Current approaches to supporting neurodivergent (ND) students at university are predicated on the idea that they need to be ‘fixed’ so that they can exist within a system designed for neurotypical people. But until we work to change the embedded systems and processes, ND students will struggle to flourish within academia.
People who are neurodivergent have an incredible ability to perceive the world differently to their neurotypical (NT) peers. Very often, we can focus intently on a specific detail, allowing us to see things others have missed. Our brains can light up, giving us a flood of information, connections and emotions, that help us to see the world in glorious technicolour. Our empathy allows us to understand others, their struggles and their emotions, while our compassion drives us to want to fight by their side.
However, these traits are often undervalued in academia, which is built on a history of elitism and traditional perceptions of what ‘good’ looks like. Consequently, academia values speed, accuracy and the ability to replicate a specific style of speaking, writing and being. The importance placed on the enactment of these values, disables those who's cognitive divergence restricts their ability to comply.
Most university's approach to ‘supporting’ ND students is to send them to a specialist study skills tutor, where the perception is that they will 'train' the student to conform to the system as if non-conformity was a conscious choice based on laziness or lack of application. Most study skills tutors will know that our role is much more than this, and in fact we often provide one of the few spaces where students can voice and question the disabling expectations they encounter when they enter academia.
Both critical educators and study skills tutors have the unique opportunity to transgress this system. By engaging students in transformative pedagogy, as outlined by critical educators bell hooks and Paulo Freire, we can support them to perceive and better understand the systemic systems and structures which disable them.
Transformative pedagogy is built on the idea that education has the power to transform society by illuminating the mechanisms of oppression and supporting students to take action to change them. Rather than being instructed what to think and what to do, students are encouraged to engage in critical conversations, exploring their experience along with the wider historical and cultural aspects which have created the situation they now find themselves in.
In academia, with ND students, these conversations could revolve around questions such as 'Do we need to learn to write academically?', 'Are lectures a form of teaching?', 'Who decides what is 'acceptable' or 'good' in academia?' or 'How does a society define the 'normal' way of being and acting?' and 'Who benefits from this?'.
By supporting ND students to question these ideas, the conversation can move away from how we 'fix' our ND students so that they can conform to neurotypical expectations, to how we can transform academia to become a more inclusive space for ND people.
So, what would these changes look like? Crucially, Freire would argue that the only people who should answer this question are those who are oppressed by the current system, in this case ND students.
Transformative pedagogy gives students the tools to uncover their answers. It’s essential that while students are engaging in these discussions, they also remain mindful of the reality of the world around them. This guards against students becoming immobile (with the hope that things will change by themselves) or suggesting changes that risk restricting others. Remaining critical ensures that two types of transformation can take place.
The first, is the transformation of both students' and educators' conscious understanding of the situation. When we share our experiences and authentically listen to the experiences of others, we can understand the world beyond our own immediate bubble. Equally, expanding the conversations to include the historical and cultural reasons why things are the way they are, changes how we understand things. Secondly, once we understand the world more thoroughly, we can identify what is creating the barriers and begin to consider how to remove them.
When engaging with ND students in this way, I have found that many of the actions they choose to take, reflect their understanding that we need to change a person’s perception of an oppressive situation, in order to then make changes in the physical world. When working with a group of dyslexic students using transformative pedagogy, the group decided that the first transformation required was for academics to transform how they perceived dyslexia.
The group chose to instigate this change by holding a university-wide event to raise awareness of dyslexia, with the aim that this would lead to academics making changes to their curriculum and how they teach. In addition, they sought to transform their physical space by leading conversations with library staff on ways the library could be made more inclusive for dyslexic students. This involved adding images to the bookshelves to illustrate the subject of the books, having a box of coloured overlays available for all students, and providing alphabet strips to help with sequencing when locating books.
If we wish to truly make academia an inclusive and diverse space, then we need to work side-by-side with our ND students to transform (and not maintain) the traditional systems. Without these changes, ND students will always be in position of having to change who they are to survive at university. And academia (and society as a whole) will miss out on the innovative and unique contributions ND students can make to transforming our world.
Beth Sennett is a Learning Designer and Specialist Study Skills Tutor at Falmouth University. Her research and Doctorate focused on transformative pedagogies, in particular the work of Paulo Freire in Higher Education.
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