Greta Thunberg has ‘special needs’ - she needs you to wake up to the horrors of climate change

16-year-old Greta Thunburg is not your average teen. In August of last year, Greta decided to strike from school until the Swedish government agreed to reduce carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Greta protested daily outside the Riksdag with a sign reading Skolstrejk för klimatet - school strike for the climate.

Inspired by her activism, School Strike 4 Climate has become a global movement for teens desperately frustrated by world-wide governmental inaction regarding what they perceive as the biggest crises facing their generation. School Strike 4 Climate has seen protests in up in 270 cities to date, with over 20,000 teens striking in the last 7 months alone.

When asked how she did it – inspire a movement from one humble action – Greta has been clear: her autism makes her see things differently.

Interviewer: You’ve been open about having Asperger’s (Autism). How has that informed your activism?

Greta: I think it has affected everything. Because if I didn’t have Asperger’s, and if I wasn’t so strange, I would have been stuck in this social game that everyone else seems to be so infatuated with.

It makes me function a bit differently, I see the world in a different way, with a different perspective. And I think that if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t have been able to see it from the outside. I see things as very black and white. People say, oh nothing is black and white. But the climate question is very black and white….we have to stop the emissions. 1

Biodiversity is known to be a function of species protection; might neurodiversity be the same? Each cognitive difference may have its own special markers, but we tend to pathologise these to form diagnostic criteria. Shifting awareness towards a cultural model of social value requires us to acknowledge the gifts of many children we find difficult to accommodate in our schools and workplaces.

Greta Thunberg has ‘special needs’ – she needs us to wake up to the horrors of climate change.


1.     Skavlan Talkshow January 2019



On Learning and Love

"...what teachers really teach is themselves — their contagious passion for their subjects and students. It reminded us that children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person." David Brooks

Isn’t that beautiful? 

As my teaching practice has matured, so have my students: what began as a career as a primary school specialist has necessarily evolved into secondary school specialism. Last week I helped clarify the failure of the League of Nations, iambic pentameter, coastal erosion and research variables. I use the word clarify, because I am not a subject specialist per se.  5 years ago, my knowledge of European history, poetry analysis and physical geography were rusty, to say the least.

I remember the first pupil who heaved his physics book on the table and asked for my help. I had taught him to spell and now he had grown and needed help with something new. It was a teaching milestone for me – I could have said ‘I don’t teach physics’ and meant it. There are some secondary teachers who would have preferred I say no, preserving the sanctity of the subject. But what would I have modelled in the moment?

My students, all special and different, come to my table with a sense that things are out of their reach. They have an educational history of finding learning and remembering very difficult, and immense frustration that they can’t express what they know. They arrive vulnerable in some way, and it is an awesome and sacred responsibility to meet them there and walk them forward towards self-belief. What does that look like in practice?

I looked this young man in the eyes and said “well, I know nothing about this either, but I’ll have a go.” We searched the internet. We decided which sites were easy to understand. We read and we discussed and tried to teach each other. I found my understanding of velocity improve, and so did his. Neither of us has come to love physics, but we share a commitment: to learning how to do what we don’t know how to do - yet. Yesterday he said to me, regarding a quote bank for a book he doesn’t like (understand), ‘I hate this book, but I believe you. So if you say that’s what the author means, I’ll believe you. We’ll start there.’

That one act, exposing my vulnerability as a teacher, endeared me to him. I showed my lack of ability like it was no big thing. Every week my students bring their vulnerability to me. They hate that they find learning difficult. Their pride takes a beating, as does their self-esteem. For someone to show themselves to you like that, especially a teenager, is an awesome thing. To be vested with that trust is an awesome thing.

So every week I do the same. I show who I am, too. I’m great at geography, my maths is appalling, and I try extra hard with physics. No one can read my handwriting. I have no idea where I left my glasses. I’ll go to places I’m not skilled in with you. I’ll bring my understanding of neurodiverse learning patterns and you bring us what we need to learn. I’ll explain it in the way you understand. I’ll teach you to remember it in the way that suits you. You are grateful I get you, I am grateful you let me. You trust me with your learning difficulty.  How can that not breed love? ‘I believe you’ and I believe in you go hand in hand.

