Erroneous Assignment of Disability

In traditional schools, groups of students need to be controlled; they need to be managed to maintain order.  17% Of a teacher’s day in middleclass school systems is spent helping students manage their time and materials (Pianta, 2007).  Complacency is rewarded with good grades, time outside at recess, and movies on Fridays.  Students who learn best when moving, singing, sculpting, acting, rolling in the grass, etc., are rarely afforded opportunities to learn in ways that best suit their characteristics.  The learning skills of the minority are sacrificed for those of the majority.   Because of this, assessment from a teacher or learning-scientist will only measure the content and process knowledge for those specific learning activities that exercise the major learning skills of the class.


Roth & Barton (2004) posit that not only are some students’ strengths never seen, students’ inability to perform in the prescribed activities marks them as learning disabled.  “Situations mediate the assessment of disability and ability, which could subsequently be attributed to and turned into characteristics of these same students” (p.130).  In other words, not only do skills go unnoticed, deficiencies in other skills are used as a resource for categorizing a child as learning disabled. This has a subsequent cascading effect on the student, as teachers inadvertently lower their expectations of the student, and the student internalizes this same stereotype of inferior learning ability as truth (Weinberg, 1989; Cose, 1994). Even if a student is not categorized as disabled, traditional “school-based knowledge may yield at best a superficial representation of domain knowledge…and may even result in students wasting years of their life wading through shallow waters of meaningless information” (Beghetto & Kaufman, 2009, p. 317).


Mezirow (1995) describes a person’s frame of reference (how they view the world and themselves) as being built over time, and stronger the older the learner.  It is formed as a learner adopts habits of mind from people of authority, and from personal life experiences, like being erroneously labeled as learning disabled. These habits of mind constitute a learner’s frame of reference, and dictate a particular point of view toward learning that can be very difficult to change.  Should a learner have acquired in third grade the point of view, for example, that they are not good at math, they may not engage in math in fourth grade, because they have already ‘decided’ that they will not understand.  This is bad news for the learning-scientist looking to measure knowledge acquisition in the fourth grade!

When Harvard president Larry Summers publicly stated that women are inherently less capable than men in math and science (Bombardieri, 2005), it can be assumed that this generalized stereotype of inferiority was internalized as a truth and adopted as a habit of mind in young women and girls, and worse, reinforced by some of their teachers.  Just as extant stereotypes are a valuable resource for movie producers to quickly build believable characters, (Thornsen, 1993), test scores are a valuable resource for teachers to quickly characterize student abilities.  Larry Summers’ comment, coupled with low standardized test scores for girls, confirm some teachers’ prejudices that girls are less capable than boys in science.   This habit of mind is tacitly passed from teacher to student, and internalized.  For a learning-science researcher, information gleaned about girls’ capabilities in a science classroom is ersatz data compared to girls’ capabilities in natural learning situations.


  1. You wrote … some students’ strengths never seen, students’ inability to perform in the prescribed activities marks them as learning disabled …

    I have been watching the “evaluation” strengths and weaknesses of my “learning disabled students” and have observed a trend. The “learning disabilities” are in “left brain” tasks (reading, speaking, linear thinking) while they have strengths in “right brain” tasks such as drawing, singing, global thinking! I find it interesting that we never say one has a learning disability when their “sketching skills” performance is far below potential!

    I enjoyed reading your blogs!

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