A body of scholarship has challenged the narrative of learning disabilities as a story of progress focused on the needs of individual students. In this alternative formulation, learning disabilities reinforces a pernicious discourse of deficiencies that sustains the dominant myths of schooling, while absolving schools, teachers, and (some) parents of responsibility for educational failure. In this paper we discuss excerpts from an inquiry project involving four teachers, each of whom worked with students who had acquired a special education label. The goal of the inquiry was to challenge the teachers to shift their gaze from what students who struggle academically cannot do to what makes them smart. The teachers had little difficulty taking up a social constructivist frame, but readily defaulted to the language of deficiencies when discussing their own students. Arguably, challenging deficit discourses challenged the dominant discourse of schooling and threatened their status as teachers.

Confronting the Discourse of Deficiencies

The story of learning disabilities is typically presented as a narrative of progress (for example, see Wiederholt, 1974). According to this narrative, over a period of decades, research in medicine, psychology, and education has revealed an innate, presumably neurological condition in otherwise average and above average children and adults, "which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations" (U.S. Office of Education, 1968, p. 34). Subsequent research has refined identification and assessment practices and instruction for students with learning disabilities (Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007). Ongoing brain imaging research promises continued progress in the identification and treatment of children and adults with learning disabilities (Fletcher, Lyon, Fuchs, & Barnes, 2007; Lane, Foundas, & Leonard, 2001). This is the official story of learning disabilities.

Christine Sleeter (1987) was, perhaps, the first to challenge learning disabilities as a narrative of progress. She argued that "social conditions during the late 1950s and early 1960s … brought about changes in schools that were detrimental to children whose achievement was relatively low" (p. 210). Specifically, Sleeter argued that the demand for higher educational standards in the wake of Sputnik and the expansion of lower-academic tracks that followed desegregation threatened the academic and vocational aspirations of many lower-achieving middle class children and their parents. According to Sleeter, the creation of learning disabilities was a way for the children of white, middle class parents to escape the stigma of being placed in lower academic tracks overpopulated by poor, black students in newly de-segregated schools. The learning disabilities category provided a means for white middle class parents "to differentiate their children from low-achieving, low-income and minority children" (Sleeter, 1987, p. 210). Further, in an era when the model of cultural deprivation situated the blame for high levels of academic failure among poor, minority children in the language and culture of their families (e.g., Bereiter & Englemann, 1966; Lewis, 1959), the category of learning disabilities explained the academic struggles of middle class children, "without raising questions about the cultural integrity of middle class homes" (Sleeter, 1987, p. 226). For Sleeter, learning disabilities is a story of privilege, not progress. And, although the proportion of minority students labeled learning disabled has increased since the inception of LD (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007), many affluent parents still use the diagnosis of a learning disability to gain advantages for their children (e.g., Gross, 2002).

Arguably, learning disabilities fulfills needs beyond the interests of middle class parents. The question — "What is the category of learning disabilities for?" — is inseparable from the larger question: What are schools for? (Dudley-Marling, 2001). Sleeter (1987) acknowledges this. "In accepting commonly-used categories for children," she says, "we also tacitly accept an ideology about what schools are for, what society should be like, and what the 'normal' person should be like" (p. 211). One of the fundamental assumptions of schooling — and American society more generally — is that effort and ability are the keys to academic and vocational success. With hard work and ability, anyone can achieve social and financial success. But, of course, many children do not succeed in school, despite effort and presumably normal ability. These children, who fail to succeed academically despite "normal intelligence" and their best efforts, have a learning disability. Other children fail because of defects in character (unwillingness to work hard) or capacity. In either case, situating learning failures in the heads of students transforms school troubles into personal troubles, relieving schools of responsibility for individual failures (Dudley-Marling & Dippo, 1995; Booth, 1998; Slee, 1998). And, if school failure is a matter of individual responsibility, there is no reason to consider the role of racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty and discrimination in creating school failure (Dudley-Marling & Dippo, 1995):

Ultimately, the meaning of learning disabilities is tied closely to the meaning of schooling, and the available evidence indicates that schools are not just about learning. Schools are also about sorting students on the basis of who they are, where they come from, and how they speak…. If schooling is about sorting students and perpetuating social and economic inequities, then the field of learning disabilities, by helping to sustain the structures of schooling, also plays a role in maintaining a status quo in which relatively few maintain the lion's share of our country's social and economic resources. (Dudley-Marling, 2001, p. 13)

Powerfully, learning disabilities absolves everyone of responsibility for school failure: parents, students, schools, and the wider society.