Students Learn From People They Love : Putting relationship quality at the center of education.

A Fresh Start (again)

 I’m a parent of a child who learns differently. I’m the teacher of many children who learn differently. We are champions and cheerleaders. We celebrate the successes with real joy and listen to the challenges with a heavy heart. Most of all, we are advocates. We stop at nothing to draw attention again and again to ways the school can help our unique learner succeed.

This has been known to produce battle scars.

It doesn’t matter if you start the new school year as a child, teacher or parent, going back to school shares that heady mix of hopeful and anxious most beginnings share. 

The first few weeks of school were the same for me every year. I held my breath every day after school waiting to hear if any support was in place, if any of the differentiation was happening. I would fantasise that this would be the year I didn’t have to go in and tell every teacher ‘this is how my child learns best’ - because they had read the reports, all of them. It never happened.

The author Byron Katie says that when we argue with reality, we lose – but only 100% of the time. The reality is that most teachers are not trained in teaching learners outside the norm, nor do they have the skills to decode Ed Psych reports. They have 20-30 students, performance expectations tied to salary and quite often, the best will in the world. I mean this: most teachers I know – and I know many – love learning. Teachers respect learning with all their hearts. No teacher ever wants a student to fail. Never.

I’m often asked if I became a specialist as a result of my experiences with my child. My answer is always the same: Yes – but not as you might imagine. My graduate work in language-based learning differences stems from an earlier interest in linguistics and education. My specialism, however, came from my real time observations of my daughter. I am an expert in how my daughter interacts with her learning and what does and does not work for her in the classroom. I know what the effects are of good support and no support at all – I’m the first to know.

If you are reading this, chances are you are an expert too. No one knows your child as intimately as you do, not even the Ed Psych who wrote the report everyone should absolutely read. You have the necessary ability to use simple language to explain what makes your child unique and what special accommodations will enable a level playing field. While I am sorry that you will have to do this every year, I am glad it’s you. You understand what the stakes are.

Supporting pupils outside of school: in praise of tutoring for the neurodiverse child (and their typically developing friends)

The practice of ‘tutoring’ is viewed with scepticism in certain circles, especially by teachers in schools. I think this is a shame. 1:1 tuition can offer both neurodiverse and typically developing learners the opportunity to develop deeper awareness of how they learn, what constitutes individual differences, why it may feel like a disability in certain contexts and what strategies are required for self-support. As learning differences manifest differently across different subjects, understanding who I am as a learner enables me to see how my unique profile is likely to react with curricular demands, and what response I can employ to meet these demands.

This requires Metacognition.

When I sit down with a pupil for the first time, I always begin by asking the same question: how can I help? Without fail, the child will tell me what they find problematic. Pupils as young as Year 2 can self assess with some measure of accuracy: ‘I can’t remember spellings’ or ‘I can’t remember times tables.’ Older pupils may be more astute: ‘I can do it at home but not under timed conditions.’ ‘I know it but I can’t get it down on paper.’ We call this thinking-about-our-thinking metacognition, and it is a skill that improves with age and practice. What constitutes metacognition?

• Awareness of knowledge—understanding what one knows, what one does not know, and what one wants to know. It is just as unhelpful to not know as to think you know but don’t.

• Awareness of thinking—understanding cognitive tasks and the nature of what is required to complete them. What does this task require? What am I actually being asked to do when I approach this French grammar?

• Awareness of thinking strategies—understanding approaches to learning. What can I do to make the irregular verbs/high frequency words/physics formulas stick? How do I go about the steps or micro-steps of writing this essay?

In order to improve performance in a given subject area, we must start with considered assessment. We must consider not just measures of attainment (eg. can do 5 times tables, can’t do sevens or eights) but what underlying cognitive processes need support in order to facilitate fluency. This question is critical, because any strategy to improve performance must be based on supporting the exact nature of the difficulty. Is the issue organisational? Memory? What kinds of memory? Is information going in and then going missing? Is it going in at all? The problem is not spelling per se (or maths or science.) The problem is with a problematic element of learning made apparent in attempting to spell accurately.

