Teacher’s Corner: Retarded!

As you may know by now I have recently started a new job as a special ed teacher without having actually trained as a special ed teacher. This is pretty challenging on top of the job being challenging anyway, and I’m trying to desperately read up on the concepts and theories of the discipline. In doing so I stumbled across a word that is one of the nastier ones flung around in English: retarded.

And I discovered that it is a good word. Or at least used to be.

See, special ed went through it’s development just like regular teaching. Concepts and ideas about children, learning and teaching have changed, change which is often (though not always) reflected in our schools. In its earlier stages, special ed saw children who were slow to learn as “defective”. Children who could more or less keep up with the classwork were “normal” and the other ones were broken, damaged goods, lacking. You see where this is going.

Then came science and studied children and how they learn. They put many things educators had long known on a scientific basis and formulated scientific concepts. One of the still most influential people in this area is the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who described the processes through which we learn and also formulated stages through which we develop.

Screenshot of Piaget bok covers

Yes, there’s an endless amount of books on and by Piaget

All legitimate criticism aside (it relates mostly to how far you can take his models and where are limits of their application), his models are still important. As teachers we want and we need to challenge our students to help them in that development, which isn’t an automatism. We need to construct our input at the right level. Primary school teachers will endlessly use concrete things and pictures to teach their students. They need to literally take away five marbles to find out what 12-5 is.

What especially Piaget’s students found out was that not all children develop at roughly the same pace. Some children are much slower than the average, they stay behind, they are “retarded”. The concept as such was revolutionary. The children were no longer seen as defective, just slower. They were not inferior to their peers but would reach the same levels of cognitive development as their peers, just later. This had, and has, great importance for teaching children with special needs, as it means that we need to give them different input, teach them using a much more hands on approach than with their peers and most importantly, get them to the same place, just a little more slowly.

It’s sad to see how ableist ideas turned such a revolutionary concept into a nasty slur. It also shows that you need to change society, not just words. The slur does not mean what the word means in a professional context. It still means “broken and defective”.



  1. says

    Interesting. I do not remember anything about Piaget from my studies, but I was not studying special pedagogy. Special pedagogy was a separate domain, with, IIRC, three year’s studium and a Bachelor’s degree.

    But alas every word trying to describe disabled people without ableism will be subsequently co-opted in ableist language. It is one of the ways of the world that makes one despair.

  2. dakotagreasemonkey says

    C was familiar with Freud and Piaget. She much preferred Piaget’s version of how to deal with mental issues. She had me read works of both of them, and I tend to agree with her. It has been too many years since she had me explore this subject, so I really don’t know, but I think Piaget was closer to reality than Freud.

  3. says


    I do not remember anything about Piaget from my studies, but I was not studying special pedagogy.

    That’s quite surprising, since Piaget is one of the big names in pedagogy, not just special ed. His theories about cognitive development are quite influential on both Cognitivism and Constructivism.

    Yeah, while Piaget was often (rightfully) accused of sloppy science (he mainly used his own kids as test subjects, which is quite a limited sample number), he at least looked at reality as the important part.

  4. voyager says

    With all that in mind, I think your class size is too big. 27 kids is the size of a regular class and there is no way you can give each child the individual attention they need. It must be very frustrating for you.

  5. says


    That’s quite surprising, since Piaget is one of the big names in pedagogy, not just special ed.

    Not really. I always had a crappy memory when it comes to names and dates, which made my history teachers despair. For me to remember someone’s name I have to 1) be interested in remembering said name and 2) it has to be repeated multiple times over and over. And pedagogy lessons were so history-centered that I barely scraped by the final exam.

    That I remember nothing does not mean he was not mentioned.

  6. says

    tell me about it!
    I actually don’t have 27 kids in one class, I have 27 kids in 7 different classes (that range from 18 to 30 kids) whom I need to support individually…

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