Arguably, the category of learning disabilities has served both the institutional needs of schools (by helping to preserve the fundamental assumption that school success and failure are a function of merit) and the needs of middle-class parents of low-achieving children (differentiating their children from other, largely poor and minority, children who struggle in school). The degree to which the category of learning disabilities has benefited individual children is less certain, however. Studies of the effectiveness of special education placements are rare, and the studies that do exist tend to be plagued by methodological problems (Zigmond, 2003). But special education placement may not matter as much as what goes on in special education programs (Zigmond, 2003), and there has been considerable criticism of the deficit thinking that informs learning disability theory and practice, and special education more generally (e.g., Bailey, 1998; Dudley-Marling & Paugh, 2005; Heshusius, 1982; Poplin, 1988; Slee, 1998; Thomas & Loxley, 2007). Deficit thinking, by situating failure in the heads of students, presents an "unduly simplistic" (Valencia, 1997, p. 2) model of learning that misrepresents the human experience (Quantz & O'Connor, 1988). More seriously, deficit thinking leads to narrow, skill-based curricula that limit the educational possibilities of students in lower academic tracks, including special education (Dudley-Marling & Paugh, 2005; Oakes, 2005).

An alternative, social constructivist framework situates learning and learning failure, not in the heads of individual students, but in the context of social relations (Gergen, 1990):

By and large we may view the common practice of holding single individuals responsible for achievements or deficits in human understanding as an exercise in practical rhetoric… . It is also problematic to discredit failing students … for their failure in understanding… . Such individuals are constituents of a complex array of relationships, and it is inappropriate from the present standpoint to disembed their actions from the relational sequences of which they are a part. (Gergen, 1990, p. 587)

From this perspective, students cannot be learning disabled on their own. It takes a student and teacher making just the right moves at just the right time in the context of schools that are well organized for the production of a learning disability (McDermott, 1993).

The metaphor of a dance is a useful, if somewhat simplistic, way to explicate a social constructivist take on learning failures (and successes). The teaching-learning interaction can be likened to an intricate dance to which both students and teachers contribute. This dance is mediated by the curriculum, school policies, the culture of the school, and so on. Importantly, different moves by the teacher (or the student) can alter the shape of the dance, potentially transforming students' learning identities. Take the classic initiation (teacher asks a question) — response (student answers the question) — evaluation (teacher evaluates the correctness of the student's response) paradigm, for example. For a student who has been identified as learning disabled, an incorrect response likely reinforces his identity as someone with a "learning problem." However, if the teacher follows the student's response with a different move — instead of adjudicating the response as right or wrong she asks, "Do you mean…?" or, "Can you tell me more?" — the teacher can change the overall shape of the dance, transforming a student who previously appeared incompetent into a person who is academically successful (i.e., someone who can explicate the reasoning behind their answers) (Michaels, O'Connor, Hall, & Resnick, 2002).

Through a deficit lens, the essential response to learning failures is: What's wrong with this student? This gaze typically leads to a series of instructional moves aimed at "fixing" students through best methods. Through a social constructivist lens, however, "it is impossible to describe adequately any one person's actions without an adequate account of the contexts in which the actions take place" (McDermott, 1976, p. 106). From a social constructivist perspective, the student is not the problem (as in deficit perspective), nor is the teacher the problem (as in ecological perspective). The problem is the problem — and, rather than being the problem, each person "has a relationship with the problem" (Freedman & Combs, 1996, p. 66). Therefore, the essential questions in response to the appearance of learning difficulties are: What's going on here? What teacher moves or conditions of learning make this student (in)competent? (Miller, 1993)

The deficit gaze underpinning special education has proven resistant to critique, perhaps because this stance fits so well with the ideology of individualism that dominates contemporary schooling. Still, because the deficit model diminishes children's life chances and, more seriously, their humanity, continuing to challenge deficit thinking is, we believe, a moral imperative. In the rest of this paper we briefly discuss excerpts from a year-long inquiry project involving four teachers, each of whom worked with students who had acquired a special education label, and the second author who facilitated the inquiry group. The goal of the inquiry was to challenge the teachers to shift their gaze from what students who struggle academically cannot do to what makes them smart?; that is, what conditions of learning, including teacher moves, enabled children to express the native intelligence that ALL children possess? For our purposes, "smart" is similar to Biklen's (2005) notion of "presumed competence."

