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).
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
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
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
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
Gardner's theory of
multiple intelligences serves as an excellent framework for finding
strengths in all kids, including the gifted and learning
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).
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
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.
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
child is socially-oriented; has strong leadership abilities;
mediates disputes; can be an excellent teacher; enjoys group games and
child is intuitively-oriented; is strong willed and
self-motivated; prefers solitary hobbies and activities; marches to
the beat of a different drummer.
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.
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
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?
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
3. Howard Gardner,
Frames of Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1983). See also M. Scherer,
"How Many Ways Is a Child Intelligent?", Instructor (January