Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories


Medical Model of Ability
Medical Model of Disability


Differences among individuals used to account for differences in learning

Principal Metaphors

Discourses on ability and disability draw on a wide range of metaphors, but conceptions trend strongly to notions consistent with Folk Theories. Two old, but still prominent metaphors are ability as capacity (i.e., amount that can be held) and ability as speed,” and others are listed below in the “Commentary” of this entry. Since the mid-1900s, Brain-as-Computer Discourses, especially Cognitivism and Cognitive Processes, have been especially influential in framing Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories, and so the following cluster of metaphors are currently pervasive in discussions of ability and disability.
  • Knowledge is … information
  • Knowing is … using information
  • Learner is … an information processor (individual)
  • Learning is … inputting (and associated computer-based notions, such as processing, storing, and retrieving)
  • Teaching is … transmission (of information)




Within education, Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories tend overwhelmingly to be framed according to a Medical Model – that is, academic ability and disability are usually treated as analogous to physical prowess and physical weakness. Traits and performances, whether perceived as outstanding or problematic, are thus attributed solely to the individual. Accordingly, interventions to supplement excellence and to remediate inadequacy are focused on the person. (Contrast: Social Model of (Dis)Ability.) A thorough treatment of the topic is available through:
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) (American Psychological Association, currently in its 5th edition, 2013) – an intended-to-be comprehensive manual covering the classification, diagnosis, and treatment of mental disorders, as interpreted through a medical model
Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories and Motivation Theories complement one another. The former address what learners can/can’t do, and the latter deal with what learners will/won’t do. A comprehensive analysis of Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories is beyond our interests and purpose, and so we suffice with brief summaries of several contemporary theories, categorized as “Models and Types of Intelligence,” “Measures of Ability and Aptitude,” “Types of Disabilities,” “Types of Learning and Developmental Disorders,” and “Sorts of Intervention.”
Sampling of Models and Types of Intelligence (listed in chronological order, by decade)
  • g Factor (General Intelligence Factor; General Mental Ability) (Charles Spearman, 1900s): derived from factor analyses of correlations among different IQ tests, the g Factor was postulated as the core human intelligence that plays a role in all cognitive tasks
  • Intelligence Quotient (IQ) (William Stern, 1910s): a numerical rating of intelligence originally defined as the ratio of one’s mental age to one’s chronological age, and now defined by normed referencing to others who’ve been tested
  • General Intelligence (Raymond Cattell, 1960s): a combination of Fluid Intelligence (ability to solve new reasoning problems, making minimal demands on prior learnings) and Crystallized Intelligence (ability to apply prior learnings)
  • Emotional Intelligence (Emotional Intelligence Quotient, Emotional Leadership, Emotional Quotient; Michael Beldoch, 1960s): ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotions, to use those recognitions effectively, and to manage one’s own emotions in enabling ways
  • PASS Theory of Intelligence (A.R. Luria, 1960s): model of cognition based on four brain-based processes (planning, attention, simultaneous processing, successive processing)
  • Social Intelligence (Joy Paul Guildford, Nicholas Humphrey; Ross Honeywell, 1960s): of self- and social-awareness along couple with ability to effect social change; argued by some as the intelligence that defines humans (vs. IQ)
  • Structure of Intellect Theory (Joy Paul Guilford, 1960s): a model of up to 180 intellectual abilities, organized along the three dimensions of operations (cognition, memory recording, retention, divergent production, convergent production, evaluation), content (figural, symbolic, semantic, behavioral) and product (units, classes, relations, systems, transformation, implications)
  • Dual-Process Theory of Intelligence (Jonathan Evans, 1970s): a two-factor model (explicit, goal-directed, controlled, conscious processes; implicit, spontaneous, automatic, unconscious processes)
  • Multiple Intelligences Theory (Howard Gardner, 1980s): a typology of 9 modalities (listed below), asserted to be associated with specific brain areas and domains of human exceptionality
    • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – awareness and control of bodily action, including the ability to manipulate objects with skill and to learn new actions
    • Interpersonal Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – ability to work with and to interpret others, enabled in large part by sensitivity to others’ emotional states, temperaments, and motivations
    • Intrapersonal Intelligence ­(Howard Gardner, 1980s) – capacity for self-awareness, in terms of both immediate self-monitoring and more reflective critical introspection
    • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – competencies associated with deductive logic, abstraction, generalization, quantities, and cause–effect
    • Musical-Rhythmic and Harmonic Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – sensitivity to rhythms, tones, meters, and other qualities of music, often realized in singing, composing, and playing instruments
    • Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence – (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – facility with words and languages, typically manifest in in reading, writing, story-telling, and large vocabularies
    • Visual-Spatial Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1980s) – encompasses accuracy of spatial judgments, ability to visualize, and competence with spatial relationships among objects
    • Existential Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1990s) – ability to understand oneself in relation to the smallest and the vastest aspects of the universe