Personalised learning is what successful 1:1 instruction is all about. It is what makes tutoring a success. Without the hullaballoo in the classroom and competing demands on attention, a teacher can assess a pupil with greater precision and analyse how the pupil learns. What happens next is beyond the scope of classroom instruction: not because classroom teachers lack the skill (most don’t) but classroom teachers lack the time.

When I watch a pupil begin a task, I watch what they have in their tool bag. I see what they believe the task entails. I observe the efficacy of their strategy, the strength they rely on, the limitations of that strength and the weakness they aim to support. All these observations can be made without distraction, with concentrated attention on both our parts and with some modicum of ease outside of the curricular demands of a school-based lesson.

Next, I explain what I have learned to the pupil. Without fail, every child is attentive – because they are looking for solutions and it feels good to be seen. Then we begin again with what we have learned through assessment. We ask ourselves: What skills and steps do we need to accomplish this task? What do we need to know? How do we get started? Get organised? Structure the work? How much time do we need? How do we know when it is finished? Do we need practice time later? We learn what questions we ask to solve a given problem and we match those to targeted, practical strategies to improve performance.

Exploring learning through a metacognitive lens fosters independence. Understanding how one's brain works is empowering. It helps to demystify what is tricky in the classroom and with homework. It supports the sense that having a learning difference can be managed and this self-efficacy builds on itself. It helps a pupil help a teacher by guiding them in differentiating curriculum delivery and resource support.

Can this support take place in schools? Absolutely. Many schools have learning support departments staffed with able, educated learning specialists. But many do not. Budgets are tight. Criteria for inclusion in support programmes may miss those who are doing well but could do better. Gifted and talented programmes are thin on the ground particularly for pupils in secondary - and many pupils with learning differences are both challenged and gifted.

Neurodiverse pupils may have had more contact with 1:1 support throughout their education, but their typically developing friends can benefit from this approach as well. It may be an educational luxury rather than a necessity, but it is not intrinsically questionable. Nor is outside support a rebuke to classroom instruction or classroom teachers – truly the information culled in assessment could found effective classroom differentiation. If we work together.

Questions about learning, assessment, neurodiversity or differentiation? Get in touch.

Interested in research on metacognition and educational performance? I’ve put some suggestions for further reading below.

Bransford, John D., Brown Ann L., and Cocking Rodney R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Brown, A. L., Bransford, J. D., Ferrara, R. A., & Campione, J. C. (1983). Learning, remembering, and understanding. In J. H. Flavell & E. M. Markman (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology,Vol. 3 Cognitive development (4th ed.) (pp. 78-166). New York: Wiley.

Flavell, J. H. (1979) Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-development inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906-911

Pintrich, Paul R. (2002). The Role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing. Theory into Practice, 41(4). 219-225.

Defence against the summer slide: what to talk to your teacher about now

Most teachers begin their school year expecting to reteach a certain amount of material from the end of the previous year. Spirits run high in the last weeks of school, teachers are writing reports, the sun is shining and on the whole, no one really has their head in the game. Throw in a play, a concert, a party or two and it makes sense that September is dedicated to settling in your new class and re-establishing the baseline from which you hope to teach.

One of the notable differences in children who learn differently is memory – both storage and retrieval. For some children, getting the information processed through the sensory system can require a great deal of time; this can degrade the information making storage tricky. Take vowel sounds for example: there isn’t the big difference between the sounds a and e as there is between A and E. If it takes some time to get towards storage, I’m unable to get it to sit nicely in the filing cabinet /a/ or /e/ because a sound which has become ‘faint’ through travel is less crisp, or as we say ‘fine-grained’.

Help for children who process differently or store/retrieve differently, will include a great deal of repetition of material. Some kids need this because repetition acts as a ballast to new material awaiting filing.

Children who learn differently can be terribly affected by 6-8 weeks off tuition. On the one hand, they work the hardest and truly need (and deserve) a break. On the other hand, without some engagement with whatever material they find most difficult to retain, they won’t raise their head from the parapet until October. Playing catch up is an awful place to be and while I get that it doesn’t feel loving to force your child to study over the holidays, I would argue that it is even more unloving to set them up for a game of catch-up in the first term.

Here are my suggestions for the parent who wants to support their child without chaining them to summer school:

1. Speak with your teacher before school finishes. Ask what the 2 areas your child most needs to practice over the summer.

