All modern curriculum designers consider the cognitive diversity and neurodiversity found in a student population when creating lesson plans. It’s an approach that has changed how education treats students from different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and people with conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Educators use cognitive diversity to conceptualize different cognitive traits individual students bring to a learning environment. Analyzing cognitive diversity assesses each student’s different skills, experiences, and ways of learning.

While it’s important to note this assessment includes disabled students, it is not limited to them. Cognitive diversity considers multiple factors that differentiate one student from another. It’s a concept of special importance to students in a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction program.

What Is Cognitive Diversity?

The term “cognitive diversity” comes from an influential 2012 study by Erin Shinn and Nicole S Ofiesh. At the time, Shinn was with the Morrissey-Compton Educational Center, working in private practice since 2017. Nicole S. Ofiesh of Stanford University is now Director at the Schwab Learning Center at Children’s Health Council in Palo Alto, California.

In the study, the two wrote that “cognitive diversity “includes, but is not limited to, individuals with disabilities.” Citing educational research into students’ cognitive skills, the two wrote that commonalities occur among specific student populations while every student has unique cognitive traits.

For example, those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have greater challenges with attention span, while those with dyslexia experience difficulties in reading. They write that this extends beyond such well-known conditions to those without disabilities.

“Older students, culturally and linguistically diverse students, returning war veterans exposed to trauma or violence, as well as students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds also bring a level of cognitive diversity to postsecondary institutions,” they wrote.

What Is Neurodiversity?

The simplest way to think of neurodiversity is this: Like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two brains are exactly alike. That makes for a rich, diverse culture. It also requires teachers to reach all the neurodiverse students in their classrooms.

Neuroimaging shows that some brains are “neurotypical” while others are “neurodiverse.” However, this diversity is not a deficit in a person’s brain. It simply refers to the different, natural variations within the human brain.

Those with neurodiversity may have lifelong conditions (such as Autism Spectrum Disorder) or conditions that develop as they age (such as Alzheimer’s disease). The term originated in 1990s research from Judy Singer, who has autism. She rejected the idea of labeling autism as a disability and instead proposed that it represented neurological diversity.

Typically, neurodiversity falls into the following groups.

  • Applied neurodiversity: People are born with these conditions, but experts don’t consider them as health conditions. Examples include dyslexia and dyspraxia.
  • Clinical neurodiversity: People are born with these conditions, which experts do consider health conditions. Examples include ADHD and autism.
  • Acquired neurodiversity: These conditions can develop from a health condition or injury. They include brain injuries and illnesses that impact the neurological system.

Classroom Culture, Social Justice, and Cognitive Diversity

Recognizing and designing classrooms to accommodate cognitive diversity and neurodiversity is key to teaching children in modern classrooms. It supports the social justice concepts of equity and inclusion, creating better outcomes for all students.

Practical steps toward this goal include establishing a consistent classroom structure, including details like entering and exiting the classroom and having teachers structure, sequence, and lead all classroom activities. Another useful strategy is scaffolding, which begins with heavily mediated teacher instruction and gradually transitions to students needing less assistance from teachers.

It may also involve differentiated instruction. Teachers who practice this strategy design lessons based on the student’s learning styles. They also may group students by shared interests and abilities while creating a safe and supportive environment for all learners.

The Merrimack College Master of Education Program

Merrimack College prepares future curriculum designers with a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction that gives them the skills required to excel in the many different career options in the field. These include administrative positions within school districts and jobs outside education at nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and curriculum design for corporate training.

In all these positions, cognitive diversity and neurodiversity expertise plays a key role. The master’s program covers these issues. Courses in the program include Critical Issues in Education, Diversity & Social Justice, and Research Topics in Education.

Graduate students can also choose to concentrate on moderate disabilities. This concentration includes courses in Challenges in Learning and Development, Assessment in Moderate Disabilities, and Reading Strategies and Interventions.