A Possible Future Model for Diagnosis and Remediation

The current special education system has been described as flawed (Kirst 1993), (Gallagher 1998) and for reasons having little if anything to do with teacher performance or declining ducational standards. Indeed since public education is heavily influenced by society proper – for example via curricula geared toward computer proficiency and other vocational/societal priorities – it is also reflective of what is occurring in our society at any given time. (Boyles 1998), (Dimitriadis, 2003) The parallel relationship between cultural mores and public education trickles down into the domain of special education.

One of the influences of society on the education system can be seen in how educators deal with a phenomenon known as the bell-shaped, or “normal” curve. In earlier times it was readily accepted that students’ abilities were distributed along the curve in a predictable manner. In that context,  some students were considered “college material” while others were encouraged to go into trades or mechanical fields. Interestingly enough, educators back then (trapped within the confines of personal bias) often assumed the college-bound students were more “able.” In fact, if one were to interpret the normal curve correctly, it would reflect a distribution of all abilities – academic and otherwise – in terms of percentiles and standard deviations. That would imply that some students lower on the normal curve with respect to language, reading and math abilities might be on the upper end with regard to mechanical and spatial reasoning abilities. By the same token, some of their more academically-skilled brethren might be lower with respect to  mechanical-spatial abilities. (As a side note; since, in the course of human cultural advancement, tool making has often superseded in time and importance the advent of letters and numbers (including Gutenberg’s printing press) putting college-bound students at the top of the totem pole might be somewhat dubious).

Since the human brain consists of roughly twenty five million neurons with billions of interconnections, there are bound to be variations, slight errors and atypical trends in child development. In other words, to expect a brain with such volume and complexity to develop exactly the same for each child – even aside from disparate genetic contributions from each parent – would be absurd. In some instances those variations (all normal within a broad neuro-developmental framework) might comprise what modern educators refer to as a learning disability.

As American society has become more egalitarian, and we as a people have essentially decided that the differences between individuals and groups are less important than previously assumed, the trend toward hyper-academization in the schools has occurred. Pressures to demonstrate student competence as measured by achievement tests, as well as advanced curricula with a conceptual approach (where third graders are expected to grasp geometry and algebra concepts as well as vocabulary words they might never use even as adults) have created what could be referred to as a “disability fail-safe” requiring that all students either fit into the college-bound category or be identified with a handicap.

Parents have been influenced by this trend as well. Many want their children to be identified so they can receive support services, under the assumption that this will lead to dramatic gains in various academic skills, and more specifically, so they will catch up to their peers. Unfortunately, some research indicates that even after years of special education such gains do not often occur, at least in terms of the catch-up criterion (Stager 2006).

Obviously students can receive vocational training at the high school level, and in some districts earlier than that. However, it raises the question of how effective special education training is and whether in the final analysis, trying to swim against a tide known as the normal curve is a feasible endeavor.

Some aspects of modern curricula seem particularly problematic. The increasingly conceptual and sophisticated curriculum programs in the public schools do not suit the needs of many students. As a result, one could reasonably ask whether both the normal curve and developmentally inconsonant curricula are responsible for the increasing number of students identified with learning disabilities. It presents a dilemma for educators who genuinely want all their students to learn necessary skills but who must, each and every day of their professional lives, act in defiance of the normal curve and the constraints of child development.

Some have discussed these problems, for example Allen (1998) and Dimitriadis (2003) and in response to this issue, new trends have emerged in the area of special education. One is Response to Intervention, which advocates for direct service without need of multiple evaluations, uses a pre and post academic performance criteria to determine whether a particular teaching method or curriculum is appropriate and enables educators to determine whether, in light of a student’s response to these approaches, he is indeed disabled.

RTI is an interesting phenomenon, albeit a bit paradoxical. It is new, yet in some ways a recapitulation of methods used by teachers prior to the advent of special education, when spending more time with needy students and making or finding curriculum materials compatible with their abilities was fairly common. RTI represents a kind of rebellion against the classical special education philosophy yet operates according to the same premises; specifically that some students have disabilities and that the normal curve has relatively little bearing on what proficiencies and deficits any child might have. It also presumes that across-the-board grade-level academic performances can be achieved by most students if the right methods and curriculum materials are used.

There is nothing wrong with those assumptions as far as they go. Educators should be optimistic as well as realistic in their professional outlook. Also, many students with learning disabilities seem to have average or higher intellectual abilities. That raises the traditional question of why there are discrepancies between their native ability and their classroom performance. To the extent that we view intellectual ability as an index of potential, some explanation is called for. Both the traditional special education instructor and the RTI instructor must, and do address that problem. Yet, despite the research-based approaches inherent in both RTI and traditional methods, the results of special education remediation have in some instances been lacking (Colvin & Helfand 1999). Perhaps that is because methods, scores and curricula have eclipsed theories of child development, so that we are now teaching in terms of the method rather than in terms of the child.