2. Get on your learning support teacher’s hat. We make everything possible into a game and use the internet to support us.

3. Take a new look at the games you play. Top Trumps is really a maths game of higher and lower. I just searched for maths with a deck of cards and found resources for dice games, e books and ideas for shopping trips. I spy helps word retrieval. Use chalk to make a Twister board with letters and call out words. Use to make word searches – in fact, download word searches to support skimming and scanning skills. Download dot-to-dots to support handwriting. Teach a reluctant boy to play poker and blackjack and I promise they will be happy to do maths.

4. Invest in audiobooks. There are plenty of free audiobooks and listening to language is still an important activity in the absence of a book (but just this once). For a child who struggles to decode, pick an age appropriate book other children are reading and let your child have the pleasure of a rich story. For children in need of vocabulary development, audio books help novel words rest in context.

If you need more ideas and suggestions for games and activities, there are so many resources on the internet you will come to see how dependent teachers can be upon its storehouse of activities. If you’re still stuck, send me a note and I’ll suggest something for you myself. Your teacher may have suggestions too if you ask…

Now go have fun.

fidget spinners: a setback in the fight to decriminalise fidgeting

Teachers hate fidget toys. We want you to Pay Attention.

It’s a pleasure to teach history - there is a compelling storyline one can deliver with enthusiasm and drama; fractions are a tougher ticket. We’re building on skills which I hope are embedded, asking a child to go on the journey with me for 30 or 40 or 60 minutes (hopefully first thing in the morning, early in the week) in a step-by-step process that can challenge a child’s attention. I do my best to be engaging, delivering lessons with humour and, in the case of fractions, metaphors: pizza always works.

When I’m working the room, moving through clusters of desks, I used to look for eye contact; now I am mindful that some children can’t do that with ease. Now I feel for other signs of attention –a Year 9 girl told me she could feel the adrenalin flow when she was switched on and learning and you can see it. Personally, I am happy with the low level of noise which signifies excitement and engagement.

Fidget toys as a rule disrupt the flow of teaching. Fidgeting isn’t new; long before the spinner craze, teachers cased the classroom on the hunt to eliminate all potential sources of distraction: a rubber eraser, blue tack, pencils to chew and chairs to rock. One fidgeting child has been known to stop a lesson midstream for a whole class dressing down, so loathed are fidget toys.

But some kids need to fidget.

I’m not talking about the movement that signifies a lesson is too long, too heavy or just dull. I’m referring to those children who inherently struggle to pay attention.

What makes a child struggle to pay attention?

1. The weight of the information is too heavy to process and they need to ‘check out’ for a minute to regroup. Think staring out the window.

2. An inability to inhibit stimulus.  In plain English, internal or external chatter is too noisy in my head and I can’t filter or screen it out. This can be someone talking to loudly, the fact that my shirt itches or being worried.

As humans we are prone to taking things personally, and this is true for teachers. I want you to value my lesson, stay with me so that I can teach you something new, help me tick off curriculum content. When I lose you, it’s an obstruction to lesson development. It makes me cross.

But children get lost in the lesson for different reasons, and this is the foundation of classroom differentiation and support: a whiteboard on the desk to remind you of instructions, a laptop to help your speed. These adaptations may be at the discretion of the teacher but some are entitlements aimed at levelling the playing field, to which one is entitled through the disability discrimination act.

Some kids need to let out adrenaline and some kids need to ramp it up. Fidget toys can level the playing field and help kids stay cognitively engaged by mitigating the attention surplus or deficit. The child who needs to fidget and is allowed to fidget is developing self-monitoring strategies; independence in learning is always our teaching goal.

We are excellent judges of who is really listening; we can develop this skill to ask ourselves who needs to self-monitor their attention with a fidget toy. That said, it never needs to be a noisy, purchased spinner. Ask any teacher and they well know an unobtrusive, free resource in the classroom which would do the trick. Fidget spinners are bringing fidgeting into disrepute at a time when kids with learning differences (ADD, ADHD, ASD, dyslexia and dyspraxia) are fighting for their classroom rights.

For too long, fidgeting has been a classroom crime. While I am glad children have found a low tech toy to carry in their pocket, make no mistake: fidget spinners are not helping the cause.

