What Every Teacher Should Know About Neurodiverse Learners by MacLean Gander
As a college educator in the field of neurodiversity and LD (Learning Differences) for more than three decades, I have seen many positive disruptive changes in the field of education. The most important change is that the deficit model for neurodiversity has been discarded, at least within the leading educational circles in the field. The idea that a student is broken and has come to an educational fix-up shop no longer makes intellectual sense. We have seen far too much evidence of what students can achieve to continue to cling to the model of brokenness that was first created in the middle of the last century.
The challenge then is to inform teachers who do not have decades of experience at an institution specifically designed to work with neurodervisity and learning challenges how best to work with neurodiverse learners. What follows are some principles for how to move forward.
- Start with the student and where they are:
Part of this is about accepting where a student is and understanding it. People learn what they are ready to learn. Equally important is to find out what is getting in the way of learning. The best way to do this is to ask a student questions. Obviously, in large lecture classrooms this can be difficult, but in most classrooms where a student is struggling there is some expectation that a teacher will intervene. The first step is to give the student the dignity of their situation and then to plan together based on what they have told you.
- Make instruction and expectations explicit:
All students benefit from explicit instruction in any dimension of a course in which one expects them to be able to perform their knowledge and understanding. Making expectations clear for student performance is essential. I tell students how many hours they should work on something and what it should look like when it is done. Creating those clear benchmarks requires that a teacher create equally clear benchmarks for themself in how they will assure students are prepared to do the work.
- Teach in ways that reach the information-processing differences in the classroom:
This is often called teaching in multiple modalities, and it ties back to earlier forms of working with students with dyslexia where using visual, kinesthetic, auditory, and tactile modes to help students learn written language was first developed. People learn in different ways, and this approach is as important in the boardroom presentation as it is in the classroom. Providing visual and kinesthetic modalities for learning—especially activity-based learning—is something any group of learners can benefit from.
- Provide alternative modes of assessment:
The focus should be on whether students have met learning objectives, not on a particular mode of performance. In some cases, tests really matter, when content knowledge is essential, as with doctors, airline pilots, EMT’s, lawyers, and realtors. In other cases, providing alternative modes of assessing knowledge should be fine—if someone can explain the history of the Weimar Republic orally why should they need to do it in writing?
- Tolerance for error:
Research demonstrates that we learn from making mistakes rather than from doing what we already know how to do. In that sense, having tolerance for error is simply a matter of being a good guide in the learning process. Some errors matter less than others—spelling is a good example of one that does not matter, while an error in a budget projection may matter a great deal. Teaching students about error and being tolerant of error while also holding high expectations about when errors really matter is important. Tolerating error also means helping students learn to be aware of the ways in which they make errors and why it matters, and what to do about it.
- Strategy instruction:
This is central to helping anyone with challenges in any arena perform better. It is about strengths and weaknesses. The key to it is to help students understand what their strengths and challenges are, first, and then working to develop strategies to augment strengths and minimize weaknesses. Strategy instruction combined with understanding a students’ learning profile is probably the most important element of development for a teacher who works with neurodiverse students.
- Use technology in helpful and intentional ways:
A lot of students benefit from being able to listen to texts or to write their work using speech to text software. Having clear information and support for the use of technology is extremely important. At the same time, social media, video games, and so on, can be deep distractions for students. This is an unresolved pedagogical question. Students need to be able to access texts digitally and to have class information available to them. They also will need to learn how to work in online settings like Zoom, respond to emails, and so on. The challenge is to make the tools available, teach how to operate online, while creating ways to help students not drift into cyber space.
In the current moment, when the pandemic has deranged education, we see how any learner may be challenged when the teaching environment is changed in ways that are new and often uncertain.
Many educators have come to acknowledge their own neurodevelopmental differences and see that they have affinities with their students in certain ways. It is a good teacher who understands their own learning challenges and can model how to overcome them.
The old saying that “students don’t have learning disabilities, just some schools have teaching disabilities” is finally coming to seem increasingly clear.
MacLean Gander has been with Landmark College, a private college in Putney, Vermont exclusively for those with diagnosed learning disabilities, attention disorders, or autism, since 1987, where he has served in various roles, including English Department Chair, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Dean of the College. Mac has taught courses in creative writing, literature, education, journalism, and leadership studies, and he is currently a full professor in the professional studies department.
Before coming to Landmark he worked as a journalist for Newsweek in Manhattan and then The Nation in Manila during the period of the Philippine Revolution. He holds an A.B. in English from Harvard and was the Hoyt Fellow in Creative Writing at Boston University in 1981, where he received an M.A. in Creative Writing. He received his Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Change from Fielding Graduate University in 2008, where his dissertation focused on the history of the LD field. His first book of poems, The New City, was published by 21st editions in 2008.
In addition to his work at Landmark, Mac also volunteers as an investigative reporter for The Commons, a Windham County, VT non-profit newsweekly published by Vermont Independent Media, where he also serves on the governing board as vice-president. Mac lives in Guilford, Vermont with his wife, the poet and photographer Shanta Lee Gander.