There is no pretense here of completely revising the special education system. Current special educators work long, hard hours with their students and often have their hands tied by questionable curricula, burdensome regulations and student apathy. Yet they stay the course and for that reason, merit respect and admiration. On the other hand it seems the tide is shifting, not just in the area of RTI but in other ways as well. In that spirit, the following is a futuristic projection of what a more child-centered, maximally inclusive education system might look like..

Two Faces of Intelligence

If one could look inside a child’s mind during the learning process, a neuro-psychological reciprocity would become clear. Actually it would look almost like a (neuronal) drag race in one of those California towns circa 1955. In one lane would be an “intelligence car” comprised of brain cells designed to select ideas, behaviors, associations and memories from within a large, unfathomably noisy, complex brain. In the other lane would an “arousal car” consisting of cellular activity that powers the brain – in effect activating and highlighting circuits so the search can take place. The race has a central rule: in order to learn the arousal car cannot overtake the intelligence car. Otherwise learning and motivation are compromised.

The relationship between the vehicles is reciprocal. In order to select requires arousal. In order to become aroused requires a task. But the relationship is also antagonistic. If the search continues for too long, arousal becomes prolonged and the brain suffers overload. It is an aversive feeling. In fact, neurologist Kurt Goldstein has referred to it as the catastrophic reaction and it typically leads to an abandonment of the task.

Theoretically, any given student has the potential to answer a question in social studies or solve a math problem as long as they have been exposed to the relevant information, and as long as competing stimuli did not detract from processing the information when it was first presented. Since as Dudai (2004) and Sara (2000) have demonstrated, memories are more easily consolidated than retrieved, the child might have the answer, and the skill, yet  be unable to provide an answer to the point of automaticity. Some chldren have a diminished capacity to tolerate brain arousal levels.In effect the arousal car tends to outpace the intelligence car, as per the above metaphor. A child with low arousal tolerance (LAT) would typically have to come up with an answer immediately, lest he be forced to abandon the task. In one sense his problem is not a learning disability per se, or at least goes beyond that definition. He also has a “noise” problem, created by poor arousal modulation. While he might have the memory, he lacks the arousal tolerance necessary for lengthy search and retrieval functions.

Thus intelligence is a bimodal process. Thinking entails a pain potential. That means the time required to retrieve an answer is a crucial factor in learning and motivation. In completing a reading, writing or math exercise, these two factors are always in play.

It was discussed above that IQ seems to adhere to the statistical dispersion typified by the normal curve. It has also been demonstrated that arousal tolerance is similarly distributed among children. Consequently there is a strong correlation between temperament and classroom performance. That has implications for the way children learn, and perhaps for the ways in which educators will teach special education students in the future.

There is another important aspect of arousal tolerance to consider. LAT students are sensitive to the fact that high arousal is aversive, and will seek to maintain low arousal levels. The need to modulate arousal levels can lead to withdrawal, day dreaming and other stimulus-control behaviors. Those activities compete with learning.

Yet learning requires an optimal level of arousal. To learn a new task, or any task, the student must summon an a priori level of vigilance and a task-consonant arousal level (Yerkes, Dodson 1908). The very act of dampening brain activity can be detrimental to learning in the classroom and preclude that neuro-priming process. That invites some discussion of the learning process itself.

A Triadic Learning Paradigm

Students have varied learning styles. Some are visual, some auditory, some whole to part, some rote. Here, three basic modes of learning are discussed in termso of their occurence in a typical classroom setting. One is habitual-associative. This refers to recitation-learning and rote learning and it is in many ways a simple associative process. It was once a prime method in education. Singing and/or reciting letters of the alphabet and the times tables, rote spelling exercises, verb conjugation drills in foreign language classes and chanting historical facts, such as…In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue… were all used as means of imparting basic factual learning.

Habitual-associative learning involves a narrow-track brain process with brief arousal periods and fast resolution. It is not very taxing and seldom does a child abandon such a task. Since children are particularly susceptible to hyper-arousal (Carrion, Garrett et. al (2007) that is significant.

Some students mature slower than others and a low arousal threshold continues past the typical time frames. Diagnosing this problem is not that difficult, and while it can be done physiologically with some precision through a harmless, non intrusive evoked potentials response assessment it can also be conducted through observation. Students with LAT will also tend to have a rapid arousal response. Sudden stimuli will lead to exaggerated reactions, irritation, complaints and difficulty “coming down” after the input. They will also be less tolerant of changes in routine because a change in stimuli provokes arousal in the brain (Kiehl, Stevens et.al 2005). They might also display a fairly explosive temperament and/or emotional lability. Finally they will show a tendency toward being “stimulus-bound” that is, unusually influenced by external inputs, with diminished capacity for self regulation amnd metacognition.

