Developing strengths in the inclusive classroom

By Catherine Elliott. Posted

Many cybersecurity firms actively recruit neurodiverse people because of their strengths and skills

Originally published in Hello World Issue 18: Cybersecurity, March 2022. All information true at the time of original publishing.

Young people with special educational needs and disabilities can excel in computing when their strengths are developed and supported

When I found out the theme for this issue of Hello World, I started thinking about how to incorporate that into my column. How do we support our learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to undertake cybersecurity activities in the classroom? Then I remembered a number of articles I had read about organisations actively recruiting neurodiverse people to cybersecurity roles. Neurodiversity is often used to describe autistic people, together with those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyspraxia, and other developmental and cognitive disabilities.

These prospective employees often demonstrate a number of key qualities that are sought after in this sector, including:

  • Attention to detail

  • Pattern recognition

  • Reliability and integrity

  • Out-of-the-box thinking

  • Clear focus on the task in hand

Combine these with an interest in technology and you have an ideal candidate for a cybersecurity role — notwithstanding some workplace adjustments that might need to be made to accommodate specific needs.

Celebrating strengths

I often start any training on computing and SEND by asking teachers to consider the strengths of the young people they teach, rather than focusing solely on weaknesses and barriers to learning. One student may love working as part of a team, while another excels at independent learning. Where one learner can see the whole problem and come up with creative solutions, another learner may be better suited to the detail and structure of a specific task.

Obviously, we still need to address weaknesses and reduce the barriers faced by all the young people in our lessons. However, by acknowledging and celebrating their strengths, we can help develop confidence and ensure everyone has a sense of belonging in a class; this is at the heart of inclusion.

Universal Design for Learning

Identifying, celebrating, and developing each individual’s strengths isn’t easy, but this is where the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework can help. It is a “framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn” (helloworld.cc/udlcast). Essentially, if we consider and provide multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression in lessons, this can provide learners with a range of ways in which to engage with lessons, learn about content, participate in activities, and express what they know. In doing this, we can address potential barriers before they arise, and allow the diverse strengths and interests of our young people to be developed in different ways (see helloworld.cc/hwudl for a Hello World article about this).

For example, you could present content in different formats — video, audio, text, and image — and make the most of learning platforms to provide learners with a place to revisit lesson content in a time, place, and format that suits them. Try to provide a range of options for lesson activities — so in terms of learning about cybersecurity, students might watch a video and answer questions, role play a specific scenario, devise their own cipher to encrypt a message, or design a poster to make young people aware of cybercrime. Where students are learning about how computer programs can be written to decipher messages, they can investigate and modify working programs, complete Parson’s Problems, or debug existing code.

Physical computing devices can be more engaging for some learners, and their tactile, sensory nature can help students make connections with the code in a way that can be harder with a text-based language on a screen. Consider ways to incorporate this into a cybersecurity lesson, such as the networked robots introduced on page 32. The more opportunities we provide for learners, the more we can recognise and celebrate individual strengths.

Project-based learning

Project-based learning can also enable more choice in how learners learn and express themselves. Provide some choice in context to appeal to varied interests, and if students are working in groups, allow them to assign tasks according to the strengths of each member. Furthermore, not all students enjoy working in teams, and this can be a barrier in itself. One way to help mitigate this is by providing learners with a specific task within a group that can be undertaken independently, but will still contribute to the final project. For example, in cybersecurity teaching, a capture-the-flag competition is a team effort, but tasks can be allocated to individuals (see page 30 for more on this).

I remember working with some secondary-age students on an enrichment project around technology. One girl was completely switched off during the ‘Robotics’ unit, and seemed uninterested when we began the app development project. Once we had outlined all the different elements of making an app, from the design of the app, to content writing, coding, and testing, she became much more animated. She was a keen artist, and took on the design side of the project while her friends coded the app and wrote the content. The app they developed was excellent, benefitting from a well-rounded group of collaborators.

We are all individuals, with different skills and experiences that influence how we perceive and interact with the world. The more inclusive we can make our computing lessons by providing a range of ways to participate, the more students will enjoy lessons and the more they will achieve. This in turn should encourage a more diverse set of students taking computing-related qualifications, finally leading to a more diverse workforce in tech-related jobs. This is essential to ensure that diverse experiences and ways of thinking frame the development of future services and technologies. It will also benefit companies in the future, as they will be better equipped to solve complex problems by drawing on the wide range of strengths displayed by their employees


https://www.twitter.com/catherinelliott

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