Savannah Sidle, Masters of Human-Computer Interaction student, School of Computer Science, TA
Our current educational systems are rigid and overly standardized . They were designed by and for traditional learners with the assumptions and expectations that everyone can obtain knowledge from text-based information and relay information through writing. This mindset prevents the inclusion of different types of learners . Inclusive learning is a term that contains accessibility principles of learning and education by removing various barriers and respecting diverse people and situations . Part of creating inclusive environments involves educational institutions making adjustments to the teaching practices of the past that have historically only benefited select groups of people such as able-bodied, financially comfortable, those without disabilities, and traditional memory-recall learners     . Sexism, racism, colonialism, and intergenerational trauma also have a long history of causing segregation and exclusion from education  .
Adding ramps for wheelchair access, providing free classes to offset socioeconomic barriers, mandating training for educators on institutional racism, and altering teaching methods are just a few of many different ways to make learning more inclusive   . Because inclusion involves a broad array of people and situations, this short paper focuses on accessible learning for people with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), including what makes ADHD a unique challenge and some methods and procedures that institutions can implement to create a more inclusive environment.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by differences in neural processing involving sustained attention, focus, activity, and sensory sensitivities. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) scans show differences in cortical and subcortical regions of the brain in ADHD individuals compared to neurotypical individuals . Neuroimaging studies reveal volumetric reductions in the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex, which are essential in emotional regulation  , and in various parietal, occipital, and temporal regions . Neurochemical differences in norepinephrine and dopamine also play a significant role in brain functioning that involves psychomotor activity, reward-seeking behaviour, and impulsivity. Research has found the dopamine D4 receptor gene and the dopamine transporter gene (DAT1) to be of particular interest as findings show elevated concentrations of transporters in the brains of patients with ADHD    . Dopamine imbalances result in low motivation and poor executive functioning .
A lack of training, understanding, confidence, and comfort with different education types remains to be a significant barrier for teachers when accommodating learners. One of the first steps to establishing a more inclusive environment is to inform educators and policy-makers of the necessity for updated learning practices that accommodate for differences in brain chemistry and morphology. A variety of support strategies do not require additional training to deploy in learning environments . Part of reforming the education system starts with changing mindsets and perceptions of learner limitations, particularly around individuals who have a learning difference .
Neurodiversity is a term that includes individuals with neurological differences that result in specific cognitive characteristics and encompasses those with ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, and other learning differences that fall outside the bounds of neurotypical functioning . The term ” neurodiversity” was created by Judy Singer, a sociologist who discussed the problematic nature of the word ”disability”. Singer noted the illumination of false boundaries between ”abled” and ”disabled”, and the lack of acknowledgement of a spectrum . The medical model of disability problematically pathologizes neurodiversity. Emerging strength-based models integrate unique individual abilities and are formed based on multidisciplinary knowledge that addresses psychological, biological, and social aspects that encourage a necessary mindset shift within education. One method of changing mindsets is by acknowledging the erroneous nature of stereotypes. An example of a common stereo- type is that neurodiverse learners lack the cognitive skills necessary to pursue an engineering career, yet a significant and growing chunk of research shows that neurodiverse learners use alternative methods of thinking that are highly desirable for science and engineering degrees. Some of these divergent thinking methods involve strong visual-spatial skills, systems thinking, intuition, insight, and pattern recognition .
Learning environments must employ flexible practices to reduce barriers, such as altering methods of information presentation, creating meaningful and interesting materials that extend beyond writing and lectures, and providing supports and accommodations while still keeping high expectations of student achievements .
Research shows the best class size for optimal student performance in engineering courses is 20-40 students, though many courses far surpass ideal class sizes . Individualized attention is an excellent support method, but demand often surpasses available supply. One support strategy that has shown to be useful to students is creating intervention classes that break down content into small chunks. Peer learning can also be helpful in some situations when students feel more comfortable discussing content with their peers than with the teacher. This method allows students to enhance cooperative learning strategies by actively engaging and increasing creative thinking. One teacher noted that assigning a learner with ADHD the role of group leader resulted in an increase in focus and attention span in that student .
It is important to acknowledge that learning can take many forms external to text-based sources, such as through experiments and exploring. Just as there are different ways of learning, there are different ways of demonstrating acquired knowledge. Some students have difficulty with traditional testing methods. Educators and teaching assistants can offer alternative testing methods where students can demonstrate their knowledge with their individual strengths, such as through video recorded assignments, illustrations, or audio recordings .
Flexible course delivery methods that allow self-paced learning can benefit students who are disadvantaged by the curriculum . The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a significant change in teaching methods by moving to virtual environments and providing the flexibility of allowing learners to access information asynchronously, which was helpful for students with challenges regarding focus, retention, and information processing . A study conducted in 2021 found that almost half of the students who received accommodations before the pandemic were no longer in need due to the increase in content accessibility .
Another support strategy is for educators to take a multi-sensory approach by incorporating sight, speech, sound, and action. Incorporating various senses has shown to improve cognitive abilities like memory and recall . Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and natural language processing programs are valuable tools that can help create customized learning materials to enable individual development and engagement .
Representation is also essential to engaging students and can involve the use of content relatable to different learners and the use of accessible materials offered in multiple formats, such as pdf and audio  . The responsibility of creating an inclusive learning environment extends beyond that of the educator and teaching assistant. Educational institutions need to increase representation of neurodiverse individuals within the faculty as well .
Inclusive teaching practices have resulted in students feeling a sense of value and satisfaction, which are strong motivators for success . Differences, variation, and diversity have allowed humans to move beyond mere survival and into a place where we can thrive . We will only benefit as a species by creating more inclusive learning environments.
Changing the educational system to be more inclusive requires an understanding and acknowledgement of current foundational biases. Educators and teaching assistants must be aware that there are numerous types of learners and learning strategies, and many of these variations stem from volumetric and chemical differences in the brain. It is essential to note that different does not equate deficit. We require a culture shift by moving beyond the deficit-focused medical model of disability to an empowerment model that celebrates individual differences and creativity. Educators can use alternative teaching materials, course delivery methods, and testing procedures to accommodate a variety of learners. Institutions can also help foster inclusive environments by employing more neurodiverse individuals and considering new teaching methods based on lived experience.