Information Age Education
   Issue Number 63
April, 2011   

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 http://iae-pedia.org/ 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.

A Culturally 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

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 own life.

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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Hawking), 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 interaction.

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 terms.

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 cultural perspective:
  • 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 society.

  • 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.

Educational Implications

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 development (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_for_All_Handicapped_Children_Act). 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 classrooms should:
  • 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 testing programs.
Neurodiversity contains an excellent list of print/electronic resources on the variety of conditions explored in the book.


References

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.

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