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Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are “three closely linked values held by many organizations that are working to be supportive of different groups of individuals, including people of different races, ethnicities, religions, abilities, genders and sexual orientations.”[i]

As the McKinsey explainer that provided that definition of DEI elaborates, the business literature offers substantial evidence that diverse executive teams are connected to stronger financial performance. The report also cites evidence that a diverse workforce enables organizations to attract top talent, make better decisions, increase customer insight and innovation, drive employee motivation and satisfaction, and improve their global image. In short, DEI is good business practice.

When the concept of DEI is applied to K12 education, especially public education, there are some challenges that are implicit but not always discussed. For example, companies can work to attract a diverse workforce. Public schools have little choice in the diversity of their student bodies, which are largely reflective of the communities they serve. As a result, many schools are limited in the diversity of races, ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic status. Other types of diversity, such as gender, are going to be more consistent across schools, with about half girls and half boys.

Schools focus on DEI in order to support the needs of each student, recognizing that each student is unique, as well as to try to address the obvious and persistent disparities in academic outcomes, feelings of inclusion, and access to high quality coursework and instruction for certain student populations. The achievement gap for students from low socioeconomic status, students with learning disabilities and English Language Learners (ELL) mirror a variety of other gaps, according to a recent report by Hanover Research.[ii] The report compiled data for a large number of schools across the U.S., including data from school administrators, teachers and staff, parents and students. It points out the importance of understanding DEI to help identify and close the achievement gaps that exist, across geography, whether schools are urban, rural, or suburban.

Cognitive Diversity

When different types of diversity are discussed, there is one – sometimes referred to as neurodiversity or cognitive diversity – that is central to learning. As the Child Mind Institute explains:

“Neurodiversity” is a popular term that’s used to describe differences in the way people’s brains work. The idea is that there’s no “correct” way for the brain to work. Instead, there is a wide range of ways that people perceive and respond to the world, and these differences are to be embraced and encouraged.[iii]

The concept that brains work differently, and that they learn differently, is fundamental to addressing DEI in education. And yet, few teachers, parents or students have information on how their students actually learn.

One reason that the question of how each student learns is challenging for educators and parents is that there are such widely held and entrenched beliefs in the concept of learning styles, a concept that has been repeatedly debunked by science. The concept of learning styles is that individuals are predominantly auditory, visual or kinesthetic learners, and that they benefit from being taught in their preferred learning style. The fact is that we all learn from auditory, visual and kinesthetic input, and efforts to teach to a preferred learning style are not only ineffective, but can actually be detrimental.[iv]

Another reason that most educators and parents don’t know how students learn is that we can’t, as teachers and parents, see inside our students’ brains. And it might not tell us much if we did. But we do have another way to characterize and address how different brains work – cognitive skills.

Just because learning styles have been debunked, that doesn’t mean that everyone learns exactly the same way. There is a difference between “learning styles” and cognitive skills. Cognitive skills are the mental processes that our brains use to take in, perceive, understand, store, retrieve and apply information. Everyone has cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and knowing which cognitive skills are strong and which are weak for an individual student can help us understand and address the neurodiversity we have in our classrooms (remember that neurodiversity does not mean abnormal, it means normally unique). Understanding a student’s cognitive profile enables us to support students not by putting them into one of three buckets, but by recognizing each the uniqueness and individuality of how each student learns.

Cognitive Skills and Equity

The principle of equity means ensuring that “identity is not predictive of opportunities or workplace outcomes,” according to the McKinsey and Company report cited earlier. Unfortunately, in education there are strong correlations between aspects of identity, such as socioeconomic status, a special education classification or being an English Language Learner, and academic outcomes, as measured by statement assessments, grade point average and participation in AP and other advanced coursework.

So, what can we do?

Recently we have heard that some schools and districts are considering eliminating gifted and talented programs (some may have done so, although we haven’t seen statistics to say how widespread this may be), because fewer students of color and lower socioeconomic status qualify for them.

To many parents and educators, this doesn’t make sense, But, if these programs are inequitable, shouldn’t they be eliminated?  Or is there a way that they can be made more equitable?