Toward a Social Constructivist Gaze

The second author met bi-weekly with the four teachers, all of whom were novice educators working in an urban school district, over the course of a school year. The focus of these meetings was on struggling learners. Through discussions of readings (e.g., articles by the first author, excerpts from Linda Miller's book, What we call smart: A new narrative for intelligence and learning) and videos from a research project on Accountable Talk illustrating how different teacher moves affect the performance of underperforming students, occasional presentations on social constructivist perspectives by the first author, and systematic examination of student work, the teachers were challenged to consider the conditions of learning that allowed their students express their competence — what made them "smart." Here we use representative excerpts from our data — specifically, transcriptions of audio-taped discussions by the teachers and the second author — which illustrate efforts by the teachers to highlight competence in their students.

The data were analyzed using Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) (Lewis & Ketter, 2004; Rogers, 2002). CDA is informed by a theory of language which holds that language always comes fully attached to "other stuff: social relations, cultural models, power and politics, perspectives on experience, values and attitudes, as well a things and places in the world" (Gee, 1996, p. vii). Underpinning the discourse of individualism, for example, are tacit theories about human agency and beliefs about the value of individual responsibility. These theories and beliefs are instantiated in the institutions societies create to fulfill their needs (Berger & Luckman, 1966), including the institution of schooling created for inculcating children into the dominant culture (Reid & Valle, 2004). The dominant discourse of schooling, by situating learning and learning failures in students' heads, bodies, and families, reflects the ideology of individualism that dominates contemporary American culture.

CDA provides a means for uncovering the tacit theories that stand behind people's linguistic choices. In this case, CDA offered a way to examine conceptions of academic failure expressed in the teachers' language (Wodak, 1999). Specifically, CDA enabled an examination of "the ways participants took up particular worldviews, patterns of talk, and systems of thought" (Lewis & Ketter, 2004, p. 122) as they grappled with the question, "what makes students smart?"

Over the year, the teachers easily took up a social constructivist framework as they discussed the videos, readings, and presentations by the first author. However, as they began discussing their own students the teachers readily defaulted to a deficit discourse that situates learning and learning failure in the heads of individual students. The following example is typical. Early in the year, Molly introduced the group to Michael, a struggling learner in her second grade class:

I was talking about Michael today with one of the other teachers who knows them all… [He's] a kid whose intelligence is borderline to like retardation. His intelligence is so low that he is not even aware that he is struggling. And for writing, he'll just write x's and g's and r's because he knows that he's writing down letters. But Michael just doesn't have any idea of the concept of print… I'm in second grade. By then… it's difficult because he is obviously not in the appropriate setting. Not only that Michael is so behind, but he is very learning disabled and it's discouraging because there is only so much you can sit down with them. It's a little struggle with this. I just don't know…it's not even modifying… you can't even do that…. Michael doesn't even know how to add 2+ 3…. He goes, one, two, and then one, two, three. So then you are combining… which is like kindergarten or first grade to count up…. He has no clue.

Molly's language situates Michael's academic struggles inside his head ("Michael doesn't have any idea of the concept of print … doesn't even know how to add 2 + 3 … He has no clue") while simultaneously placing him on the boundaries of normality. His intelligence is "borderline." He is "behind" the other students in his class. His skills are outside the boundaries of reasonable academic diversity in the regular classroom since they are more like "kindergarten or first grade." Moreover, students like Michael had educational needs that could not easily be met in this teacher's classroom. To emphasize this point, the teachers tended toward language that positioned their struggling learners on margins of normality by questioning whether the regular classroom — spaces filled by presumably "normal" children — was "an appropriate placement" for some children, as Jewell put it. Molly, for example, wondered if the needs of her student exceeded her ability to provide support for the rest of the students in her class:

Molly: I said, "Can you tell me the story?" And he looks at me and goes, "I can't remember." So I said, "Go get the book and go look through the book and we'll read it again." I mean, it's just a quick look through the pages. And then he came back and he could do it. I have 25 kids in the class. And for me to do that every single time I do a writing assignment…I mean it's a real struggle of how much I do…how much I give him? That's what I want to know. How is he able to function in a regular classroom?

