Problems with special-needs education

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Special-needs education (or special education) is education adapted to the needs of children with disabilities, esp. learning disabilities.

Unless there are organic changes at the level of the neural network, the art of learning in special education follows many of the same rules as optimum learning in general.

Due to an epidemic increase in the special-needs diagnosis, the ranks of experts of special education are vast and varied. I often find myself in disagreement and in dispute with the experts. The differences stem from my research origins. My interest in education begun when I tried to improved my own learning in the 1980s (see History of spaced repetition). This lead to the emergence of the two component model of long-term memory, and later its superset: the Neurostatistical Model of Memory.

While special-needs educators and their entire specialty stem from the need to help a child, I look at the problem from the point of view of the concept network, and all aspects of efficient learning that apply or are hard to employ in case of children with special needs.

To explain and facilitate communication, I decided to list a few things I often disagree about with special needs experts:

  • critical periods in cortical development are often misinterpreted as an overarching quest: diagnose early, intervene early. This leads to early therapy that may have the same negative side effects as the early academic instruction
  • toxic memory is largely underappreciated. Special needs educators are particularly careful, however, no learning therapy can lead to a displeasure (unless it is a physical displeasure, e.g. in physiotherapy)
  • pleasure of learning needs to be understood. Even if the therapy does not trouble the child and there is no risk of toxic memory. It is very natural to observe negligible progress when the child herself is not interested. Very often, special interests and passions, lead to retarded academic progress, which itself is a basis of the diagnosis (e.g. in a spectrum of autistic symptoms). Passions should be cultivated and used to achieve further progress, not inhibited by long hours of therapy
  • concept network learning can be compared to an incremental tuning of an old TV set. Therapists may intervene early to correct speech, or idiosyncratic motor programs. Each time perfection is demanded, harm and unlearning are possible
  • ADHD is massively overdiagnosed, and the main driving force seems to be academic instruction. When high creativity affects attention, instead of capitalizing on the best qualities of the human brain, we attempt to instill classroom discipline (see: Confusing creativity with ADHD)
  • precocity paradox, extended cortical development trajectory leads to genius-level intellectual capacity, however, it also leads to multiple delays in academic performance. "Delayed genius" is relatively easy to diagnose, and yet the phenomenon leads to massive overdiagnosis of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and more. At the core of the problem is the misapplication of the discrepancy model. A child who is naturally late to speak becomes a disability suspect
  • memory complexity may underlie poor memory. The understanding of the problem of memory complexity in the field can only be characterized as "horrible". In children with reading difficulties, the diagnosis of dyslexia is often relief for parents. It takes away some pressure of schooling, but it often necessitates remedial therapy, which is notoriously fraught with the danger of forming toxic memories. This is how educational dyslexia is born. Reading needs to be understood as a process of forming hundreds of memories that require interest, motivation, and customized structural decomposition of atomic memory units. Those can often be easily acquired via self-learning. If a child does not enjoy the remedial therapy, it is quite likely the therapy may be harmful in the long-term
  • spaced repetition has virtually been unknown in the field until not-so-long ago. This was extremely surprising for me in the 1980s, when I came up with my own algorithm for optimally spacing the review in time. I expected to find superior literature in psychology and found none. Today, spaced repetition can also be used to inflict harm. There is no better way to perpetuate toxic memory than spaced repetition. This fact is a good metaphor for prime cardinal errors in special-needs therapy
  • boundaries are supposed to assist in development by reducing anxieties that torment children with disabilities. As nearly all fears and anxieties conceptualize via experience, keeping fixed behavioral boundaries prevents alleviation of the same emotions that boundaries are supposed to prevent. The right approach to development is always a quest for large behavioral spaces, or an incremental return to openness in case the fears have already conceptualized. See: Optimization of behavioral spaces in development
  • neurodiversity: brains conceptualize differently in response to minor experiential events. This is why any form of therapy derived from non-maladaptive departure from the norm/average is detrimental from the point of view of populational adaptation to the changing world

I never received any training in special education nor did I have the privilege of working with children with substantive disabilities. My reasoning may be biased by my extensive engagement with normal and brilliant children. However, I increasingly see that a disability diagnosis can lead to therapy that seems to contradict basic tenets of efficient learning. In the process, many children are hurt rather than helped. This is not to disparage the profession. This is to beg to branch out to new thinking about neuroscience and re-consider individual strategies.

This text was written to facilitate that inter-disciplinary communication.

Most of all, we need to stop the dictate of the school system, and the teacher's own yardsticks for designating children for early therapy. Secondly, we need to be extremely cautious of therapy professionals who care more about profit than children. Many a special brain receive unnecessary "therapy" that can do more harm than good.

Classroom environment is a perfect breeding ground for disability overdiagnosis

Figure: This picture from Wikipedia is a great metaphor for the problem of overdiagnosis in psychiatric disorders and learning disabilities. This gorgeous kid is having fun stacking cans and preserves. The anti-entropic quest for order is the natural and welcome aspect of the human learn drive. The growing stack of cans is a source of pleasure-giving learntropy. A young man is likely to build similar stacks until the art of stacking is perfected and stops yielding the adequate level of learntropy (unless the young man decides to compete with Burj Khalifa). And yet, the picture is used at Wikipedia to illustrate repetitive behaviors that characterize autism. The risk is that a parent of a healthy child may exclaim "Oh! That's my kid!" and then worry that perhaps the child needs a diagnosis or therapy. Those anxieties drive a different kind of obsessive behavior: protecting kids against all imaginable threats, incl. those that improve resilience or immunity. A well-disciplined kid may suppress the urge thinking "mom would not be happy". A well-schooled kid gradually loses its learn drive and creativity. The natural behavior start standing out as a departure from the norm

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru