide our incompetence in instruction." Educator John Holt reported in Teach Your Own that the president of a leading learning-disability association admitted there was "little evidence to support the disability labels". Holt warns parents of school children to "be extremely skeptical of anything the schools and their specialists may say about their children and their conditions and needs. Above all, they should understand that it is almost certainly the school itself and all its tensions and anxieties that are causing these difficulties and that the best treatment for them will probably be to take the child out of school altogether."

Families who have done just that are relieved to find that their children regain the love of learning which they had in their early years. Unlike school teachers, who see a cross-section of different children each year, homeschooling parents watch learning take place within the same child over many years, and thus learn to respect each child's unique learning style, to trust the child's personal timetable, and to recognize that mistakes are a normal and temporary part of the learning process for everyone. (There is no rush, after all; many homeschoolers who did not read until age ten or twelve nonetheless have done very well in college.) This relaxed attitude on the part of homeschooling parents keeps the child's self-worth intact, makes labels irrelevant, and allows learning to take place as readily as in toddlerhood: homeschoolers regularly out-perform their schooled peers on measures of academic achievement, socialization, confidence, and self-esteem. In fact, Gatto reports that "children schooled at home seem to be five or even ten years ahead of their formally trained peers in their ability to think."

For many years, Holt challenged schools to "explain the difference between a learning difficulty (which we all experience at times) and a learning disability. He asked teachers how they discriminate between causes which lie within the nervous system of the learner and those factors outside of the learner- the learning environment, the teacher's explanations, the teacher, or the material. Not surprisingly, he reported that he "never received any coherent answers to these questions... [yet] this distinction is so crucial that I don't see how we can talk usefully about the learning problems of children unless we make it." Why, then, are teachers so sure of the existence of widespread neurological disabilities? Perhaps they confuse cause and effect: as Holt observes, "Teachers say 'reading must be difficult, or so many children wouldn't have trouble with it.'" Holt argues that "it is because we assume that it is so difficult that so many children have trouble with it...all we accomplish by our worrying, 'simplifying', and teaching, is to make reading a hundred times harder for children than it need be... we think badly, or even perceive badly, or not at all, when we are anxious and afraid...when we make children afraid, we stop learning dead in its tracks."

Indeed, many research studies show that the expectations teachers have about a child's learning abilities strongly influence the child's academic performance. Other studies show a high correlation between children's anxieties and perceptual handicaps- and further show that lowering those anxieties (and treating food allergies, if present) greatly lower the incidence of such difficulties. But we don't need researchers and experts to tell us what is wrong. We need only listen to the children themselves, who have tried for years to communicate their pain, frustration, confusion, and anger. When children are driven to addictive drugs, self-mutilation, and suicide, obviously they are trying to communicate something of critical importance.

Are learning difficulties in reality the understandable response of normal children forced to conform to the abnormal conditions of conventional classrooms? Most tellingly, have the schools failed to see the crucial difference between mere descriptions of common, temporary learning errors worsened by stress, and scientific proof? While the supposed neurological anomalies have never been identified, it isn't difficult to locate abnormal conditions in the learning environment of the schools: fierce competition, physical inactivity (especially difficult for boys); fragmented topics which bear little relationship to the child's own interests and experiences; constant checking- and doubting- of progress; insufficient family time; few opportunities to meet people of other ages; lack of quiet time for privacy and contemplation; constant abrupt changes of topics (preventing in-depth learning); few opportunities for a teacher's undivided attention; discouragement of sharing work and ideas with classmates (a golden opportunity missed); teasing from other frustrated children; the discouragement of self-fulfilling labels, and, above all, the indignity of being a powerless "non-person", whose legitimate needs and attempts to communicate those needs are smothered by institutional defensiveness. All of these difficulties can be avoided in homeschooling- assuming that the government allows sufficient autonomy.

"Labeling is disabling" because children believe what we tell them. If we must label something, let it be the learning environment, not the learner: instead of "hyperactive child", let's concern ourselves with "activity-restrictive" schools; instead of an "attention-deficient" student, we ought to worry about "inspiration-deficient" classrooms; instead of "school-phobic child", we should use honest words such as "anxious" and "frightened", and be very careful when we look for the source of that anxiety. Using Occam's Razor, let's look for the simplest theory that fits the facts, not the most obscure and complicated one. A stressful, punitive, and threatening environment more than sufficiently explains learning problems. There is no need to confuse ourselves with school techspeak, unproven theories, and scape-goating which serve to protect a social institution that has failed our children.

What could be done instead? Mcgill University Professor Norman Henchey recommends that we "rethink the whole notion of compulsory schooling"1. Henchey advocates the return to homeschooling and "other routes to adulthood...apprenticeship programs, formal and informal learning services, public service. A whole variety of things might be presented to young people." Perhaps then we can honor each child's personal learning style, and, as Armstrong urges, "give children the encouragement they need in order to feel like competent, successful human beings."2 Children are born to learn. They deserve a safe, nurturing learning environment where they can do so, in an atmosphere of patience, respect, gentleness, and trust, not threats, force, and cynicism. As Einstein warned us years ago, "It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion."

Every child is a gifted child.

1 1987 Interview, "Growing Without Schooling", issue 59 (1987), pages 29-30.

2 Armstrong, Thomas. In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging your Child's Personal Learning Style. Los Angeles, CA: J.P. Tarcher, 1987.

Portuguese translation

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby