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Neurodiversity, inclusion and pedagogy for all

I am ashamed to admit that Random Acts of Kindness Day (17th February) came and went without my noticing. However, I am looking forward to Neurodiversity Celebration Week (13-19th March). Why? HertsCam Network, which I co-direct, is staging a Network Event for teachers and other education practitioners in which we will talk to each other about neurodiversity and inclusion more broadly.

Difference, not disorder


Most of us in education are now familiar with the list of common types of neurodiversity: ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Discalculia and Tourette’s Syndrome and there are others. For example, I have only just discovered that I am neurodivergent myself. According to one website at least, Synesthesia, with which I have been blessed all my life, is listed as a type of neurodivergence. In my case, it means I see the colour of words and, when people speak to me, I see sub-titles. Of course, this doesn’t present any challenges for me or for those with whom I interact; it’s an invisible characteristic unless I choose to tell people about it. However, some forms of neurodiversity can present challenges in the classroom. The key is to see them as differences rather than disorders or worse. This is expressed nicely in a new book called Neurodiversity and Education:


“Understanding more about the concept of neurodiversity can help us consider, respect and appreciate these differences – and see potential rather than deficits in ourselves and in each other.” (Ellis, Kirby & Osborne, 2023)


Appreciating differences is obviously a sound principle, but not easy to enact all the time in schools as we know them. The limitations of staff-student ratios and teachers’ workloads militate against it.



Accommodating difference


Over the years, we have seen policy initiatives to try to accommodate students with special educational needs and disabilities and the designation of special educational needs coordinators in schools. The use of the term ‘inclusion’ reflects the policy push since 2001 to maximise the possibility of provision within the mainstream rather than in special schools. In spite of this, we have seen the rise of school exclusions and the need for pupil referral units, coyly referred to as ‘alternative provision’. Rony Medina’s experience discussed in a previous blog post sheds some light on this.


I am sure we all know of young people who have difficulty fitting in at school. I left school at the age of 15 myself because it really wasn’t working for me. Why do so many find that the system doesn’t seem to have been designed with them in mind? Is it about cultural background? Has negative experience of school become part of the family story? Can our sexuality or gender identity make us feel like we don’t belong? Something else? The point is that we are all individuals who can experience friction and disconnect when we inhabit systems, especially when ones we didn’t choose to inhabit. On the Neurodiversity Celebration Week website, I found the slogan ‘No brain is the same’, but it’s not just a cognitive matter is it. People are not the same in so many respects. So, how can we fulfil the ambition of the UN’s development goal No. 4: pictured below?




This is to some extent a matter of building schools in places where there are none, but beyond that, it is a matter of pedagogy.



A pedagogy for all


In the past, there have been some interesting attempts to address the ‘one size fits all’ problem in education. Do we all remember the push for ‘personalised learning’? David Hargreaves and others promoted this New Labour policy in the early 2000s, but it seemed to evaporate like many good ideas do. (Read what became of it in a retrospective article in The Guardian in 2009.) These days, there are companies out there offering technologies to monitor pupils’ progress. They can analyse a set of scores for things like ‘academic engagement’ and ‘production of acceptable work’ and identify where intervention is required. Forgive me if I am sceptical, but I doubt there will ever be an adequate substitute for teachers forming good relationships with students and their families, getting to know them and understanding their uniqueness. I am sure that this is what every good teacher wants, but historically, governments have never faced up to the actual level of resource that would be needed for teachers to have the time to do this properly.


In the meantime, we must be grateful for the work and dedication of those who advocate for neurodivergent learners. The statement below, taken from the Neurodiversity Celebration Week website, is a powerful one.


It is time to recognise the many strengths and talents that come from thinking and perceiving the world differently. By celebrating the strengths of neurodivergent individuals, we can begin the seismic shift of changing the way neurodivergent individuals are perceived and supported, empowering them to achieve their potential.


Not only does it tell us something important about neurodiversity, it also illuminates an essential pedagogic principle, which is that helping others to learn requires deep empathy. As teachers, we have to try to imagine what the world looks like from the learner’s point of view and be prepared to be surprised.


References


Ellis, P., Kirby, A. and Osborne, A. (2023) Neurodiversity and Education. London: Sage Publications

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