Analysis of the Article : “Neurodiversity: The Future of Special Education”

This post is an analysis of an education article titled “Neurodiversity: The Future of Special Education”. You can find a link to the original article here. The following is a thoughtful response that I wrote for a small audience and I thought I would share it here.

Special Education is a topic that is near and dear to my heart as I know several individuals and families that depend on its services to educate their children. While laws require that schools offer and fund these services to students, how they are offered and performed can vary greatly in schools; even schools in the same district can have widely varied programs available. Some schools may even choose to flout the laws requiring special education and parents are forced to start lawsuits to achieve any services as all. One thing that seems consistent in schools over the country is how special education and those students who need it are viewed: students with disabilities are seen as having problems and weaknesses and those who need special education are not as intelligent or as able as ‘normal’ students. These viewpoints with their emphasis on disability, dysfunction, and other negative connotations that go hand in hand with them can cause resignation and a negative outlook in students and families for their future prospects. Thomas Armstrong brings a fresh perspective on special education and how the perspectives and viewpoints of teachers and schools can and should change to facilitate better learning, the development of programs that support a ‘whole person’ growth, and to develop positive perspectives and momentum both in scholarship and individual growth.

In his article titled “Neurodiversity: The Future of Special Education”, Armstrong states that the ways special education programs are currently developed and understood by its practitioners needs to change in several key ways. He suggests that schools and educators recognize the neurodiversity of students as a positive trait to be honored and respected just as with other human diversity traits such as race, gender identity, religion, etc. While current programs for exceptional education tends to emphasize a student’s deficits and strengths, he believes that a new approach should be developed that emphasizes the students’ strengths (such as what currently happens for gifted or talented students.) Some formal assessments to help determine a students’ strengths are the VIA Character Strengths, Virtues, Dunn and Dunn Learning Style Assessments, and the Baron-Welsh Art Scale. Informal assessments that are currently available for educators to utilize for additional information on learning strengths is the Neurodiversity Strengths Checklist, “strength chats” as devised by Epstein (2008), and motivational interviewing. This emphasis on positive talents should then be used to build on the students’ strengths and minimize their weakest areas by utilizing workarounds to help students manage both academic and nonacademic challenges without allowing their disability to hinder them. According to Armstrong, this approach is very different than current special education services where students are taught how to live with their disability instead of working to overcome it.

Another key component of Armstrong’s suggested neurodiversity acceptance is that all students in classrooms need to be taught about the intrinsic worth of human variation and neurological diversity. By educating all students on how the human brain works, how environment shapes brain structure and function, and that all students have a capacity for learning, the expectations of everyone involved in the special education system would change. Some research studies suggest that when teachers expect positive outcomes from their students, academic results usually improve. Also, inclusion would be more effective as learning diversified students would be viewed more as assets in the classroom rather than a difficulty or burden. As a side benefit, if students are taught to respect and embrace neurodiversity, students who learn or act differently are more likely be accepted by their peer groups and less likely to be marginalized or bullied. If implemented, the author’s recommendations have a significant potential to change the way special education is understood and provided to students as well as positive implications for both individual and community development.

This article has several strengths. The author discussed traditional methods of special education and compares and contrasts these methods with his recommendations. He includes research that supports his conclusions and also addresses some of the challenges that would need to be overcome to implement them. He suggests assessments that are currently available to educators to help determine student strengths so that they can be used to facilitate a learner in knowledge attainment. He states that educators who start to utilize these methods will have positive feelings for the children they teach who have learning weaknesses and that these positive feelings will translate into strength manipulation to help students recognize and work to overcome the learning areas in which they are weak. Armstrong’s work can be used for students that have been shunted into special education to help create IEPs that truly look at the student as a whole person and not just a list of ‘things to check off.’

One weakness that the article has is the author’s use of polarity language. He uses language to discuss his thesis and special education in ways that is inherently divisive. His recommendations are littered with language that radiates positivity: growth mindset, nuance, creating, thrive, transformation, assets, etc. However, the language used to describe the current system is very different: deficit, disorder, dysfunction, negative connotations, insular, remediation, burdens, etc. I do not disagree necessarily with his word choices as they do allow him to discuss his research with readers and work to motivate educators into implementing his stated program. However, I worry that the language used may turn off some of the very people that are needed to implement the changes suggested. Another weakness is that the author doesn’t address funding needs to implement his changes. Armstrong acknowledges that both educators and parents may fear the process of funding special education for children if disabilities are viewed more positively- it is the use of terms such as disability and dysfunction that make that funding currently available. If his recommendations are put into normal usage, would the funding dry up? I think that it is quite understandable to worry about this aspect as, even with protections for funding that are required by law, these regulations are still held in contempt by some schools and school districts. Armstrong suggests a way to protect current funding under the system by continuing to use the traditional methods of determining disability and dysfunction that will open the door to special education services. Educators would then try to discard the ‘disability mindset’ after initial diagnosis and use the recommendations stated above to motivate and teach their students. However, Armstrong does not suggest how to get the funding to utilize his recommendations in the classroom. He recognizes the financial problems that are conceivable if special education funding becomes restricted, but he doesn’t offer any ideas as to how to use that funding for development of similar programing in schools. At one point in the article, Armstrong gives suggestions for educators to utilize his research; schools in specified districts working together to integrate his research, promoting school wide ‘fairs’ for students on neurodiversity, and hiring a neurodiversity coordinator to help monitor the changes put into place. Where is the funding for these extra services going to be found? Will it take away services that are already in place for students? Will funding for a coordination for a school district make funding dry up for special education teachers in different schools in the district? It is really hard to know and the author has not addressed that at all.

As stated above, I would really like to understand how this research can be funded and put into common usage. As a mother of a child with a few learning disorders, I see a potential benefit for using Armstrong’s research for changing the way that school deal with and teach individuals with disabilities. As neurotypical students also have many different ways of learning, it seems correct to believe that all students may need some help for success in the classroom. As such, it seems reasonable that educators who recognize the differences between a “disability paradigm” and a “diversity paradigm” would be able to quickly modify the ways that they provide services to their students. I would like to have a better understanding of how best to help ‘change perspectives’, both in educators and parents to see a more positive yet realistic outcome for their children. I would also like to know exactly how accessible the student strengths assessments are to educators and whether there are fees or other hurdles to ease of use. As the most clear cut assessment mentioned- the Neurodiversity Strengths checklist- was developed by the author, I would want to understand what financial benefits he might enjoy from this product. (This could also be seen as another weakness in the article as it might be more of a sales pitch depending on what benefits the author stands to gain.) Also, Armstrong mentioned some ways of modifying lessons to help students with learning differences achieve better results from their students. However, every modification he mentioned suggests to me that the students he is thinking of would have two specific traits; at least normal intelligence as defined by current special education assessments and their education would be provided by a decently funded educational system. I would be curious to see what modifications that he would recommended for individuals of less than normal intelligence scores (forms of mental retardation) or for individuals who attend schools with significant funding issues that can’t afford to purchase specialized software, virtual reality applications, etc. I could not tell if Armstrong had studied the ramifications of working with students who display significant physical, mental, or learning challenges when developing his views and conducting his research as this information was not mentioned. I would really like to know how his theories work and can be used across the whole spectrum of students and not just a majority.

I can see several ways that Armstrong’s research can be used in practical settings in schools. For schools districts and educators that are able to see their students from the perspective of student strengths over weakness, teaching and inclusion could become more specific for each student- even in larger classes. Currently, inclusion of special education students in mainstream classrooms can make teachers feel overwhelmed and they can view these students as a distraction or encumbrance to themselves and the others students. Any perspective that helps teachers to see the good in the children they teach and give them a desire to help all students perform at their best regardless of ability is an essential part of true classroom inclusion. As Armstrong mentioned in this article, when teachers view particular students negatively, other students may develop the same attitude towards those students. This can lead to bullying, ostracizing, and other negative consequences towards special education students which can create an unsafe school situation for all participants.