    • Naturalistic Intelligence (Howard Gardner, 1990s) – awareness of, sensitivity to, and capacity to maintain harmony with the more-than-human world
  • Spatial Ability / Spatial Reasoning (Visuo-Spatial Ability; diverse authorship, 1980s): the ability to extend understanding and memories of spatial relations (among objects or space) and orientations (of the actions) into useful strategies and tools for reasoning
  • Triarchic Theory of Intelligence (Theory of Successful Intelligence; Robert Sternberg, 1980s): a three-aspect theory asserting that intellectual competence comprises analytic intelligence, creative intelligence, and practical intelligence
  • Cattell–Horn–Carroll Theory (Raymond B. Cattell, John L. Horn, John B. Carroll, 1990s): a model of intelligence divided into 10 broad abilities (fluid intelligence, crystalized intelligence, quantitative reasoning, reading & writing ability, short-term memory, long-term storage & retrieval, visual processing, auditory processing, processing speed, decision/reaction time/speed) and 70 narrow abilities
  • Three-Stratum Theory (John Carroll; 1990s): a mash-up of g Factor and Generalized Intelligence (see above), in which intelligence is described as a three-layer hierarchy. Stratum III is the g Factor, which is seen to emerge from the eight broad abilities of Stratum II (fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, general memory and learning, broad visual perception, broad auditory perception, broad retrieval ability, broad cognitive speediness, processing speed), which in turn emerge from many and diverse specific factors that constitute Stratum I.
  • g-VPR Model  (Wendy Johnson, Thomas J. Bouchard Jr.; 2000s): a model of intelligence that describes it as a four-layer hierarchy. The fourth stratum is the g Factor, which is seen to emerge from the verbal, perceptual, and rotation factors that constitute third stratum, which in turn emerges from many and diverse narrow abilities that constitute second stratum, which arises from the first stratum that comprises primary traits.
Sampling of Measures of Ability and Aptitude (listed in chronological order of original development, by decade)
(Contrast with Norm-Referenced Assessments, under Assessment and Evaluation)
  • Raven’s Progressive Matrices (Raven’s Matrices; RPM) (John C. Raven, 1930s): a non-verbal, 60-item, multiple-choice, group-administered test requiring takers to look for and apply one or more relationships among spatially organized objects. For ages 5 through elderly.
  • Wechsler Intelligence Scales for Children, Fifth Edition (WISC-V) (David Wechsler; originally developed in 1940s; most recently revised in 2010s): an hour-long test that produces both a general intelligence score and scores in five cognitive domains (Verbal Comprehension Index, Visual Spatial Index, Fluid Reasoning Index, Working Memory Index, Processing Speed Index). Supplementary subtests can be used to assess Learning Disabilities. For ages 6 to 16.
  • Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scale, Fifth Edition (SB5) (originally developed by Alfred Binet in 1905; further developed by Lewis Terman in the 1950s; most recently revised in 2000s): an individually administered test comprising ten subtests, used to diagnose learning, developmental, and intellectual problems in young children across five factors (Knowledge, Quantitative Reasoning, Visual-Spatial Processing, Working Memory, Fluid Reasoning). For ages as young as 2.
  • Cattell Culture Fair Intelligence Test (CFIT) (Raymond Cattell; 1940s): an effort to construct an intelligence test that is free of sociocultural and environmental influences – a goal that sociologists, anthropologists, and others have since argued to be all but impossible … and not especially desirable. It comprises three scales with non-verbal visul puzzles.
  • Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, Fourth Edition (WAIS-IV) (David Wechsler; originally developed in 1950s; most recently revised in 2000s): a battery comprising ten core subtests and five supplemental subtests that generate two broad scores on general intellectual ability (Full Scale IQ, General Ability Index) and four index scores (Verbal Comprehension Index, Perceptual Reasoning Index, Working Memory Index, Processing Speed Index). For ages 16 to 90.
  • Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, Fourth Edition (WPPSI-IV) (David Wechsler; originally developed in 1960s; most recently revised in 2010s): a 30–60-minute test comprising 14 subtests that can be used to assess general intellectual functioning, identify giftedness, and identify learning difficulties. For ages 2.5 to 7.5, with three indexes for younger children (Verbal Comprehension Index, Visual Spatial Index, Working Memory Index) and two more for older children (Fluid Reasoning Index, Processing Speed Index).
  • Woodcock–Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities, Fourth Edition (WJ-IV) (Richard Woodcock, Mary E. Bonner Johnson; originally developed in 1970s, most recently revised in 2010s): comprising a standard battery of 10 tests, an extended battery of 10 more, and a diagnostic supplement with 11 more, the WJ-IV assesses nine broad-stratum abilities (Auditory Processing, Comprehension–Knowledge, Fluid Reasoning, Long-Term Memory, Processing Speed, Quantitative Knowledge, Reading–Writing, Short-Term Memory, Visual-Spatial Thinking). It is normed for ages 2 through the 90s.
  • Developmental NEuroPSYchological Assessment, Second Edition (NEPSY-II) (Marit Korkman, Ursula Kirk, Sally Kemp; originally developed in Finnish in 1980s; most recently revised in 2000s): used to assess abilities related to cognitive disorders that are usually diagnosed in childhood. It comprises 25 subtests across six domains (Attention and Executive Functions, Language and Communication, Sensorimotor Functions, Visuospatial Functions, Learning and Memory, Social Perception). For ages 3 to 16.
  • Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children, Second Edition (KABC-II) (Alan S. Kaufman, Nadeen L. Kaufman; originally developed in 1980s; most recently revised in 2000s): an individually administered test comprising 18 subtests, yielding two general intelligence composite scores (Mental Processing Index, Fluid-Crystallised Index). For ages 3 to 18.
