Learning Differences, NOT Disabiliaties | Thomas Armstrong
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This article appeared in the Principal journal, September 1988 and was reprinted in Intelligence Connections, Fall 1994.


Learning Differences--NOT Learning Disabilities

by Thomas Armstrong

I don't believe in learning disabilities. I realize saying that will probably upset a lot of people. Learning disabilities have become as acceptable to educators as diseases are to physicians.

In my way of thinking, though, education has no place for learning "diseases." Instead of focusing on deficiencies--what kids can't do--education should be based on growth--how kids can learn. But so far, in all the thousands of tests and programs developed in the past 20 years to "remediate" frustrated learners, I've seen very little attention paid to how LD kids can learn and grow.

Mary Poplin, the former editor of the Learning Disability Quarterly, noted this omission in a farewell address to her readership a few years ago.

The horrifying truth is that in the four years I have been editor of LDQ, only one article has been submitted that sought to elaborate on the talents of the learning disabled. . .Why do we not know if our students are talented in art, music, dance, athletic, mechanical repair, computer programming, or are creative in other non-traditional ways?. . .It is because, like regular educators, we care only about competence in its more traditional and bookish sense (Poplin,1984).

This narrow conception of competence has excluded a broad range of children, who are learning different, but who are called learning disabled.

I did my doctoral dissertation on the strengths of LD children. In the process, I discovered a few things that might surprise you. I learned that kids labeled "LD" are often non-verbally creative; better than average at visual-spatial tasks; and talented in mechanical, architectural, musical, and athletic pursuits. Some are even highly talented in specific language and mathematical areas (Armstrong, 1987)

Why isn't this information more widely recognized and acted on? One reason, as Mary Poplin points out, is that special education is especially prone to a problem that afflicts all public education: Schools have become worksheet wastelands. Classroom teachers spend too much time on paper-and-pencil tasks and not enough time on active learning that engages the total individual.

This heavy reliance on dittos and textbooks reinforces a habit of thinking about schoolwork solely as book work. Harvard University's Howard Gardner, author of Frames of Mind (1983), had it right when he said that there at least seven different kinds of intelligence and that our schools are only dealing with tow of them: linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence. In other words, the child who reads, spells, and computes, and reasons well goes to the head of the class.

Concentration on only these abilities, though, ignores the dominant strengths of perhaps the majority of children in the classroom. Many children are not so gifted in linguistic or logical-mathematical intelligence, but may be talented in one or more of five other intelligences: musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. All too often, such children are at risk of being unjustly labeled "learning disabled."

The abilities these kids possess simply never get a chance to be displayed in the classroom. there seems to be no room for the young mechanical wizard, or the the child who can dance well, or the ham who performs skits brilliantly, or the "street-wise" playground leader who turns "school-dumb" in class. From such students, we created the "six-hour disabled child," who functions below grade level during school hours, but learns much better away from school.

There are hundreds of thousands of kids like this in our schools. What can we do to help them?

First, we've got to to find out what they're good at and help them develop their strengths in the classroom. Ironically, we now do this for gifted children, who are least in need of having their talents identified. If is far more critical for "LD" children to have a chance to shine in some area.

Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences serves as an excellent framework for finding strengths in all kids, including the gifted and learning different.

The linguistic child is word-oriented; a good storyteller and writer; a trivia expert; an avid reader who thinks in words and loves verbal play (tongue twisters, puns, riddles).

The logical-mathematical child is concept-oriented; the little scientist who loves experiments, testing hypotheses, and discovering logical patterns in nature; a good math student.

The spatial child is image- and picture-oriented; a day-dreamer; an artist, designer, or inventor; attracted to visual media; adept at spatial puzzles (Rubric's Cube™, three-dimensional ticktacktoe); creates visual patterns.

The musical child is rhythm- and melody-oriented; may sing or play a musical instrument; sings little songs in class; becomes animated and may study better when music is playing.

The bodily-kinesthetic child is physically-oriented; excels in athletics or fine-motor areas like crafts; achieves self-expression through body action (acting, dancing,.mime); touches things to learn about them.

The interpersonal child is socially-oriented; has strong leadership abilities; mediates disputes; can be an excellent teacher; enjoys group games and cooperative learning.

The intrapersonal child is intuitively-oriented; is strong willed and self-motivated; prefers solitary hobbies and activities; marches to the beat of a different drummer.

Since traditional instruction caters to linguistic and logical-mathematical learners, kids with strengths in the other five areas of intelligence aren't ordinarily taught according to their most natural ways of learning. Sitting quietly in classroom is totally against the natural inclinations of bodily-kinesthetic children, who need to move in order to learn and who may thus be considered "hyperactive" (and unjustly medicated). Spatial children, who need vivid images and pictures to learn, are apt to be classified as "Dyslexic" because they are dragged to quickly into the world of abstract number and letters.