One way that this research can be applied is to provide a more specific emphasis in equality in the school environment. By helping students to learn with the strengths that they have, it should create an environment that doesn’t stratify as easily among financial and perceived intellectual lines. I suspect there will always be some form of social class functionality in a school- there will always be a student who is always last to be picked for team sports for example- but helping to minimize those aspects in classrooms by creating more equal opportunities for learning should be very helpful for helping students to prepare for their future. Teachers who are able to take the time to understand both the weaknesses and strengths of the children that they teach can take that knowledge into the mainstream classroom to create an inclusive learning environment that holds realistic and high standards for all student participants. These actions as performed by teachers conform to the recommended guidelines in the InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards; specifically, Standard #2 titled Learning Differences.

I also think that teachers that encourage students to utilize learning by tapping into their strengths are teachers that affected students will work harder to achieve for. At the beginning of this class, almost all learners mentioned a specific teacher that made a difference in their lives and all of those teachers had one thing in common. That commonality was that each student felt the teacher’s sincere desire and support for the student’s educational growth . When each of us feel cared for and developed a strong bond with that teacher, we worked harder and achieved more because our success was no longer just for us, but also to cement the relationship that had been previously created between teacher and pupil. Not all teachers feel inspired or have any desire to develop that kind of deep relationship with their students, but all anecdotal evidence provided in class suggests that teachers who create positive circles of communications and a unique relationship with each student do create significant knowledge growth and more positive outlooks for these students. I suspect that teachers who are willing and desire to create these tight bonds with students will also desire to provide the student what they need to succeed. If so, that extra time or service will not feel so strongly like a burden to be endured, but a challenge to overcome; a slight difference in viewpoint, but one ripe with better outcomes.

I found myself very interested in Amstrong’s research and I am happy that my library search brought it to light. I thought the article well written and provided many opportunities for thought and opportunities for more research. I can think of several ways that this information could be utilized in a classroom and I hope that these particular recommendations are incorporated into the traditional special education programs that are currently functioning in schools locally and across the country. I would be interested in seeing how these techniques work in the typical classroom and within the resources currently available to rural schools. I look forward to more research to suggest whether this program is optimal for most students.

Any thoughts on both the articles and it's topic? An experience that you wish to share? I'm eager to hear if anyone has first hand experiences with this program and it's implementation....


The Space Between Life and Death

To sit at the bedside of the death of a friend is to look into the gaping mouth of hell. Grief chops at you little by little as their life is slowly drawn away. Sometimes, watching every breathe is painful and you want to see the continued rise of the chest ... and you desperately want it to stop to end the suffering therein. You find yourself stroking the frail frame and speaking of the banal because you can't say all that is in your heart for there are no words... or the words and emotions behind them will not help and will only cause more hurt. So you sit quietly and listen to every breath until you find your own mind and body become the mirror image of the life ebbing away. Your breathing slows and all you can see is the simple image of life and desire intertwined. You start to feel their pain in your own body and your mind whispers the same prayer over and over and over. You don't even feel the tears running down your cheeks and barely notice that you can no longer see as your glasses are coated with the tears that have been falling over your lids for what seems like eternities. You struggle to notice the discomfort in your limbs because your own comfort has fallen behind your one need- to be present in those few moments that will soon be over and will never be repeated. In these moments, I feel my own weakness... my own inability to stop suffering or help to end it. I feel some of my beliefs crumble to ash and I am forced to face the deficits in my faith and my heart. The bone deep weariness that surrounds you feels like the new normal as everything you do brings you back to this single point... sitting in a chair next to a friend... watching the failing physical frame and murmuring to the strong soul within which will soon be released. You watch the seizures and you shake, the breathing and you mirror it, the silence that envelopes you both. For this brief periods of time, I hate death and I pray for it... I push it away as I grasp it... I welcome any positive change even if it means death has won for now. Soon, the mouth of hell will close and only love and grief will live on... but in these brief moments I feel like I learn more about what hell really is and what heaven may be than any Sunday school lesson ever taught. And I do have so much more to learn... so much more...