  • Luria-Nebraska Neuropsychological Battery (LNNB) (Charles Golden; 1980s): a 2–3-hour, individually administered test comprising 14 scales (motor, rhythm, tactile, visual, receptive speech, expressive speech, writing, reading, arithmetic, memory, intellectual processes, pathognomonic, left hemisphere, right hemisphere), used to assess neurological issues. For ages 15 and up.
  • Das–Naglieri Cognitive Assessment System (Cognitive Assessment System; CAS) (J.P. Das, Jack Naglieri; 1990s): an individually administered test based on the PASS Theory of Intelligence, aimed as assessing four brain-based processes (Planning, Attention, Simultaneous processing,Successive processing). For ages 5 to 17.
  • Differential Ability Scales (DAS): an individually administered, nationally normed (USA) (Colin D. Elliot; 1990s): test comprising 20 subtests, aimed at measuring verbal and visual working memory, immediate and delayed recall, visual recognition and matching, processing and naming speed, phonological processing, and basic number understanding. For ages 2.5 to 17.
  • Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Second Edition (BRIEF2) (Gerard A. Gioia, Peter K. Isquith, Steven C. Guy, Lauren Kenworthy; originally developed in the 2000s, revised in the 2010s): a 10-minute, 86-item, individually administered questionnaire assesses impairment of executive function. For ages 5 to 18.
  • Reynolds Intellectual Assessment Scales (RIAS) (Randy Reynolds, Cecil Kamphaus; 2000s): an individually administered test comprising four subtests measuring verbal intelligence and non-verbal intelligence, will a supplementary measure of memory. Normed for ages 3 to 94.
  • Multidimensional Aptitude Battery II (MAB II) (Douglas N. Jackson; 2010s): a group-administered test comprising 10 subtests to assess verbal ability, performance capacity, and full-scale IQ. Intended for professional and employment setting, it is for ages 16 and up.
Sampling of Types of Disabilities
  • Intellectual Disability (General Learning Disability; Cognitive Impairment; Mental Retardation; diverse authorship, first records date back more than 2500 years): neurodevelopmental disorder associated with low IQ (<70) and inability to cope with multiple everyday living requirements
  • Learning Disability (diverse authorship, 1880s): official clinical diagnosis of problems, usually assumed to be rooted in atypical brain organization or function. Some LDs are:
    • Dyslexia – difficulty with symbolic forms, especially reading
    • Dysgraphia – difficulty with fine-motor skills, especially affecting writing
    • Dyscalculia – difficulty with arithmetic
    • Dyspraxia – difficulty with purposive actions
    • Dysnomia – difficulty finding and expressing words.
Sampling of Types of Learning and Developmental Disorders (listed in chronological order, by decade)
  • Learning Disorder (Learning Difficulty; diverse authorship; mid-1800s): inadequate (i.e., below norms) development of specific language or academic skills, but not severe enough to warrant disability diagnosis
  • Anxiety Disorders (diverse authorship, 1890s): an array of mental conditions that manifest as debilitating anxieties and fears
  • Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder (C. Westphal, 1890s): condition characterized by repetition – checking things, performing routines/rituals, and/or thinking certain thoughts
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (Autism Spectrum Condition; E. Bleuler, 1910): a range of neurodevelopmental disorders, manifesting as problems with social engagement and/or repetitive patterns of interest or activity
  • Auditory Processing Disorder (S.J. Kopetzsky, 1948): difficulties distinguishing, locating, isolating, and interpreting sounds
  • Sensory Processing Disorder (Sensory Integration Dysfunction; A.J. Ayres, 1940s): inadequate coordination of senses, resulting in difficulties in functioning in specific contexts
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder (Dissocial Personality Disorder; Anti-Social Behavior Disorder; DSM, 1952): general and persistent ignorance of social norms and morals, along with others’ feelings and rights
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder (DSM, 1952): intermittent and unpremeditated explosive outbursts that are disproportionate to the situation
  • Language Processing Disorder (diverse authorship, 1950s): difficulties in parsing and interpreting words, sentences and stories
  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (diverse authorship, 1960s): neurodevelopmental issue manifesting as excessive activity, poor self-control, and difficulties with attention
  • Conduct Disorder (diverse authorship, 1960s): violation of age-appropriate norms through persistent and repetitive infringements on others’ rights
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (DSM-3, 1980): pattern of irritable, argumentative, and/or vindictive behavior in children and adolescents
  • Stereotypic Movement Disorder (DSM-5, 2013): motor condition involving repetitive and disruptive physical actions
Sampling of Sorts of Response/Intervention
  • Tracking (Streaming; Phasing) – separating learners according to ability and/or performance – typically undertaken on the school level and maintained over years. (Contrast with Ability Grouping, below.)
  • Ability Grouping – separating learners according to ability and/or performance – typically undertaken on the classroom level and over a relatively short term (of less than a school year) (Contrast with Tracking, above.)
  • Special Education – formal schooling structures intended to accommodate the particular needs of students with diagnosed learning issues. Most often Special Education involves some manner of segregation
  • Mixed Ability (Differently Abled) – proposed in response to the negative connotations of such labels as “abnormal,” “disabled,” and “handicapped,” Mixed Ability (and Differently Abled) is sometimes used to describe a person with a different physical, emotional, and/or learning ability.
  • Mixed Ability Grouping – the opposite of Tracking (above) and Ability Grouping (above), Mixed Ability Grouping involves teaching individuals with diverse abilities together (Contrast with Diversity Education and Inclusive Education, included as subdiscourses of Activist Discourses.)


