This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See
and the end of this newsletter.
David Moursund has
recently published a free book
for K-8 teachers and parents of K-8 students.
Moursund, David (March, 2011). Expanding
the science and technology learning experiences of children
Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download a free copy from http://iae-pedia.org/David_Moursund_Legacy_Fund#New_Free_Book_from_Moursund
This free 142-page book is designed to help improve Science,
Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education for K-8 students. It
is loaded with computer-based and by-hand activities for students, and
it provides teachers and parents with a discussion of the underlying
educational value and purpose of these activities.
Appropriate Perspective of
Disabilities and Capabilities
The two previous articles focused on new developments in our
understanding of the cognitive systems that process emotion/feelings
and consciousness. This article will focus on the personal and cultural
effects of the impaired functioning of various cognitive systems
because of developmental factors or injury. The underlying theme is
that each of us is a cognitively unique human being.
Neurodiversity is a recent concept (http://www.neurodiversity.com
It argues that each of us develops uniquely, and so each of our
cognitive and physical properties is expressed somewhere along a
relevant capability/limitation range. Since such biological
differentiation has obvious societal advantages, our culture should
capitalize on the productive potential of each person, and not consider
someone an incompetent human being because of a disability, regardless
of its severity.
Thomas Armstrong explores this general issue in his informative and
thought-provoking recent book, Neurodiversity: Discovering the
Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain
Differences (2010). Armstrong focuses primarily on cognitive problems:
autism, ADHD, dyslexia, mood and anxiety disorders, intellectual
disabilities, and schizophrenia. However, what he proposes for our
society and its institutions is also relevant to other cognitive and
physical disabilities. He brings credible credentials to the book,
having observed the personal and professional effects of a debilitating
disability in his father’s life, and also from experiencing it in his
Armstrong’s initial complaint is that our society tends to use a
disability to label people who suffer from it. For example, we speak of
a schizophrenic rather than a person with schizophrenia, a retarded
person rather than a person whose cognitive development is retarded (or
delayed). Over time, the descriptive terms often degrade into
slurs—schizo, retard, hyper, cripple.
We are in fact humans first, and then someone with an identified set of
capabilities and limitations. As suggested above, people with a
disability typically also have culturally useful capabilities, even to
the virtuoso level. Steven Hawking is certainly a prime example of this
and Armstrong’s book provides many more. Think of people at the high
functioning (or Asperger’s syndrome) end of the autism spectrum who may
be deficient in human interaction but often have superior capabilities
within solitary elements of computer technology. Conversely, those with
the limited cognitive capabilities characteristic of Down syndrome can
be quite successful in uncomplicated jobs that require friendly social
The situation is similar at the other end of the competency ranges.
People who are labeled by their superior capabilities in one element of
life, such as music or politics, may be deficient in other significant
areas of life, such as in their family roles or in ethical behavior.
It’s as culturally inappropriate to consider them only in positive
terms as it is to consider people with disabilities only in negative
When new technologies such as Information and Communication Technology
are developed, neurodiversity means that some people will have more
natural talent in the area than others. The human race as a whole is
benefiting from the special capabilities of people who are often
labeled as geeks or nerds.
Armstrong argues that neurodiversity principles should determine our
- Our brain’s multitude of systems and subsystems don’t function as
a linear machine, as many people think, but rather as a complex
ecosystem in which systems collaborate and compete. Similarly, systems
expand and diminish as conditions change. A brain and a forest area
remain brain and forest from one decade to the next, but substantial
internal changes could have occurred in both of them in the interim.
- Cognitive capabilities exist along a range. Our culture
determines the current value of various capabilities, and whether we’re
perceived overall as gifted or disabled. For example, the skills needed
to function effectively on a computer are considerably different from
what they were 20 years ago—and their cultural value in a given society
depends on the amount and sophistication of computer use within that
- Our success in life depends on (1) how we adapt our brain to the
needs of our culture, and (2) how well we modify our personal
environment to fit our unique brain’s capabilities and limitations.
Armstrong calls this important process niche construction, and it
includes career and lifestyle choices, assistive technologies, human
resources, and other life-enhancing strategies that are tailored to our
specific needs. Positive niche construction directly modifies our
brain, which in turn enhances its ability to adapt to the environment.
A series of late 20th century laws focused increased attention on
the educational rights of all young people. The 1975 passage of The
Education for All Handicapped Children Act was perhaps the key
It initially established Special Education as an integral—but basically
separate—part of schooling. The focus was on identifying and
ameliorating specific handicaps. As time passed, a shift occurred
towards inclusive classrooms that sought to include all students in as
many activities as possible.
Neurodiversity is yet another step on our society’s torturous journey
to determine how best to function with diverse capabilities and
limitations. Blume (1998) suggested that this decision may be as
crucial for humans as biodiversity is for life in general. It’s not yet
clear what human life will require in the future—if for example,
advances in cybernetics and computer culture might at some time favor a
somewhat autistic frame of mind.
Armstrong thus focuses on the “hidden strengths” of mental disorders
without ignoring the real damage such disorders cause. Calling autism a
difference doesn’t make the pain go away, but it encourages us to
search for positives in the condition—something that calling it a
disability certainly doesn’t do.
The process of changing our cultural perspective begins with inclusive
classrooms committed to the principles of neurodiversity. Such
- Contain both labeled and non-labeled students who are diverse on
the basis of many kinds of personal and capability properties.
- Use instructional strategies tuned to multiple intelligences, and
other Universal Design for Learning methods (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Design_for_Learning).
- Celebrate and teach students about all kinds of diversity.
- Contain a rich collection of assistive technologies that enable
students with special needs to access information, engage in learning
activities, and express themselves cognitively, emotionally,
artistically, creatively, and spiritually.
- Attend to the ecology of the classroom environment, such as the
appropriate use of space and equipment.
- Contain a rich network of human relationships that support each
student’s trajectory of development and learning.
- Support the unique, natural, and organic development of each
student, and reduce the categorization implicit in mass curricular and
Neurodiversity contains an excellent list of print/electronic resources
on the variety of conditions explored in the book.
Armstrong, T. (2010). , Neurodiversity: Discovering
the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Other Brain
Differences. DeCapo Lifelong Books. Also see Armstrong’s blog on
neurodiversity at http://thomasarmstrong.com/blog/tag/neurodiversity/.
Blume, H. (September 1998). “Neurodiversity” The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved
4/13/2011 from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1998/09/neurodiversity/5909/.
The article contains an incorrect link to the Institute for the Study
of Neurologically Typical. The correct link is http://isnt.autistics.org/.
About Information Age Education, Inc.
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to
improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html,
and the free newsletter you are now reading.
To subscribe to this twice-a-month free newsletter and to see back
issues, go to http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
To change your address or cancel your subscription, click on the
“Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this e-mail message.