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The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at "Learning Disabilities."

The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at "Learning Disabilities." G. Coles, New York:

Pantheon Books, 1988. 330 pp. $22.95.

Gerald Coles' book, which attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the learning disabilities (LD) category, should be read by a broad audience including parents, policy makers, researchers, and educators. In this highly readable and comprehensive book, Coles cites numerous research findings to support his thesis that a neurological theory of LD cannot be scientifically substantiated at this time. He then proposes an alternative theory which has important implications for future research in the LD arena.

The book traces the history of the LD field from its early focus on reading disabilities and dyslexia, to the current thinking on LD. Coles debunks the explanations of neurological dysfunction, first proposed by Hinshelwood in the early 1900s, as well as the brain hemisphere dominance theory of Samuel Orton. Coles cites numerous research studies and their replications to substantiate the scientific flaws purportedly found in earlier studies-studies which contributed to the popular explanations of LD such as perceptual deficit disorders, subtyping, brain dysfunction, and genetic theories of LD.

Throughout this unraveling of LD history, Coles shows that as each new explanation failed to support a unitary theory of neurological dysfunction, a new one was found to replace it. The author does not dispute the belief that there exists a very small proportion of neurologically dysfunctional learners. He does say, however, that researchers should not assume simplistic answers about the causes of learning disabilities. Coles contends that a majority of students identified as LD and receiving special education have not been successful academically or vocationally. Nevertheless, Coles reminds us not to discount the contributions made by special education teachers.

Coles' alternative theory posits that neurological differences, though influenced by biological makeup, may be caused by a myriad of outside reasons. His model is multidimensional-rather than a unitary model which "blames" the victim. According to Coles, the very factors excluded from the federal LD definition, the exclusionary criteria (instructional environment of the classroom, student/teacher interactions, family dynamics, and social relationships) demand investigation. Coles contends that researchers must go beyond traditional psychological and neurological frameworks in seeking plausible explanations of the LD phenomenon. Researchers must begin to look at factors in a social, cultural, economic, and political context which shape our public schools and, according to Coles, contribute to academic failure.

Reviewed by NANCY TEITELBAUM, Consultant, Special Education Division, Vermont Department of Education, Montpelier.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Council for Exceptional Children
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Teitelbaum, Nancy
Publication:Exceptional Children
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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