In a similar move, Jewel speculated on the appropriateness of grade-level standards for a struggling learner in her classroom:

I brought this [Diana's report card] because it poses different challenges. I have to grade her to 5th grade standards in both languages. She is not yet special ed. What we did was, because realistically in 5th grade she would fail everything. She would get F's across the board. You can imagine what that would have done to her…the Spanish teacher and I sat down and what we said was "OK, what would she be getting if she were receiving services? What would her grades be?" So we kind of averaged the F with what we thought she'd be getting if she was [getting] services. And she ended up with a couple of D's, a C, and a couple of B's. We had to give her 2 D's.

Students like Michael and Diana were, in Jewel's words, a "mystery" which required the expertise of specialists outside the classroom. In the following example, Jewel recalled Diane's first days in her classroom:

The second day a bilingual psychologist came in…and tested her for supposedly ADHD, tested her for reading, writing, math, to see if there is some sort of issue going on. They found that she suffers from some sort of processing failure — in her processing of written material. So, she has a difficult time processing print in English and Spanish. She is also going to be seeing an occupational therapist. And when you look at her writing you'll know why…. I was thinking of all the services she'll be getting. She'll be getting OT, Speech …

The need for specialists to solve the mystery of struggling students like Diana reinforced these students' positionality as outsiders beyond the boundaries of normal teachers' knowledge and training.

When specifically challenged to consider what makes students smart?, the teachers seemed unable to move outside of the individualistic discourse that fixed learning and learning problems firmly in the bodies of their students. When Pat Paugh asked Jewel, "what makes Diana smart?" she responded:

It makes her look smart because she has only been in the country a while [so] when I give her praise in class, I'll say something like, "Diana has only been in the country for a year and a half and look how far she's come. Look at the strides she is making in English. We should be all working just as hard as she is and making as much progress in this little time." And the kids are, "Yeah, your English is getting really good." She's very popular because she's likeable…she likes to have a good time. She hangs out with Stephanie who is…the social version of Diana. Stephanie struggles with social skills like Diana struggles academically. So, Diana brings up her social clout and Stephanie brings out her academic clout. So they kind of help each other.

Diana may struggle in her classroom but Jewel was still able to identify a number of Diana's strengths. Molly also had little difficulty discussing what Michael did well.

What CAN he do? He can actually sit. He learned how to decode like three or four letter words with patterns. I put him with a kindergarten [reading partner]. He read him four books, like very simple ones. But he reads this Clifford book and he [reads] it pointing at the words. So he's really good.

By acknowledging that Diana and Michael have strengths, Jewel and Molly appear to move beyond the discourse of deficits that implicates Diana and Michael for their academic failures. However, the language of "strengths," like the language of deficits, reinforces the discourse of individualism that informs deficit thinking. Speaking in terms of children's strengths or weakness (i.e., deficits) makes children largely responsible for their school successes or failures. Teachers have a role to play here, but some children have insufficient strengths (or too many deficits) to succeed under normal circumstances in the so-called regular classroom. Molly, a second grade teacher, works with her students to get ready for third grade, but there is little sense that the third grade teacher — and the institution of schooling more generally — has any responsibility for getting ready for Molly's students (Swadener, 1995). Underpinning the language of "strengths and weaknesses" is the taken-for-granted assumption that, ultimately, school troubles are personal troubles and students who cannot achieve under normal circumstances are not normal. From this point of view, it is the students who need to be fixed and not the conditions of learning that produced so much school failure in the first place.


Earlier in this paper, we argued that language comes fully attached to "other stuff: social relations, cultural models, power and politics, perspectives on experience, values and attitudes, as well as things and places in the world" (Gee, 1996, p. vii). James Gee (1996, 1999) argues that language is always situated in a system of values, beliefs, actions, feelings, and interactions, what he calls Discourse. Indeed, according to Gee, one of the functions of language is to situate people in Discursive spaces where certain values and beliefs obtain. The language of deficiencies, for instance, invokes a Discourse that valorizes individual agency while reinforcing one of the dominant myths of contemporary schooling: that effort and ability are the sole determinates of educational success and failure. Crucially, these meanings are invoked regardless of the intentions of individual speakers and listeners. As we have learned from Bakhtin, words have historical and cultural meanings independent of the intentions of language users (Holquist, 1981). This brings us back to Christine Sleeter's question about the cultural meaning of learning disabilities: what is learning disabilities for? Arguably, learning disabilities is part of a (deficit) discourse that sustains the dominant myths of schooling, while absolving schools, teachers, and (some) parents of responsibility for educational failure.

