Scientists and researchers have not been able to agree on defining what constitutes a learning disability. The difficulty in determining a universal term is reflected in multiple terms used interchangeably. The most widely accepted and used definitions exclude certain conditions. And it can be considered ambiguous as it defines characteristics in terms of capabilities, processes, and achievement without distinction between these terms. The only constant criterion is the inconsistency criterion, which is the discrepancy between ability and achievement. In this context, it is important to point out the differences in conceptualization ability and academic achievement.
Today, the scientific community says that learning disability is a distinct obstacle that manifests in students with low academic achievement. They also seem to agree that it is a developmental barrier that affects individuals throughout their lives and is a product of it. There is an interaction between environmental factors determined by sociocultural conditions and genetic and environmental contributing factors. Interventions that address learning difficulties are not always evidence-based, interventions may be influenced by socioeconomic conditions and policy decisions. As a result, instead of trying to diagnose learning difficulties in a different way, it is necessary to approach them with a holistic and systems-based approach.
The scientific community is that learning difficulties are a distinct barrier to manifest in students with low academic achievement. They seem to agree that it is a developmental disability that affects individuals throughout their lives and is a product of interaction. It is among the genetic and environmental contributing factors that environmental factors are determined by sociocultural conditions. Interventions that address learning difficulties are not always evidence-based, and interventions may be influenced by socio-economic conditions and policy decisions. As a result, instead of trying to diagnose learning difficulties in a different way, it is necessary to approach them with a holistic and systems-based approach.
Uncertainties in the Field
Until the 1960s, no attention was paid to education, learning difficulties. However, with the exception of legal compulsory education, examination of the phenomenon of school drop-out, and the development of the knowledge-based character of the school, none other than learning difficulties led to the creation of a new classification category. School success is related to an individual’s subsequent social and professional success. Accordingly, considering that the learning level is related to individuals with potential for success due to the high cognitive skills attributed, it also contributed to the creation of this different category. Over time, this perception has consolidated and learning difficulties become the most important category of special education. An important indicator of this is that programs for children with learning disabilities bring together the highest number of students with special educational needs.
2.5 million of American school students, approximately 5% of total public school enrollments in 2009, were identified with learning disabilities. These students represent 42% of 5.9 million school-age children. This percentage varies by country, for example, 3.18% of students in Kentucky fall into the particular category of learning disabilities, while in Massachusetts and Port Island the corresponding figures are 9% and 9.6%. Today, similar variations are observed both in Canada and in certain European countries. Prevalence diversity reflects several factors such as the diversity of the population belonging to this category, and there is increasing school pressure for higher achievement leading to higher standards. In addition to the different criteria used for evaluation of success, they are the criteria applied to define the area of learning difficulties.
The existence of such determinants has caused the proportion of students with learning difficulties to fluctuate across US states. Consequently, learning difficulties represent the widest area in special education. Over time, various definitions have been formulated, attempting to show the basic features of the field. However, each is ambiguous, figurative, negative and tautological, overly broad or restrictive according to the positive. Each subsequent definition has tried to fix the previous ones. Their analysis is therefore essential, not for the purpose of creating a new definition, but to broaden the definition and especially to make it possible to understand what learning disabilities actually are. The term learning disability was coined by Kirk, who also developed his first definition.
This definition is the first to introduce the concept of disorders in psychological processes in academic learning. Nevertheless, ambiguities in the description of the field can still be found in this definition. For example, mentions of these inadequacies refer to retardation, impairment, or delay but does not continue to identify any difference between these terms. The definition also reveals the element of exclusion from other deficiency conditions, suggesting the differential diagnosis. However, exclusion is not a criterion for identifying characteristics that distinguish learning disabilities from other conditions. Despite its ambiguities, Kirk’s definition pointed to the establishment of new learning difficulties and became the basis of every official definition in the United States. Recognizing learning difficulties as an independent scientific field requires the adoption of an operational definition that would define its scope as a separate category of special education.
