From education to employment

Neurodiversity: How to Facilitate Learner Progress through Evidence-Based Support

Chris Quickfall, CEO, CognAssist

My introduction to neurodiversity was when I was diagnosed with dyslexia at university. The term “neurodiversity” is used to describe the cognitive diversity of the human brain. It acknowledges the fact that we all think differently. The human brain is really complicated, it is the most complex structure in the known universe. There are about one quadrillion synapses in the brain. This structure of synaptic connections is so specific to each person that no human who has existed, or will ever exist, will have that same structure.

With something so complicated, it’s natural to ask how it’s possible to map and understand the human brain. Neuropsychologists have been studying the mind and creating scales to measure our cognitive processing for decades. There are specific domains in the brain that are important for learning and thinking. A “domain” is simply a type of process/es we use to function in our day-to-day life. For example, this could be how quickly we can read and take notes (Visual Information Processing Speed) or our ability to problem solve and think critically (Verbal Reasoning).

A simple personal understanding of these domains and our performance within them tells us something fundamental about how we learn. This knowledge makes a massive difference to how we perceive our own abilities, as well as our capacity to learn, if we are coached in personalised learning techniques. I speak from personal experience when I say this because, like many other learners, I thought I was just bad at learning.

All of our cognitive abilities exist on a spectrum. We may find that we’re naturally good at numeracy – we can do sums in our head or remember dates easily – but perhaps we struggle with non-verbal memory – recognising people or reading body language. These are just some examples of the normal variations in our cognition.

However, neurodiversity also acknowledges that some people experience more significant cognitive diversity than others. These individuals may require support to help them navigate these differences. Cognitive assessments recognise the normal variations in the population and can, therefore, identify learners who could benefit from extra support in a specific domain. Identifying learners as early as possible has a real impact on their self-esteem, reduces stress and can prevent potential dropouts.

To educate people more effectively, we must focus on their individual cognition and how we can create more inclusive learning environments, which accommodate a greater range of cognitive diversity. We are continually learning more about the mind, and I’m really passionate about translating the cutting edge of neuroscience into our education system.

Many learners, throughout their education, may not present with distinct neurodiverse traits. These hidden needs can present real barriers to learning because many learners often don’t receive the support they need. As I mentioned, I only received my cognitive assessment once I reached higher education, where there is more funding for and access to otherwise expensive and heavily-governed EdPsych assessments. However, in 2018, roughly only 5.8% of the working-age population studied at higher education institutions and of that less than 3% are given the opportunity for a cognitive assessment, so we need to increase the level of access to cognitive assessments across educational sectors.

My company, Cognassist, is all about creating a scalable, cost-effective assessment, which can be completed remotely to aid access. The online platform also provides personalised learning strategies for learners with additional needs and enables tutors to tailor the support these learners receive throughout their programme and end-point assessment. Our clients see an increase in learner engagement and achievement rates, which is brilliant for them and shows that we’re doing something right.

Currently, we focus primarily on the FE sector, but we will shortly be moving into Adult Education with AEB funding. This is a crucial step because our working lives are changing more than ever. Retraining and acquiring new skills, no matter our age or cognition, will be vital to encourage economic growth. My long-term goal is for everyone to get a cognitive assessment as standard from the age of 7, through to old age, and technology is making this idea a reality. Ultimately, if we can give someone a better understanding of how their brain works, then they can make better decisions and improve their quality of life.

Chris Quickfall, CEO, Cognassist 

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