Such children seldom learn well in conventional classrooms and usually they continue to fail in remedial programs, which simply administer more concentrated doses of the same teaching approaches that were wrong from the start.

On the other hand, if we were to give learning different kids regular classroom instruction appropriate to their native intelligences, we might not have to shop them out to special education in the first place. Here are some examples of how teacher in both special and regular education classes can adapt they teaching to Gardner's intelligences:

• Even though reading is a linguistic act, it's possible to structure a reading program for spatial children around color (Word in Color™ is one such program) or to build in music, movement social cooperation, and independent reading to reach other intelligences.

• In math class, the logical-mathematical child is in his element. The linguistic child is safe, too, as long as problems are explained in words. Teachers need to make a conscious effort, though, to connect math with the other intelligences.

I taught multiplication tables musically by singing them to a twelve-bar blues melody and spatially by telling kids a vivid story about a man names Mr. As-Much, who had sons named Just, Twice, and Thrice; whatever Thrice-As-Much touched tripled in quantity. I taught the threes tables kinesthetically by having the class count to 30, clapping (or jumping or raising their arms) on every third number. Cooperative learning or math games assisted the interpersonal learner, while the intrapersonal learner learned best through a self-paced instruction book or computer program.

• Typical methods of learning spelling words include copying the word several times (a linguistic approach) or applying spelling rules (a logical-mathematical method based on regularities). Spatial approaches might include making pictures out of words (putting rays around the word "sun," for example) or mentally inscribing them on an imaginary blackboard. Kinesthetic learners might trace the words in clay or stand up when the vowels of a word are spelled. For musical learners, spellings can be sung or chanted (perhaps going up an octave to emphasize vowels or silent letters). Seven-letter words, for instance, work really well to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"--try it with "another."

So you see, many roads lead to the same instruction objective if only we are willing to take them. Many teachers have objected that they can't teach to several learning styles with so many children in their classes, but the kinds of activities I have mentioned can be carried out with large groups of children.

All a teacher has to do is teach seven different ways on seven different days. On Monday, teachers can begin with a linguistic approach--God help us, with a worksheet if they really have to. On Tuesday, they can bring in imaginative or art activities to reach the spatial learners. On Wednesday, the class might practice the skill through energetic physical activity on the playground or more restrained physical activity in the classroom. On Thursday, they can relate the skill to music, and on Friday, to a computer program, which will appeal to the logical-mathematical minds. The next Monday, games will reach the sociable, interpersonal learners. On Tuesday, a choice of different activities caters to the intrapersonal learner.

Thus at the end of a seven days, the teacher would have presented the skill through every child's strongest intelligence and bolstered children's less-developed intelligences as well.

Learning centers can also be keyed to this multi variant approach to learning. Teachers can arrange their classrooms to include a book nook (appealing to linguistic intelligence), a math lad and/or science center (logical-mathematical), a round table for games and discussions (interpersonal), a carpeted open space for movement activities (bodily-kinesthetic), a listening lab (musical), a partitioned quiet space (intrapersonal), and art media center (spatial).

Remember when I said I didn't believe in learning disabilities? I suppose that if you pressed me, I'd admit they so exist. But all of us have them.

Some of us have dismusia. In other words, we can't whistle a tune. Maybe you or someone you know has dispraxia, which can lead to a tendency for one's legs to get all twisted up on the dance floor. Other may have dyslexia, which is just Latin bafflebag for "trouble with words."

What I'm most concerned about, however, is "dysteachia," the unwillingness to adapt instruction to a broader concept of learning. Dysteachia threatens to banish many children to a barren future in special education classrooms.

The only way to combat dysteachia is for educators to reconceptualize learning disabilities to include the strengths of millions of kids who will otherwise languish in remedial programs. Aren't we ready to at last let learning different kids shine in their own way?

©Thomas Armstrong

Thomas Armstrong is the founder of Armstrong Creative Training Services. He conducts workshops for schools and districts and has authored numerous books, magazine and professional journal articles on the implications of the theory of multiple intelligences.


1. Mary Poplin, "Summary Rationalizations, Apologies, and Farewell: What We Don't Know About the Learning Disabled," Learning Disability Quarterly 7 (Spring 1984): 133.

2. Thomas Armstrong, "Describing Strengths of Children Identified as 'Learning Disabled' Using Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences as an Organizing Framework" (Ph.D. diss., California Institute of Integral Studies, 1987).

3. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1983). See also M. Scherer, "How Many Ways Is a Child Intelligent?", Instructor (January 1983)


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