Self Care.... Filled with Hormones

I have been struggling this semester. I think there are a few reasons including feeling a lot less motivation with the loss of my grandpa, work health problems... the usual suspects. I tried to work on some homework but I seem to be unable to concentrate on either history nor interdisciplinary studies so I found myself roaming my shelves for something to read. I have agreed to try and take some time for self care- I'm quite terrible at it and I am working to do a little better- and I have decided that some of my self care should include stretching and fun reading. My eyes slid down the rows of books and then stopped on my nutrition textbook. I have never been willing to get rid of it because I sometimes find myself using it as a resource for trying to understand comments from my doctor better or even as a resource for a history paper. So, amusingly enough I hauled it to the couch (We can't say I picked it up because it's huge) for a bit of 'light, restful reading. I found myself quite frustrated by the reading so please take that in mind when I discuss my thoughts below... I guess it wasn't very restful reading.

I entered this chapter with little knowledge about hormones and how they affect the average person’s body, and by extension, my own. I have listened to doctors chatting about my hormones to my parents from about the age of 14 onward. In almost every doctor’s appointment that I attend as well as incidental evidence in my own life, my hormones are in control of me… and not me of them. I see menstruation and the whole process of hormones in a very negative light. As early as 18 years old I wanted to get a hysterectomy to try and end at least part of the process. The only thing that has stopped me from a hysterectomy is money... and if I was offered the opportunity to have it done tomorrow and have it paid for...I would not hesitate at all. As mentioned in the text, some of the societal and cultural ideas around menstruation are definitely alive in my mind for I too believe that I am filthier and more disgusting during the time of my menstruation and I want to avoid people and try to do anything I can to hide it. I don't talk about it much and I used to go to great lengths to hide any evidence including sanitary supplies from any one in my home- I even used to hide it from my husband when I was married... which was challenging and sure looks foolish from where I stand now. The way I think sure has changed... as evidenced that I am try to talk about it here. I found myself a bit bemused to read the words on the pages in front of me such as “One Indian phrase for menstruation is the flower growing in the house of the god of love” and “when researchers looked for positive changes in the premenstrual phase, they can find those as well." I haven't found those yet I guess.

The chapter listed a lot of research on women's health as well as hormones and sexuality. I suspect that the reason there appears to be so much research focused towards these topics is that hormonal changes are seen as an overall negative in quality of life for the majority of women. As Americans live in a fairly patriarchal society and women are not seen or treated in many cases as equal to men, focusing on the differences- and perceived negative differences- makes perfect sense. In general, if we look for the bad over the good that is what we will find. As a history buff, the discussion of women, women’s health, and sexuality have been seen in a negative light throughout many cultures and ages in time. The text also mentions that religion can also play a role in how hormonal changes, menstruation and reproductive activities are viewed and treated. It seems clear to me that many cultures and religions view the unique actions of women's bodies as problematic and use social pressure to control these actions, using members of both genders to create and reinforce this pressure. Another thing that most people who practice medicine have noticed that wasn’t mentioned in the text is that there is gender bias when it comes to many serious problems such as pain, heart attack, etc. How a person is treated when experiencing these disorders can vary widely based on the gender of the person experiencing them and that bias tends to create more negative outcomes for women than for men. What these facts and ideas say about our culture are not great. If the perspectives and biases in our culture and society tend to be more negative towards women, their health and potential in our society, it shouldn’t come as a shock that more studies are focused on the negative aspects of women and their health when research is being discussed, funded, and developed. If society sees men unconsciously as physically better and less hormonal as the male gender has no outward appearance of hormonal changes as stated in the text, then it also makes sense that research is much less likely to turn its focus toward men. Research in general tends to start with the spark of an idea on how something works, an idea of how to change something, or even how to fix a problem or perceived difficulty. If a culture in general is unable to recognize that men’s hormonal cycles exist or that they are important, no funding or time is going to be focused on that as it will be seen as waste of time and resources. I think that creates difficulty for both genders as men’s health and experience is ignored or undervalued so that problems are not recognized and potentially helped and women find that that their health and the study of their health is focused more on the negative aspects of it – or perceived negative aspects- and less on the positive traits and aspects of the health differences.

