UDL creates a learning environment that is the least restrictive and most culturally responsive, trauma-informed environment for all students.If Equity is a Priority, UDL is a Must | Cult of Pedagogy
In our little community of neurodivergent and disabled people, we try to go beyond “least restrictive environment” via “niche construction”. Here’s how we define that:
In Nature: Helping to ensure the thriving of an organism by directly modifying the environment in such a way that it enhances that organism’s chances for survival.
In Culture: Helping to ensure the thriving of a child by directly modifying the environment in such a way that it enhances that child’s chances for success.Neurodiversity in the Classroom
Positive niche construction is a strengths-based approach to educating students with disabilities.Reimagining Inclusion with Positive Niche Construction
In his book, Neurodiversity in the Classroom, Thomas Armstrong argues that the concept of neurodiversity is a “concept whose time has come.” What he means by this is to re-imagine how special education is constructed in our education system. The idea Armstrong highlights in his book is called, “positive niche construction” (PNC). Armstrong proposes this idea as an alternative to the more classic idea of “least restrictive environment” (LRE).Reimagining Inclusion with Positive Niche Construction
In the field of biology, the term niche construction is used to describe an emerging phenomenon in the understanding of human evolution. Since the days of Darwin, scientists have emphasized the importance of natural selection in evolution-the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. In natural selection, the environment represents a static entity to which a species must either adapt or fail to adapt. In niche construction, however, the species acts directly upon the environment to change it, thereby creating more favorable conditions for its survival and the passing on of its genes. Scientists now say that niche construction may be every bit as important for survival as natural selection (Lewontin, 2010; Odling-Smee, Laland, & Feldman, 2003).Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life
We see many examples of niche construction in nature: a beaver building a dam, bees creating a hive, a spider spinning a web, a bird building a nest. All of these creatures are changing their immediate environment in order to ensure their survival. Essentially, they’re creating their own version of a “least restrictive environment.” In this book, I present seven basic components of positive niche construction to help teachers differentiate instruction for students with special needs (2012).Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life
When we embrace a strength-based paradigm grounded in differentiated instruction and positive niche construction, however, we embark upon a path that uses the widest range of student-centered interventions and builds upon each student’s core capacity of strengths.
This strength-based approach can serve as a new way to enrich the field of differentiated instruction by ensuring that we develop teaching interventions that address what is unique and positive about each individual student.
In the neurodiversity model, there is no “normal” brain sitting in a vat somewhere at the Smithsonian or National Institutes of Health to which all other brains must be compared. Instead, there are a wide diversity of brains populating this world. The neurodiversity-inspired educator will have a deep respect for each child’s unique brain and seek to create the best differentiated learning environment within which it can thrive. This practice of differentiating instruction for the neurodiverse brain will be referred to in the course of this book as positive niche construction.Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life
We use niche construction to create Cavendish Space.
Recognizing diversity enables collaborative niche construction that supports monotropic minds, and any type of mind. Monotropic people are recognizing and diversifying monocultures so we have the flexibility to create our niche and get into flow states.
Since reading NeuroTribes, we think of psychologically & sensory safe spaces suited to monotropism and zone work as “Cavendish bubbles” and “Cavendish space”, after Henry Cavendish, the wizard of Clapham Common and discoverer of hydrogen. The privileges of nobility afforded room for his differences, allowing him the space and opportunity to become “one of the first true scientists in the modern sense.”
Let’s build psychologically safe homes of opportunity without the requirement of nobility or privilege. Replace the trappings of the compliance classroom with student-created context, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), and BYOC (Bring/Build Your Own Comfort). Let’s hit thrift stores, buy lumber, apply some hacker ethos, and turn the compliance classroom into something psychologically safe and comfortable to a team of young minds engaged in passion-based learning. Inform spaces with neurodiversity and the social model of disability so that they welcome and include all minds and bodies. Provide quiet spaces for high memory state zone work where students can escape sensory overwhelm, slip into flow states, and enjoy a maker’s schedule. Provide social spaces for collaboration and camaraderie. Create cave, campfire, and watering hole zones. Develop neurological curb cuts. Fill our classrooms with choice and comfort, instructional tolerance, continuous connectivity, and assistive technology. In other words, make space for Cavendish. Make spaces for both collaboration and deep work.
Unlike differentiation alone, UDL empowers students to self-differentiate their learning and build autonomy and independence; this sends a powerful message.If Equity is a Priority, UDL is a Must | Cult of Pedagogy
This is an important distinction. Niche construction is very much about self-differentiation and collaborative-differentiation.
Niche construction honors the learner.
Honor places learners in the driver’s seat.
Honor says, “I see you. I am learning from you. I acknowledge you. You are welcome here. You belong. Your success is my mission.” The codes of power that dishonor students speak to the need to create a new code—a more inclusive and empowering code. Where power was once the stronghold controlled solely by the teachers, I am proposing a new code. A code of honor. There are five elements to establishing and acting upon the code of honor that are juxtaposed to Delpit’s assertions:
Fritzgerald, Andratesha. Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning (pp. 5-6). CAST, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
- Recognize the power structure that exists—both past and present.
- Acknowledge the purposeful intent and actions of abolishing the limitations of the power structure at hand.
- Reflect the code of honor by empowering each member of the learning community daily in the structures, supports and choices available.
- Make an effort to invite members of the learning community into positions of authority, power, and decision making—even if that means taking yourself out of power to do so.
- Create opportunities for members of the learning community to make powerful decisions that govern their best possible outcomes.
In her book Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning, Andratesha Fritzgerald notes that this kind of design honors our students, that when we provide them with choice and voice, we communicate these things:
If Equity is a Priority, UDL is a Must | Cult of Pedagogy
- You are more important than the systems we serve.
- You are more important than my personal preferences.
- You are more important than the way the content is packaged.
- I am willing to learn about you to help you reach your life goals.
- You are important and I will honor you with instruction that holds you accountable and empowers you to take ownership of your own learning.
Niche construction relocates us from a code of power to a code of honor.
When schools and learning communities become places where all students can exercise their power and eliminate the learned powerlessness, the code of honor will take over the code of power. When success is not just a gatekeeper’s exam but rather a personalized road to the path that is chosen by the student—this is honor. When school success is demystified for all students of all races and all abilities and all backgrounds—especially for our Black and Brown students who are the furthest from educational justice—then the codes of power will be broken and the code of honor will elevate each student to the status of learner and leader.Fritzgerald, Andratesha. Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning (pp. 6-7). CAST, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Power can be understood as the privilege of not needing to learn.The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
If privilege is not needing to learn, then honor feels like learning enough about people for them to be legible to us. Honoring our students and assisting their niche construction renders them legible.