Fostering resilience

There is a fuss being made in education at present about resilience. Like strong verbal skills or good working memory, current research suggests that resilience can positively affect educational outcomes. For children with learning differences this becomes hugely important because unlike processing and memory, resilience is not a fixed construct; there is no inherent barrier to full and free expression.

The word resilience has been in steady usage since 1674. It stems from the Latin resilire  - to jump back, recoil, and from re- + salire to leap. Leap, recoil, jump back: all attest to the cycle of forward movement, meeting an edge, springing back and beginning again. That is what we want to cultivate, the springing back, the physics of renewed effort… and this takes practice.

The brain’s organization is affected by experience and practice; we call this neuroplasticity and it is the science of learning. Our brains are like forests of branches, each responsible for different ways of perceiving and processing information. With practice, the brain can ‘learn’ to compensate for a weakness by strengthening alternative pathways – it’s the science behind the effectiveness of early intervention for reading and maths difficulties.

If you’ve ever tried to learn a language or a musical instrument, you know how challenging practice can be. How much effort is required to keep trying.

The British have an interesting expression: to be ‘a trier’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines trier (noun) as ‘a person who always makes an effort, however unsuccessful they may be’. ‘Kelly was described by her teachers as a real trier.’

My heart goes out to Kelly.

Resilience has a shadow which we don’t explicitly acknowledge. To become resilient we always meet an edge, a barrier. If you are a child with a learning difference, you meet your edge every day in school. You meet your edge in reading, in spelling, in math. In social skills. In simple organisation. Every day, in a public forum, you are exposed. That’s a vulnerable place to go every day.

Even the dictionary thinks of Kelly as unsuccessful.

The success criteria for resilience is not about the barrier; it’s about the springing back. As adults we know that everyone faces challenges, meets edges, and that growth is the process of continuing on irrespective of all conditions: positive or negative, desired or undesirable. The understanding that all human beings share this experience is the basis of empathy and connection.

So how do we foster Kelly’s resilience?

·         We need to challenge the way neurodivergent children are being perceived in schools

·         We need to actively cultivate empathy in schools


I’m putting together an action plan.

Do you have a question or concern about children who learn differently that you’d like to know more about? Write to me at

Julianne's teaching tip: revision aka 3/2/1

Teaching Tip: starting revision

1= ‘I could take this exam right now and ace it’ test ready

2= ‘I definitely learnt this, could probably blag it and have a 50/50 chance of success’ revision

3= ‘Never seen this in my life’ initial learning



1. Take an A5 piece of paper and turn it landscape

2. Divide into 3 sections numbered (from l to r) 1 2 and 3

3. Open your textbook. Look at the table of contents. Go to a chapter/unit.

4. Skim and scan for broad topics.

5. Assess whether this topic fits into 1,2 or 3. Write it in.

6. Repeat for every subject/topic


Anything in column 3 is not ready for revision. It can’t be revised because you don’t know it. When we look it over/make notes/make a mind map we are not revising, we are learning.

Before revision takes place, we must get all the 3s into column 2.

Then we can revise, because realistically, anything in column 2 will give us at least a chance of success. Column 3 is a total crap shoot.

Aim for next year? To have no 3s by revision time. This stands for unit tests, term tests, end of years and certainly GCSE/A levels.

When is revision not revision - part 2

When is revision not revision?

Part 2.

Initial learning is when you learn something new, begin to lay the groove in your memory which homework (a form of revision) then deepens. Initial learning is the first encounter with material, during which time you find the mental drawer into which you will come to file this new information. So in some respects, initial learning is rarely new material per se, it is additional material on a topic which has previously been introduced. It deepens understanding, adds facts, begins to create a network of information like a map. For the purposes of revision, I like to see it as a filing cabinet.

So picture this:

You have a filing cabinet called HISTORY. In the world of learning support, it may be purple – to correspond to the purple folder in which notes are stored, the purple highlighter in which history is added to the revision timetable, the purple ink in which you write history homework into your diary. For current GCSE history students, there are drawers labelled Cold War-America-Treaty of Versailles: our broad topics. Within the drawer of Cold War I have Truman, Churchill, Tito, Stasi, Marshall, Berlin. Attlee and refugees. I know they all go into this drawer because IT SAID SO IN THE TEXTBOOK.

