Journal of Learning Disabilities. Vol 3 #3, March 1990

Journal of Learning Disabilities

Vol 23 #3, March 1990

Although not a professional educator, as an attorney I have been a special education child advocate for over 10 years. I have served on various curriculum committees and have personally developed and successfully implemented a pilot curriculum promoting the community integration of disabled pupils.

The article by Dr. Lous Heshusius and the comments following had a profound impact on the manner in which I approach many issues of concern to me. My undergraduate degree being in engineering and my academic strengths being in science and math, I have been a slave to scientific methodology and quantitative analysis. Dr. Heshusius’s article has provided me with an insight to a more humanistic and holistic perspective that has permitted me a freedom of expression and thought that I have not previously experienced.

As a child advocate, I have consistently struggled against pervasive weaknesses in our system of education. Heshusius’s discussion of the Newtonian Mechanistic Paradigm offers significant understanding as to the etiology of many such systemic weaknesses. By providing an understanding of such weaknesses, the mechanistic paradigm provides insight into its own lack of perfection. I submit the following as a “reader’s comment” to Heshusius (1989) and the responses published therewith:

Comments on Heshusius (1989)

The Newtonian Mechanistic Paradigm and Quantitative Accountability as the Source of Systematic Weaknesses Affecting Education of Individuals with Learning Disorders. At the commencement of a recent in-service seminar, 110 mainstream and special education teachers from a small suburban community were asked: “Give us a word or phrase describing your conception of what makes a successful child.” Their answers were as follows: “happy,” “self-confident,” “healthy,” “cooperative,” “motivated,” “organized,” “popular,” “creative,” “resourceful,” “self-directed,” “caring,” “good self-image,” “not afraid to accept a challenge,” and “competitive.”

Not one of their answers described a trait that required a particular level of intellectual potential or academic achievement. There is not one trait mentioned that couldn’t be exhibited by a person with a 50 IQ or could fail to be exhibited by a person with a 150 IQ.

I have represented over 200 adolescents and preadolescents who have been classified as eligible for special education by their local school districts due to emotional disturbance. Although the cultural backgrounds of my clients have been significantly varied, I would estimate that in excess of 75% have a shared commonality, that being a history of learning disorders. (Approximately 15% to 20% have been adopted children with no significant history of learning disorder and 5% to 10% exhibit a history of physical abuse or sexual molestation.)

By means of this “comment” I hope to encourage professional interest in evaluating the influence of several dynamics within our system of public education that seem to promote the development of a child from learning disordered to emotionally disturbed. The underlying cause for such systemic weaknesses appears to be the need to be quantitatively accountable for the success of intervention strategies. As a society, and perhaps to a greater extent than older societies, we in the United States are devoted to results-oriented instant gratification firmly grounded in quantitative assessment and mechanistic problem solving.

A beach ball is photographed in flight. Features such as size, color, and design are clearly and precisely defined. However, our photograph leaves us without perspective as to origin or destination. The analogy may not be perfect, but our current procedure of multidisciplinary educational evaluations describes a child “in flight.” The emphasis is on what is, not what has been or what will be. We devote our attention to a slice of time, without proper reflection on history or consideration of prognosis. In order to quantify the success of interventions, we are motivated to establish concrete baselines that focus on what can be seen and measured (size, color, and design). What the future may hold is speculative. Our fears may not be realized even if we do not employ interventions to avoid that which we fear. Therefore, the necessity of such intervention is suspect, since it cannot be absolutely established to have been responsible for the successful avoidance of the circumstance we fear. On the other hand, if the circumstance we fear is realized, in spite of our intervention, such intervention is established absolutely to have been a failure. The need for quantitative accountability has, therefore, established a dynamic such that success at prevention is always speculative and failure is concrete. Our current devotion to mechanistic thought and quantitative accountability provides greater rewards to those who cure than to those who prevent, reversing Benjamin Franklin’s axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The level of academic success experienced by a child is just as much a measure of the teacher’s apparent ability as it is a measure of the child’s achievement. As a result, interventions are framed in such a way that their success may be readily measurable at the time that the teacher’s responsibility for the pupil terminates. We employ pre and post testing to virtually every increment of educational experience and we demand performance that is concrete and observable. Rather than spend 15 minutes in an exercise intended to promote self-esteem, a teacher is motivated to spend the time promoting measurable achievement. How many French verbs a child learns reflects directly on the teacher, while how good the child feels about himself does not figure in a teacher’s performance rating.

Our grade schools disgorge children academically prepared for our middle grades without regard for their emotional and social readiness to meet the challenges of puberty. This situation might very well be different if the grade school administration had to deal with the middle grades adolescent!

Without prompting and without knowledge of “holistic paradigms” (Heshusius, 1989, p. 408), 110 teachers displayed sensitivity to the “paradigm shift” (Heshusius, 1989, p. 411) and the importance of the “processes of social interaction” (Heshusius, 1989, p. 409). Nevertheless, they were without the skill, training, experience, and motivation to break their quantitative shackles and escape into the qualitative world of social competencies, ethics, decision making, and problem solving. Self-image has been left to develop by chance in a threatening environment filled with risk, and failure.

Ritter (1989) states: “Adolescent [boys and] girls with learning disorders exhibit significantly poorer social competence and significantly greater behavior problems than non handicapped . . . ” (p. 461). Unfortunately, this is not an earth-shattering revelation.

Adelman (1989) states “Widespread adoption of a holistic perspective is not just around the corner! Efforts to move the field beyond prevailing viewpoints must overcome tremendous philosophical, methodological, and sociopolitical-economic inertia” (p. 420). Mere inertia is an understatement. In addition, I would expect active opposition by teachers’ unions, school administrations, and governmental agencies responsible for oversight and monitoring. The educational “now generation” needs immediate reinforcement to justify its existence and effectiveness. I predict that “yes but” will be the overwhelming cry of the self-styled liberal educator seeking a rationalization for adopting reactionary opposition to implementation of holistic theory.

Heshusius’s article is brilliant. Although it is only a dozen pages, I am still discovering meanings, insights, and perspectives that were not immediately apparent to me upon first, second, or even third reading.

Initially, the paradigm shift that Heshusius describes will encourage the development of new and innovative special education programs, after hours and off campus. It will be the inevitable success of such programs that will eventually break the dependency of mainstream education on mechanistic perspective and quantitative accountability. It is paradoxical that special education, which is a “deficit-driven” (Heshusius, 1989, p. 406) masterpiece of modern mechanistic thought, will be the initial proving ground for holistic perspectives.

I do not intend to indicate that all teachers, all administrators, or all anyone will follow the course I describe or exhibit a devotion to quantitative accountability. There are wonderful, well-motivated teachers, and environments that promote the qualitative development of the pupil, in almost every school district. I only point out that the system is not structured to reward holistic approaches to education. Further, the system is structured to reward a mechanistic approach. The system, therefore, is not merely passive in its potential resistance to a holistic perspective (inertia), it actually militates against such a perspective.

What will open the doors are individual programs that, by their extracurricular nature, will not pose a threat to mainstream thought oe strength-driven, versus deficit-driven, programs wherein the teacher is challenged to gain an understanding of the “natural real life context” of the child that is “crucial to gain insights . . . in real life settings and in relation to real life events” (Heshusius, 1989, p. 413).


Adelman, H.S. (1989). Paradigm accountability (Reaction Paper). Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 420, 421.

Heshusius, L. (1989). The Newtonian mechanistic paradigm, special education, and contours of alternatives: An overview. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 403-415.

Ritter, D.R. (1989). Social competence and problem behavior of adolescent girls with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 460, 461.