Language does not determine social reality, but it is a constitutive force in constructing the institutions human beings create to serve their social and cultural needs (Berger & Luckman, 1966). Therefore, confronting the dominant language of schooling that situates learning in the minds of individuals challenges fundamental values and beliefs of the society that created schools to fulfill particular needs — and, as we've said, these needs go well beyond educating youth. We weren't just asking the teachers with whom we worked to talk and think differently about struggling learners in their classrooms. The question, "what makes students smart?" required that the teachers reconsider the discourse of individualism that saturates the language and institutional structures of schooling. To some degree, the resilience of deficit thinking among these teachers was a language problem, a scarcity of language for talking about the complex learning systems implied by a social constructivism framework. But a commitment to the language of schooling and the values and beliefs that underpin that language is part of being recognized as a teacher (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Ultimately, it is very difficult to reject core values of the Discourse of contemporary American schooling and continue to operate within that Discourse. Viewed in this way, it is easy to see why the teachers so readily defaulted to deficit language when discussing specific students. Resisting the language of deficiencies not only challenged fundamental values and beliefs underpinning the institution of schooling — and society more generally — it threatened their status as teachers (Gee, 1996). Certainly, teachers are not powerless to resist the dominant discourses of schooling. Publications such as Rethinking Schools and Radical Teacher, for example, are replete with examples of individual teachers, many informed by a discourse of social justice, who have successfully challenged the meritocratic, individualistic discourse that underpins deficit thinking. Similarly, there have been other efforts to reform special education by changing the language or structures of special education. However, "in each case, these reforms fail to promote broad improvements in the education of children with disabilities because they fail to change the predominant meritocratic view of schooling" (Christensen & Dorn, 1997, p. 189). Systemic reform is at least possible, but it has been difficult to achieve. Christensen and Dorn (1997), for example, conclude that they know of no school that consistently targets environmental changes as a way of meeting the needs of students with disabilities.

To the degree that the category "learning disabilities" is an instantiation of the meritocratic discourse of individualism that dominates contemporary American schooling, confronting deficit thinking and the individualistic discourse that underpins it, challenges the very existence of learning disabilities and other categories of disability. From a social constructivist perspective, the problem of school failure does not reside in the heads and bodies or individual children. The child isn't the problem. The problem is the problem (Freedman and Combs, 1996) and, ultimately, it's our problem — teachers, teacher educators, school administrators, educational policy makers, parents, and students. Categories of disabilities that situate school failure in children's heads obscure everyone's relationship to the problem of school failure and make it difficult to see our collective responsibility for children's success and failure in school. Christine Sleeter challenged the narrative of progress in the official story of learning disabilities and offered a counter narrative that portrayed learning disabilities as a story of privilege and power that served the needs of some children and their (white, middle class) parents to the disadvantage of other (poor, black) parents. Viewing school failure through the lens of social constructivism offers a further challenge to the official story of LD and its meaning for schools, teachers, students and families.

As our data analysis indicates, reconsidering the language of deficiencies that dominates the Discourse of schooling is a significant challenge and, in this case, our efforts to move teachers away from deficit thinking met with limited success. Perhaps instead of focusing on teachers' beliefs, language, and values we might have worked more with the teachers to enact instructional practices that had more potential to reveal students' competence. As McDermott, Goldman, and Varenne (2006) put it: "to counteract the cultural inclination to focus on what is wrong with individual children, we must seek data showing children more skilled than schools have categories or time to notice, describe, diagnose, record, and remediate" (p. 15). A major limitation of this intervention is that the impoverished, test-focused curriculum in place in the school district in which these teachers worked may not have provided many opportunities for the students to reveal their competence.

Finally, in addition to working with teachers to create a language that constructs students as smart, educators must simultaneously take up the challenge "to investigate and explore the moral implications of the way we and other speakers and writers use [deficit] language to fabricate problems, solutions, dead-ends, hope, suffering, and social identities" (Danforth & Navarro, 2001, p. 186). Ultimately, confronting the deficit-based discourse of school is a part of a broader challenge to the status quo that diminishes the academic and vocational aspirations of many students, including students with disabilities.

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