Term of Award

Winter 2003

Degree Name

Doctor of Education in Curriculum Studies

Document Type and Release Option

Dissertation (open access)


Department of Curriculum, Foundations, and Reading

Committee Chair

Ming Fang He

Committee Member 1

William Reynolds

Committee Member 2

Diana Hammitte

Committee Member 3

Joyce Bergin


This study explored the strengths displayed by 4th-5th grade students placed in special education under mildly disabled categories as compared to the intelligences defined by Howard Gardner in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Gardner, 1983, 1999). These categories consist of Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) and Mildly Intellectually Disabled (MUD). Critics maintain that special education has been focused on the weaknesses of students while overlooking their strengths (Miller, 1993; Armstrong, 2000). Under new legislation and new performance goals for special education, the time has come to focus on students' strengths and equal opportunities for students to learn the curriculum mandated by our state.

Theoretically, this study was grounded in John Dewey's (1910) theory of education, specifically transformative thinking, and Maxine Greene's (1995) theory of releasing the imagination. Methodologically, it was grounded in Max Van Manen's (1990) phenomenological hermeneutics (researching the lived experiences of students labeled disabled and their teacher and interpreting the experiences of these students and the strengths they exhibit), and Clandinin and Connelly's (2000) narrative inquiry (telling the stories of a special education teacher and her students).

Data collection methods included classroom observations, teacher, parent, and student interviews, research journals, and field notes Key findings of this study indicated that parents, the teacher and the paraprofessional were able to recognize distinct strengths in the student participants. However, the students themselves had difficulty naming their strengths. The strengths observed by the parents, the teacher and paraprofessional, and those identified by the student participants, particularly spatial and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence patterns as identified by Gardner (1983, 1999), are areas most neglected by our school curriculum. Examples given by the student participants of what they found easy to learn were hands-on or experiential types of activities. Perhaps the most significant finding of the study was that the eight intelligence categories formulated by Howard Gardner (1983, 1999) do not fully capture the ways these students demonstrated strengths in the classroom and at home.

It is my hope that we can find ways to allow these groups of labeled individuals to have a place in our schools without being isolated in a pull-out program. It is my hope that public school can move beyond the standardized tests that have no meaning once a student leaves school. It is my hope that through telling the stories of these students, all members of society can recognize that these labeled individuals do not fit the mold, but have much to offer society and deserve the chance at life often denied.


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