Why all caps? Because if you have a learning difference, and heard this information but couldn’t muster the cognitive resources to accurately store this in the Cold War cabinet during class –  because you’re tired, feel sad, can’t read the board fast enough, can’t listen when there’s noise – then you are going to have to learn this properly when you get home. The beauty of the textbook is that it is a living file cabinet, neatly organised and ready to help you file facts into categories.

Assuming you went home and revised.

Most students with learning differences are bone tired at the end of a long day, take 2-3x as long to finish homework and don’t really know how to manage time. So the opportunity to take fresh, half formed ideas and stories and securely file them through additional homework seems unlikely. Which is why I pose the question about revision in the first place. 9 times out of 10, our well-meaning (albeit anxious)student with a learning difference wants nothing more than to learn the topic, revise, feel confident in the timed test and have a hope of passing. Have you ever wondered why your child doesn’t just just sit down, manage their time and revise? Why they faff and weep and appear to be trying to swerve the only path to success?

They can’t revise because they haven’t learned it properly in the first place.

In part 1 of this blog, I proposed 2 different scenarios – frustration with the avoidant child and frustration with the incompetent school. Imagine a 3rd scenario.

Kids with learning differences need a formalised approach to revision, one which begins with ascertaining whether they are revising, or indeed learning this properly for the first time. They need to be taught how to file, why homework is their best ally, and how to cross file information because Churchill is in more than one drawer and his name is certain to come up on the GCSE.

Storage and Retrieval: the keys to exam success.

Have an educational/SEND/research/schools question for me? I love to answer questions! Email You could become a blog post.

When is revision not revision?

When is revision not revision?

Part 1.

If you were in my spelling group you would know the answer straight away; the root of revision is vis – to look or see. Re as a prefix means again, and the suffix –ion turns a verb into a noun. Therefore revision means to look at or to see again. But what if for the life of you, you have never seen this material before?

The answer is simple. You can’t revise if you haven’t learnt it.

A parent, particularly one paying school fees, might take umbrage at the fact that their child did not learn physical forces or The Cold War or the French subjunctive tense during lessons. In fact, given a lifetime of school reports suggesting your child is a daydreamer, often without the correct kit and potentially disruptive, you might think your child is to blame. Conversely, you may wonder whether the teacher who was unable to implement even one suggestion off the EP report – handing out prereading for example – has ruined the GCSE chances for your child forever. You may be locked in battle with a school who has let your child down.

What makes a lesson go in one ear and out the other?

It is hard to be a teen. The surge in hormones makes you downright unstable, to which any parent or teacher can heartily attest. Your brain is radically rerouting, expanding and developing new neural pathways in the service of maturation and this feels like a daily rollercoaster. Now add individual daily differences: A bad night’s sleep. Row with a mate. Break up. Bad hair. Social Problems. Unkind teacher. Problem with your Mum. You walk into class preoccupied. Your learning brain is occupied.

Now add a learning difference. Multitasking is impossible, and by this I mean the fundamental demands of the classroom are inherently challenging. Looking at the board and writing notes and listening to a lecture and in a noisy room. Now add to the equation new material which is spelled funny on a topic you may not care about in any way. With bad hair. Or a crush.

It’s a write off.

What homework does, theoretically, is enable students to reengage with the material in a different context. I come home, I look at what I learned (or didn’t), and try to learn it or apply it from the comfort of my bed. This may give me a fighting chance to relearn the material and if the school timetable is smart I will be using this base knowledge again within the next day or two so that it takes root and becomes part of the schema, or knowledge infrastructure, onto which this topic is being grafted. So that when I come to revise, to express this information, my internal storage will be tidy and complete and easy to access and I will tell you everything I know and do so splendidly and within the allocated time.

What could go wrong?

Helping your child at home videos – ‘in just 15 minutes a day’

I had the good fortune of working on a series of videos as part of a DfE initiative called Parent Champions. Many of the member organisations of the Dyslexia-SpLD Trust came together to work on various projects to support families learn more about supporting children who learn differently.

It had been a while since I watched these little gems and was really pleased to see they had been viewed often and well-received. The tips are still good ones so here they are.

