Descriptions and explanations
When does simply characterizing an event count as explaining why the event happened?
I’m going to offer analogies to sports here, but I hope to show that there are similar processes in talking about special education (even talking about stuff, in general). I hope I present the case clearly, because I think (in both the sports and educational instances) the processes demonstrate a fairly simple failure in reasoning.
I'll start with two vingettes that I hope illustrate the background concept.
In describing a basketball player’s recent shooting, in which she hit four of her last five shots, an announcer might say, “Wow! She is so hot right now...she can’t miss!” Although there are no causal data, the description often masquerades for an explanation. Let’s follow it through:
(a) She was hitting a lot of shots.
(b) Why was she hitting a lot of shots?
(c) Because she was “hot.”
(d) How do you know she was “hot?”
(e) Because she was hitting a lot of shots.
Now, let’s examine a variation from special education where one might hear people talk about reading:
(a) He was making a lot of mistakes reading that passage.
(b) Why was he making a lot of mistakes?
(c) Because he has dyslexia.
(d) How do you know he has dyslexia?
(e) Because he was making a lot of mistakes reading that passage.
Many may recognize these as examples of circular reasoning. If A is true, then B must be true; if B is true, then C must be true; If C is true, than A must be true. Whoopie! The cause is the effect, and the effect is the cause.
Of course, in the foregoing examples, there is a bit of obfuscation, but the smoke and mirrors between A and C or B and A are just...well, distractions. And the degrees of obfuscation can be much more substantial!
Technically, this is also probably an example of confusing cause and effect, mistakenly assuming that one thing causes another simply because they are frequently associated (cum hoc ergo propter hoc—see an academic analysis and an extreme example).
But, here’s the rub: We special educators must be cautious…acutely aware of how we may mistakenly attribute causes to effects (and vice versa) with regard to our students’ disabilities.
Individuals with disabilities may be more likely to make an academic or behavioral mistake, but that mistake doesn’t demonstrate their disability. It documents a failing in our teaching them how to do things with fewer mistakes.
We shouldn’t be passing off the “blame” for a learner’s mistakes on her genetic constitution, biological endowement, or reinforcement history. We should examine the environments in which she’s making mistakes and modifying those situations.
The causal implication for special educators should be, “How do we teach better?”