From Pathology to Neurodiversity: An Exploration of School Design to Promote the Achievement of All Learners

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Johns Hopkins University
Inclusive education mandates provided increased educational opportunities for a wide range of learners and called educators to diversify their instructional practices (Baglieri et al., 2011; Fuchs & Fuchs, 1994; Hardy & Woodcock, 2015). However, neurodivergent learners, including autistic students and those with specific learning disabilities, continue to achieve below their peers (Aron & Loprest, 2012; Blackorby et al., 2010; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019). Moreover, while research in the learning sciences considers learner variability as biologically normative, the prominent school model centers the notion of a neurotypical learner based on a deficit view of disability (Chapman, 2021; Rose, 2015). Set within a preschool to eighth grade, urban, independent school, a multi-method needs assessment utilized a survey (n = 20) and interviews (n = 5) to examine teachers’ self-efficacy for inclusive practices, attitudes, concerns, and beliefs regarding inclusion, and perception of factors influencing inequitable outcomes for students with higher learning needs. Combined results showed lower teacher self-efficacy for designing instruction, binary beliefs regarding ability, and concern about the school’s capacity to support all learners. These findings led to further study surrounding school organizational capacity via a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Using organizational learning theory (Argyris & Schön, 1996), this multi-method exploratory study described the process of organizational change from a pathology to a neurodiversity mindset via collective knowledge building. Teaching and administrative staff (n = 4) completed a researcher-designed quantitative survey regarding their perception of neurodiversity and pathology paradigms and engaged in ten sessions considering current school values, practices, and educational outcomes related to neurotypicality and neurodiversity. Results indicated themes of navigating educational ideals within neurotypical bounds, neurotypical norms as hindering student and teacher thriving, and shifting values towards innovative practices and equitable outcomes. Additional analysis described the fidelity of the community of practice implementation and participant experience throughout the process. These results provided a system of built knowledge around neurodiversity to support an action plan for future organizational change toward an inclusively designed school that narrows the achievement gap between students identified as neurotypical and those identified as neurodivergent.
neurodiversity, disability paradigms, special education, community of practice, organizational change, school design