I’ve provided links for both organisations below, take a look at their good work.

The Dyslexia SpLD Trust →

Parent Champions →

Neurodiversity and learning differences

I have great respect for language - as a linguist and a teacher. The intention behind which words we choose has been a vital component in my own education. We no longer ‘manned’ the stall we ‘ran’ it. The ‘chairman’ became the ‘chair’. Actor, waiter, steward: gender based suffixes were questioned as part of a larger social movement which aimed to challenge limiting social constructs. It is hard to imagine that language now commonplace was once seen as revolutionary.

Which brings me to Neurodiversity.

The concept of neurodiversity appeals to me and it should appeal to you too. In this age where we aim to experience ourselves as beyond binary constructs, why does education – and indeed educational research – still promote a construct of ‘typical’ and ‘atypical’?

Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits regarded as part of the normal variation in the human population. It is a biological fact. The neurodiversity paradigm aims to challenge thinking about what is normal so that we can be considered in how we approach human differences.

Autism advocacy groups began to challenge perceptions around 'atypical' cognition in the 1990s. The National Autistic People's Organisation UK Values statements neatly summarises the issue I'd like to debate within the broader learning differences population: the concept that neurodiversity involves difference rather than deficit.

When we see variations in cognition as normal, it invites an inclusivity which supports people with learning differences. I believe that the effect of having considered neurodivergent learners as impaired, defined by having a difficulty, has placed them outside the realm of normal classroom pedagogy. It de-skills teachers, stigmatises children and creates one set of teaching practices that are normal and one which is specialised. 

We make a significant cultural contribution to the lives of neurodivergent learners, and to the field of cognitive neurodiversity, when we begin to change the way we discuss children who learn differently. Change begins with education; educating ourselves that we may educate our children.

SpLD: Specific learning difficulty or learning difference? Time for a rethink.

For many years, teachers and practitioners have been using the acronym SpLD to describe a group of ‘difficulties’ which make it challenging to succeed in the classroom. The most common SpLDs are dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder ADHD, attention deficit disorder ADD, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. The word ‘specific’ refers to the nature of the difficulty – it is not a general learning ‘difficulty’ but one specific to a particular behaviour; reading, spelling, maths, handwriting, attention, etc.

Except it’s not that specific.

The underlying processes in the brain which perceive, process and store information are largely responsible for how we learn. If one of these has a natural variation in performance, it is unlikely that only one specific area will be affected. More and more we find that those children who find classroom learning a challenge struggle in more than one area. There is a general increase in kids with a cluster of difficulties and I’m not sure that using the word specific is terribly useful.

One could argue that specific is only meant to differentiate from general – but who gains from that distinction? We are trying to defend children from accusations that they’re not generally unable but the moment we defend children in this way, we unwittingly support a perception that ability determines educational outcomes. On this research is clear: ability and response to teaching are two separate things. But what concerns me more is that every time we call these differences ‘difficulties’, we create a separate class of learning which is outside the domain of normal instruction. In the UK, it is not mandatory for initial teacher training to include modules on learning differences. How can this be?

We may have a specific education difficulty on our hands.

There is a typical learner who teachers learn to teach and one who has a difficulty requiring specialist training . However, the 2015 SEND code of practice, the governmental guidelines for teaching pupils with special educational needs, places general responsibility for these pupils in the hands of the class teacher. In the absence of training, why wouldn’t children who learn differently be difficult to teach? Difficult to progress? Appear less able?

When we say a child has a learning difference, we open the door to a new dialogue on teaching and learning. We accept that differences in cognition are normal. We encourage children, families and schools to understand what processes underpin learning and how information delivery impacts response. Research is unequivocal: how we deliver information, structure delivery and adapt frequency of teaching plays a critical role in helping kids with learning differences achieve.

While I recognise the benefit of making changes to timetabling, learning about adaptive technology, continuing professional development on learning and curriculum development, the largest benefit to this rethink for me is social. I do not feel comfortable supporting a concept which places a learning difficulty solely within child. This thinking disempowers children but mostly it disempowers teachers. Helping children to learn through really able teaching is what makes this difficult profession worthwhile.  

It's time to shake up the system.