If more research was focused towards men and their health as well as hormonal cycles, I believe that we could gain knowledge that could be quite beneficial for men and the health problems that occur for them. However, it must be acknowledged that the majority of all medical research is focused on men- just not hormonal research- and it is vital to start including women in these processes. Excuses for leaving women out of health studies include the perceived 'variability' of their hormone cycle and the 'uniqueness' of the female body's functions... which feels a bit like a cope out. After all, the majority of all of our bodies- male and female- work and respond the same in similar circumstances.

I am not sure that reading this was really good self care or if I found myself distracted and worked up about something that really isn't super relevant to my life right now. But I found a few things that I was interested in researching at some point. I wonder how much of my health problems is based on some of the external influences the text mentioned. Do I feel more pain because of hormonal changes or because I feel like I ‘should’? Do I feel dirty and awful because of my sensory disorders which cause challenges with the physical sensations… or do I feel that way because I have been taught/ influenced to feel that way? Are the mental symptoms of confusion and personality ‘changes’ really a part of the hormonal changes, part of what I expect to happen, or pieces of both intertwined in the perspective and package of me? Certainly interesting questions to ponder this evening. Although the ponder must end soon as the guys are headed over. :D

What are your thoughts?


Videography as an Art Medium

In an art class that I took, I was introduced to several short art videos. I found all of them really interesting- I used to love going to museums and looking at all the 'art', but I really didn't think much about the different mediums or ways that a piece of work could be created, seen, or even changed. Even with some practice, feel like I am not very accomplished at nor do I understand much when it comes to artwork or artistic technique. I know what I like and what moves me..and I have found those reactions to many pieces of artwork created in many different mediums. I hold no illusions that when I draw, my artwork looks like the concentrated scribbling of a six year old with dinosaurs that smile like people and cats shaped like bowling pins. Artwork created with video isn't something that I have thought of as artwork, but these three videos changed my perspective on that. They really helped me to conceive new ways of seeing, technology and how mixed together they can create significantly different pieces of artwork as opposed to other mediums. So I thought I would share my thoughts on three short films with links attached.

"MUTO" - I thought this video was amazing. I found myself so drawn into the images that near the end as the 'man' is breaking open his head, I felt like I too needed to open a space into mine to understand more information. I couldn't figure out how the man swallowed the paper or found myself trying to decide how the artist came up with his different ideas for the drawing. I found my head moving to follow the 'man/spider/diamond/etc' as it moved across the screen and at one point, my cat Roccu who was sitting next to me seemed to find the images/sounds interesting as well- she stood up and moved her face close to the screen and then tried to pat it.

"The City Lights" by White Stripes- another medium that I had never considered much. For the first parts of the video, I kept trying to understand why the canvas was dripping and kept dripping liquid and that some of the image would disappear as more was created it was only near the end of the film that I realized with was a finger drawing on wet glass. I think I found that the most compelling of all the art I looked at this week because I really kept being pulled in trying to figure out the 'trick'... and even when I learned the trick it still seemed like magic to me.

"Take on Me" by Aha- I originally saw this video when I was a teenager and only now recognize how fundamentally different it was from other music videos from that era. It is hard to describe the way it felt to realize that the images created in this short video and knowing it took almost 3,000 rotoscoped images to fully create the images shown suggests a staggering amount of work- more than most music videos have ever attempted to accomplish- certainly not all... Michael Jackson's Thriller comes to mind as an example of throughout artistic design.

Do any of these videos create a strong reaction within you? What was your favorite? How do you feel about the way the artwork was created? What are your thoughts....


