Beaver dam on River surrounded by grass fields

Niche Construction

Positive Niche Construction–practice of differentiating instruction for the neurodiverse brain

Neurodiversity in the Classroom

Positive niche construction is a strengths-based approach to educating students with disabilities.

 Reimagining Inclusion with Positive Niche Construction

Collaborative niche construction allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and results in resilient social ecosystems.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations

Niche Construction

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

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

This is my space. It allows me to have control over one small part of a traumatic and offensive world.

AuDHD and me: My nesting habits – Emergent Divergence

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
spider web in a tree
Couple of beaver eating away a tree

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

Armstrong identifies the seven components of positive niche construction in the classroom as:

  1. Assessment of students’ strengths
  2. The use of assistive technology and Universal Design for Learning
  3. Enhanced human resources
  4. The implementation of strengths-based learning strategies
  5. Envisioning positive role models
  6. Activation of affirmative career aspirations
  7. The engineering of appropriate environmental modifications to support the development of neurodiverse students
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.

Because neurodiversity is essentially an ecological perspective, I also develop the related concept of positive niche construction—that is, the establishment of a favorable environment within which a student with special needs can flourish in school. This concept, taken from the fields of biology and ecology, serves as a more positive and constructive way of talking about the federal mandate that students be placed in the “least restrictive environment.” Instead of spending all of our efforts in trying to make students with special needs more like “normal” students, I propose we devote more attention to accepting and celebrating their differences.

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

For an autistic person ‘it’s about finding the right niche’, because ‘if you have a particular interest, you can really thrive in a particular niche.’

Happier on the outside? Discourses of exclusion, disempowerment and belonging from former autistic school staff

Once culture gets off the ground, it enables adaptation to new niches, situations, climates, and ecologies in a vastly more efficient way than can be achieved by ordinary natural selection. Societies with culture, and thus the individuals constituting them, can adapt quickly to changed circumstances of any kind, taking advantage of new opportunities and avoiding threats to their way of life, without waiting for the cumbersome process of natural selection to do its work.

Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society

Evolution by natural selection achieves fitness only through a very inefficient process that does not involve foresight, an ability to plan, an ability to remember and thereby learn from past experience, an ability to survey the environment and decide what changes are likely to prove beneficial and then put them into effect, or an ability to utilize feedback from the environment via conscious trial and error or other experimental methods-in short, an ability to set goals, recognize or invent what needs to be done to achieve them, and do it.

Put in this way, it seems obvious that an organism that was in fact able to do all these things in the course of its phenotypic life would be able to run evolutionary rings around almost any competitor that lacked such abilities. While I do not speculate about how or when in evolutionary time these capacities emerged, it is self evident that the genome of Homo sapiens did develop such capacities, just as it developed the human ability to cooperate effectively in groups. So the next question is, how does culture make these feats possible?

An answer offered by dual inheritance theorists is that humans’ enormous capacity for social learning enables adaptive information to be passed from one generation to the next, and that the human brain has evolved under natural selection to allow learners of culture to model their own actions on those of already enculturated “teachers” (though without the implication that they necessarily “teach” in any self conscious or explicit way).

Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society
  • Organisms are not passive.
  • The environment is a product of organisms.
  • Interactions are reciprocal.
  • Ecology, development, & evolution are interdependent.

Source: Niche Construction

Niche Construction

Evolution now includes niche construction, as well as natural selection, as a second inheritance system: ecological inheritance as well as genetic inheritance.
An ecological inheritance implies it’s the inheritance by descendant organisms of selection pressures previously changed by ancestors.

How niche construction affects inheritance systems in human evolution | University of Oxford Podcasts

NeurodiVenture : an inclusive non-hierarchical organisation operated by neurodivergent people that provides a safe and nurturing environment for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction.

NeurodiVentures | Autistic Collaboration

The unique human ability to adapt to new contexts, powered by neurodivergent creativity and the development of new tools, enabled humans to minimise conflicts and establish a presence in virtually all ecosystems on the planet. This level of adaptability is the signature trait of the human species.

NeurodiVentures are a concrete example of an emerging cultural species that provides safe and nurturing environments for divergent thinking, creativity, exploration, and collaborative niche construction. NeurodiVentures are built on timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating trusted collaboration that predate the emergence of civilisation.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations

When we operate within a space over which we feel ownership—a space that feels like it’s ours—a host of psychological and even physiological changes ensues. These effects were first observed in studies of a phenomenon known as the “home advantage”: the consistent finding that athletes tend to win more and bigger victories when they are playing in their own fields, courts, and stadiums. On their home turf, teams play more aggressively, and their members (both male and female) exhibit higher levels of testosterone, a hormone associated with the expression of social dominance.

But the home advantage is not limited to sports. Researchers have identified a more general effect as well: when people occupy spaces that they consider their own, they experience themselves as more confident and capable. They are more efficient and productive. They are more focused and less distractible. And they advance their own interests more forcefully and effectively. A study by psychologists Graham Brown and Markus Baer, for example, found that people who engage in negotiation within the bounds of their own space claim between 60 and 160 percent more value than the “visiting” party.

Benjamin Meagher, an assistant professor of psychology at Kenyon College in Ohio, has advanced an intriguing theory that may explain these outcomes. The way we act, the way we think, and even the way we perceive the world around us differ when we’re in a space that’s familiar to us—one that we have shaped through our own choices and imbued with our own memories of learning and working there in the past. When we’re on our home turf, Meagher has found, our mental and perceptual processes operate more efficiently, with less need for effortful self-control. The mind works better because it doesn’t do all the work on its own; it gets an assist from the structure embedded in its environment, structure that marshals useful information, supports effective habits and routines, and restrains unproductive impulses. In a familiar space over which we feel ownership, he suggests, “our cognition is distributed across the entire setting.” The place itself helps us think.

The Extended Mind – Annie Murphy Paul

Perhaps the most important form of control over one’s space is authority over who comes in and out—a point missed by those who believe that our workspaces should resemble a bustling coffeehouse. The informal exchanges facilitated by proximity are indeed generative. But the value of such interactions can be extracted only if it is also possible, when necessary, to avoid interacting at all.

The Extended Mind – Annie Murphy Paul
Beaver dam crossing a large stream in the Tetons
Beaver dam crossing a large stream in the Tetons

Constructionism, collaborative niche construction, bricolage, and toolbelt theory go great together. Imagine the possibilities in your spheres, especially for spiky profiles.

Learn how we use niche construction on our “Bricolage” page, our “Classroom UX” page, and our “Cavendish Space” page.