While it might appear that the above entries present a great deal of conceptual diversity, with regard to implicit assumptions on and metaphors of learning, they are surprisingly similar. For the most part, Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories are closely aligned with Correspondence Discourses. For example, a majority assume such dualisms as inside/outside, mental/physical, self/other, and individual/collective. As well, most explicit references to learning invoke Folk Theories (e.g., the Acquisition Metaphor, the Attainment Metaphor, the Illumination Metaphor) or Brain-as-Computer Discourses. For example, the following metaphors are typically invoked in descriptions of the above models and typologies of intelligence:
  • speed – quick vs. slow/retarded/delayed
  • fortitude – strong vs. weak
  • illumination – brilliant vs. dim
  • pointiness – sharp/penetrating/keen vs. dull/obtuse
  • depth – profound/deep vs. shallow/superficial
  • capacity – huge intellect, with lots of smarts vs. limited retention
  • awareness – discerning/discriminating/attuned/with it/perceptive vs. insensate/stupefied/stunned/out of it/oblivious
  • endowment – gifted/talented vs. lacking/disadvantaged/missing out
  • potential – huge vs. not much
Given the strong tendencies toward such metaphors, it should perhaps not be surprising that Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories are usually associated with strategies to measure and rank. (That is, the above metaphors are readily interpreted in terms of physics, and thus lend themselves to acts of quantification and comparison.) By contrast, conceptions of (dis)ability associated with Coherence Discourses tend to be framed more in terms of growth, expansive possibility, and fitness as they reject the dualisms that infuse the above models. By way of illustration, a Neurodiversity critique of disability and disorder frames has risen to prominence over the past few decades. It rejects the “deficit model” of the learner assumed across most Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories, and it argues that perceived (dis)abilities are indicative of a pool of diversity that is necessary for the survival of the species. That perspective is bolstered by observations that definitions and classifications of (dis)ability vary dramatically across cultures. Some psychologists have responded by tweaking definitions of (dis)ability to include consideration of situation. However, so far, few of those revisions interrogate foundational metaphors and assumed dualisms. Additionally, the simple fact that the multi-billion-dollar industry of intelligence testing is regularly compelled to recalibrate its measures is often cited as an indication of flawed and constrained thinking. Consider, e.g.,
  • Flynn Effect (James R. Flynn, Richard Herrnstein, Charles Murray; 2000s): the multi-decade, transcultural phenomenon of steady and substantial increases in scores on intelligence tests through the 20th century (of about 3 points per decade on a normed 100-point scale)