For such students, intelligence levels might be less a determinant of academic performance than curricula and teaching methods. In neurological terms LAT students would tend to do best with the habitual-associative method, particularly in the first few years of school. This would involve simple associations, use of rhymes, anagrams, lexigrams and other “rhythmic-language formulas.” This format can also be adapted to students in middle and high school. The traditional method of abbreviating tasks can also be beneficial, but that depends on the nature of the task. If the student cannot grasp immediately the essence of the task and arousal levels race past his threshold due to confusion, there will be a tendency to abandon the task in any event.

A second learning process is meta-cognitive. The definition of this process is altered here a bit for purposes of brevity. Meta-cognition typically refers to a learner’s simultaneous or sequential sense of self during learning. It connotes something beyond attention to task. Here it is narrowed down to mean a process in which the learner is both adhering to a task and prompting, motivating, guiding and reinforcing himself during the task. In simple terms meta-cognition is seen here as an internal language function in which the learner talks himself through the task, breaks down the task, and self- reinforces as he proceeds successfully through the task. It is self-imposed feedback juxatposed on the task itself.

Meta-cognition is often described as the highest type of learning. Here it is viewed as a mid-level process, simply because for internal guidance and acknowledgment of success to occur requires some familiarity with the task. For example in a written composition, the learner must know how to spell many of the words and have some understanding of the topic or endpoint of the composition. He simply has to retrieve and assemble those memories. Thus meta-cognition is really the application of previously learned material with self guidance included as a focusing and motivating mechanism.

Meta-cognition requires higher arousal tolerance levels than does the habitual-associative method due to the lengthy nature of the task and the fact that the student must activate two systems in the brain – attention to both self and task. Consequently, that method would be less user-friendly for the LAT student – notwithstanding an average intellect. Some students will not reach a meta-cognitive level of performance and will appear to be disengaged, inconsistent and virtually disdainful of academic work. For them the habitual-associative method might be more appropriate, at least until maturation or outright mastery of subject matter is attained and automaticity in recall makes meta-cognition possible and less aversive.

The third process is re-integration. Here the student begins with a dearth of foundational knowledge with which to reassemble new material. Learning a foreign language without drill – ie, through a conversational approach, hoping the student will grasp the essence of the language without knowledge of its grammatical nuts and bolts – would be an example of this. A math lesson requiring a third grader to understand the conceptual relationships among a parallelogram, rhombus and equilateral triangle would be another.

Creativity always involves using old material in new ways. The key lies in knowing whether the student has learned the old material first. Some curriculum methods discount the importance of the child’s prior schemes (as per Piagetian theory) and teach to the curriculum. LAT students will have a particularly difficult time with this type of approach and can be expected to under-perform regardless of how much time is spent in small groups or one-to-one remedial sessions.

A Future Model

In light of the above discussion it is conceivable that in the future, special education referrals will involve a philosophical shift from the discrepancy model (ie among test scores in ther context classroom performance) to a model that includes task-tolerance. This would be based on on the assumption that intelligence, memory, attention and retrieval are framed to some extent by of arousal tolerance thresholds. In that context, curricula could be devised to accommodate both general abilities and arousal tolerance levels. Imaginative programs could be created within the habitual-associative, meta-cognitive and re-integrative frameworks. All of this could be incorporated into the regular classroom structure, including the length and nature of homework assignments, the teaching of math, reading, science and foreign languages.

The diagnostic process need not be as clinical as it is now. With the exception of students Except with cognitive impairment and/or other severe developmental disorders, students could be classified according to arousal tolerance levels which would be presumed to set limits on their focusing. memorizing and retrieval capacities.

Remedial Concepts

In that system, diagnoses, curricula and teaching methods would be simplified. So too would be remedial strategies. A habitual-associative learner will tend to have difficulty with the search aspect of a meta-cognitive exercise and with the cognitive bifurcation required to see both self and task simultaneously or sequentially. Consequently he might need to have search functions provided for him – say in the form of reference lists and other portable personal/journal encyclopedic information). By the same token his reinforcement and task-guidance might have to come from external sources, such as an unusually high rate of positive comments from staff, external task organizers, or tape recorded directives for task sequences.

Some students will simply not have the arousal tolerance for re-intregrative learning. Associative aids such as mentioned above could prove helpful, but the re-integrative, novel requirements of the task might have to be avoided in favor of a more basic associative approach.

There are undoubtedly more and better solutions to the current problems in special education. It would not be surprising if, like RTI and this model, new methods were devised to simplify and ameliorate the pathology-oriented diagnostic and remedial methods in the current system so that child development, rather than curriculum philosophy would dictate the future course of special education.


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