Research Methodologies

One of the most challenging tasks that educated adults need to undertake is to look critically at the world and media around us. Much of television and the Internet are full of vast numbers of stories on scientific research telling their audience how each of us should eat or drink, rear our children, what to purchase, what medication you must use, and other ‘needed’ information. Many of the studies cited in these shows or ads are groups of data that have been manipulated to suggest the outcome shown so it is not unusual to find ‘studies’ that directly contradict each other or doctors that play fast and loose with manipulated data to push specific product consumption. This only emphasizes the importance of a critical mindset with an understanding of research methods so that an informed decision about any question can be obtained. This short paper will look at three journal articles published in scientific journals and how different way of collecting and aggregating data were used to produce the outcomes described. This paper will focus only on the research methods used, not on the topics researched, however, I chose these three articles in particular because the subjects of race, gender, and the teaching profession were common to all three. (I am sorry that I could only link to one site with the full article- I originally printed out the articles from a library site that I no longer have access to. I can help point you in the right direction if my listings are unable to help- just let me know in the comments.)

My first article choice was published by the European Journal of Teacher Education and is titled “Race and Sex: Teacher’s Views on Who Gets Ahead in Schools”. Research for this article was completed by using a few similar methods to create three different data sources; a large scale postal survey of approximately 13,000 teachers from randomly selected schools, in-depth case studies of 18 schools chosen for the study based on specified guidelines, and several workshop discussions outside school settings that were conducted with specific interested parties. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods, the research results were able to be used to aggregate data to look for common or consistent themes in the data collected. It used questionnaires to gather answers to specific inquiry, surveys available to desired communities of interest, and unstructured interviews to gain more information on the answers and additional information on periphery connections. These authors used fairly traditional methods in their research, sticking with specific methods of collection that are scientifically recognized and more likely to pull together an accurate conclusion.

The second article chosen was published in 2000 in the journal Gender and Education and is titled “The Other Side of the Gender Gap”. Research for this article was pulled together using first, an intensive study of one selected school, and then branched out to encompass 15 schools that then used surveys/questionnaires completed by year 11 students of both genders. As an addition to this research, both a comparison of pupil and teacher expectations was completed along with analysis of GCSE results, staff interviews, and classroom observations. Using mostly quantitative methods allowed the researchers to gain information that allowed them to make fairly precise comparisons of data throughout the researched group. However, as this study only used one method of data collection, it has the problem of being fairly limited in how the data collected can be used and extrapolated. Also, for very complex subjects, this research method alone usually is not strong enough to accurately explain those issues.

The last article chosen was published in 2007 in the Cambridge Journal of Education and is titled “‘The Bar is Slightly Higher’: the Perception of Racism in Teacher Education”. As this article discusses research conducted as part of a larger study, there are a fewer research methods discussed. The methods used for this portion of the study were mostly interviews; either face to face, by telephone, or in focus group discussions that explored issues that had arisen from the questionnaire survey or issues that were not able to be addresses in the original questionnaire. For the purposes of data collection for this portion of the project, the research method used was unstructured interviews of 29 selected study participants. Some of the strengths of performing unstructured interviews include; participants can answer open ended questions in depth giving researchers a solid foundation of how the interviewee feels about the subject presented, interviewer can ask more questions or ask for clarifications to avoid misunderstandings, and these types of interviews are most flexible, giving researchers a way to change questions or focus if needed due to the answers provided by participants. However, this form of research method in terms of cost, time consumption, and not using enough participants can result in data that is hard to accurately use or provide meaningful results.

A scholar who is studying topics umbrellaed into the subject of education and sociology (or any subject really) needs to recognize the research methods that are used to collect information as well as the strengths and limitations of each one. Only one journal article that I analyzed above used a few methods that consisted of both qualitative and quantitative criteria making that particular study probably the most accurate and actionable of the three. One aspect of study research that I discovered is that searching for subjects by topic or focus will help narrow your search for relevant articles, but may inadvertently feed the researcher many sources using incomplete or inappropriate methods. It can also cause you to leave a prepared list to find ‘something new’ and as your study commences, the researcher may realize they haven’t left the prepared listing at all- I did. It is fairly valuable then to recognize research methods and be able to quickly determine through a brief reading of the abstract what research might be more pertinent to your study as well as how accurate the methods are in use. This felt like a valuable foray into the beginnings of understanding different research methods and their use.

what are your thoughts on how research is performed? What research methods seem the most accurate to you?