Such a definition was proposed by the US National Advisory Committee for Children with Disabilities in 1968. It formed the basis of educational policies for children with learning disabilities and was included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1997. Research in Europe and mainly in Britain, respectively, focused on specific reading difficulties, dyslexia, and even since the 1960s, the development of associations and treatment centers for children with this disorder has continued. A key figure in his dyslexia study in Britain is Critchley, who developed a definition for developmental dyslexia. According to its definition, it is a learning disorder manifested by initial reading difficulties, later with strange writing and difficulties in using written language.
It has a cognitive nature and is genetically determined. Mental disability or lack of social and cultural luck is not caused by wrong training techniques or emotional factors. Moreover, it results from any obvious structural brain deficiency. Finally, Critchley disagreed with the use of the term learning difficulties because he believed that the only difficulty children had was language. Miles made another important scientific contribution to the study of dyslexia in Britain by conducting a major diachronic study of 14,000 children between 1970 and 1980. According to the findings of this study, 3% of the students showed severe dyslexia symptoms and 6% mild symptoms. Miles has also admitted that he has an inherited disease. Rutter and colleagues have conducted epidemiological studies on children with reading difficulties and through them have comprehensively highlighted specific reading difficulties.
They argued that the terms and definition process used for dyslexia were chaotic and confusing, which was due to the inability to interpret the nature of learning problems and could be confused with general reading retardation. In 1978, the British Ministry of Education and Science commissioned a committee to pass a special education law in England, Wales and Scotland in the spirit of normalization and integration. This study resulted in the Warnock Report (1978), which was accepted, but was passed as a law in 1983. In this law, it is seen that the low performance approach has been adopted under the term of special education needs regarding learning power and more than 18% of the student population is represented under this category. In this case, although dyslexia was considered a category, it was not included as a category in special education.
This is because the UK has adopted a purely pedagogical model at the administrative and practical level to meet any educational needs of children. Most European countries have adopted Kirk’s definition of learning disabilities using the terms dyslexia or learning disability. In the USA, studies have continued to better understand the nature of learning difficulties and to identify best practices in determining them. In 1989, the National Joint Committee on Learning Difficulties tried to eliminate the inherent ambiguities in the definition of the field by formulating it based on new evidence and scientific findings. Learning disabilities is a general term referring to a heterogeneous group of disorders that present with significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical skills. These disorders are individual, assumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction, and can occur throughout life.
Self-regulation behaviors, social perception, and problems in social interaction can exist with learning difficulties, but they do not constitute a learning barrier in themselves. Learning difficulties can occur simultaneously with other barriers or external influences. Regarding this definition, Kavale and his team emphasize that, like its specific term in the definition of the Law on Education for Persons with Disabilities, its term is generally ambiguous and therefore allows for various interpretations. Consequently, to summarize the international research effort, scientists are terms used to describe learning disabilities, learner’s dyslexia, learning disabilities, specific learning disabilities, specific reading difficulties, etc. They also agree that this is a developmental disorder issue with lifelong implications. As a developmental problem, learning difficulties follow a path from the beginning of life and are determined by the interaction of innate factors such as development itself with the environment. Learning difficulties involve a combination of traits and not a distinguishable presence like other developmental phenomena. Common elements are the presence of inconsistencies in cognitive function and achievement, appearing to be incompatible with social and cultural demands and expectations. The source of their heterogeneity is not only biological or environmental, but a product of the synergy between biological and social processes. This promotes development and contributes to the formation of these functional systems. It may never be possible to find a dividing line or criteria that separates these students from those with poor performance in general. The debate between scientists can continue. Decisions are not always based on scientific but mainly social, economic and political reasons.
It is widely accepted that the root of learning disability is a disorder already present in the child. However, it is the child’s interaction with the world around him that shapes how this disorder manifests. Such a systemic perspective requires a comprehensive understanding and an interdisciplinary approach. Much remains unresolved in order to be able to answer questions about its nature and interpretation. Much is known from empirical data, but should be further explored to complement the puzzle and an answer to the main question about the identity of the field. Until then, one should continue to evaluate and fully understand each child’s developmental pathway and take into account all factors involved in the development of learning disabilities.
Author: Ozlem Guvenc Agaoglu