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

For the most part, Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories are theories of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

In general, Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories are not theories of teaching, but some are commonly invoked to inform or justify pedagogical approaches and curriculum emphases.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Despite the fact that massive research and marketing industries have arisen around Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories, the general failure to interrogate foundational assumptions means that few meet our criteria for scientific theories.


  • Ability Grouping
  • Antisocial Personality Disorder
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Attention-Deficit Disorder
  • Auditory Processing Disorder
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Second Edition (BRIEF2)
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence
  • Cattell Culture Fair Intelligence Test (CFIT)
  • Cattell–Horm–Carroll Theory
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Das–Naglieri Cognitive Assessment System (Cognitive Assessment System; CAS)
  • Developmental Neuropsychological Assessment, Second Edition (NEPSY-II)
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)
  • Differential Ability Scales (DAS)
  • Dual-Process Theory of Intelligence
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyslexia
  • Dysnomia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Existential Intelligence
  • Flynn Effect
  • g Factor (General Intelligence Factor)
  • g-VPR Model
  • General Intelligence
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Interpersonal Intelligence
  • Intelligence Quotient
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence
  • Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children, Second Edition (KABC-II)
  • Language Processing Disorder
  • Learning Disorder
  • Learning Disability
  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
  • Luria-Nebraska Neuropsychological Battery (LNNB)
  • Mixed Ability (Differently Abled)
  • Mixed Ability Grouping
  • Musical-Rhythmic and Harmonic Intelligence
  • Multidimensional Aptitude Battery II (MAB II)
  • Multiple Intelligences
  • Naturalistic Intelligence
  • Oppositional Defiance Disorder
  • PASS Theory of Intelligence
  • Raven’s Progressive Matrices (RPM)
  • Reynolds Intellectual Assessment Scales (RIAS)
  • Sensory Processing Disorder
  • Social Intelligence
  • Spatial Ability / Spatial Reasoning
  • Special Education
  • Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scale, Fifth Edition (SB5)
  • Stereotypic Movement Disorder
  • Structure of Intellect Theory
  • Three-Stratum Theory
  • Tracking (Streaming; Phasing)
  • Triarchic Theory of Intelligence
  • Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence
  • Visual-Spatial Intelligence
  • Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, Fourth Edition (WAIS-IV)
  • Wechsler Intelligence Scales for Children, Fifth Edition (WISC-V)
  • Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, Fourth Edition (WPPSI-IV)
  • Woodcock–Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities, Fourth Edition (WJ-IV)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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