We’ll answer that question with a story. A few years ago, a school in a low-SES community in South Carolina found itself challenged by new state regulations. Previously students had qualified for the gifted program based on teacher and principal recommendations. The percentage of students qualifying for the program had been consistent across different schools in the district. But now the rules had changed. The state had mandated objective criteria for students to qualify and now all second graders were being screened with the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test) to determine their eligibility. The first year the CogAT was given at the school, not a single student qualified as gifted.

The policy, designed to treat all students “equally,” had resulted in less access to the gifted program for low SES students.

The dilemma was addressed not by eliminating the gifted program, but by providing cognitive training to the students in 2nd grade. Why? First, because the impact of poverty on cognitive skills is supported by substantial research. And, second, because cognitive skills can be improved with comprehensive integrated cognitive training to a much greater degree than most people realize.

In fact, that is what happened in that South Carolina school. Second grade students engaged in comprehensive, integrated cognitive training 3 times a week for about 30 minutes for at least 12 weeks. Following that cognitive training program, the students’ scores on the CogAt increased significantly. And many qualified for the gifted program. In fact, their rate of qualifying was slightly higher than the average rate across the district.

The implication of this experience (and many others like it) is that equity in education can be enhanced by helping students develop their cognitive skills so that they can access quality instruction and curriculum, whether that is a gifted program, an AP course, or to fully participate in general education.

Which brings us to the I of DEI … inclusion.

Inclusion

Inclusion has a special meaning in the context of K12 education. As We Are Teachers explains it,

Specifically, inclusion in education refers to ensuring students with physical, behavior or learning disabilities are integrated into general education classrooms as much as possible. It also means providing them the support and accommodations they need to succeed alongside their peers.[v]

What this frequently looks like in a classroom setting is that students who learn differently are supported by an aide, or with other accommodations, adjustments to the curriculum or compensatory strategies while instruction goes on as normal. While those accommodations, adjustments to the curriculum and compensatory strategies are what schools provide to help those students succeed, the problem is that mostly they don’t succeed. The gap in academic achievement for students with disabilities is large and has persisted for decades. It is undeniably challenging for teachers to manage a classroom and design and deliver instruction to such a wide range of brains prepared to learn.

But not only does cognitive training help each student based on their individual cognitive strengths and weaknesses, it facilitates them doing it in an inclusive setting. As we watch students working in the cognitive training programs we have helped schools implement, what becomes apparent is that each student is working on the skills they need most. They are using the skills where they are stronger to do it. It is an everyday occurrence to have a student who has always thought they were “the dumbest kid in the room” achieve something in an area of strength that the “really smart kid” is struggling with. Focusing on cognitive strengths, and helping students further develop their strengths, helps them all understand diversity in a deeper way – the fact that it is not all about visible differences – and helps them internalize the fact that everyone has learning strengths. Schools too often focus on what kids can’t do; cognitive assessment and training can help everyone – teachers, parents and students – focus on what kids can do – on their unique gifts and strengths.

Which brings us back to diversity. Trying to “teach” diversity is a lot like trying to “teach” cognitive skills. These are not skills that can be “instructed.”  We can’t explain to you how to hold more information in your mind or see more at a glance or shift your attention more smoothly, but we can train your brain to do it, just like your personal trainer can work you up to lifting a heavier weight. Diversity is similar. We can’t explain to a student how to appreciate diversity until they can see examples of its benefits and advantages. We can preach tolerance for diversity. That’s one approach. Or we can celebrate and nurture students’ unique strengths and talents. Understanding and building students’ cognitive skills provides an important opportunity to have a meaningful impact on diversity, equity and inclusion in our schools.

 

[i] “What is diversity, equity and inclusion?” McKinsey & Company, August, 2002.

[ii] The Current State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in K-12 Public Schools, Hanover Research, October 25, 2022

[iii] https://childmind.org/article/what-is-neurodiversity/, Child Mind Institute, accessed May 3, 2024

[iv] American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2019/05/learning-styles-myth, accessed May 3, 2024

[v] https://www.weareteachers.com/what-is-inclusion-in-education/, accessed May 3, 2024

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