Computational Thinking and Executive Function: Where Neurodiversity Shines

Educators understand more and more these days that each student’s brain works a little bit differently. Every learner has unique cognitive strengths (or assets) and some weaknesses (or deficits). Parents know that each child learns and plays differently too. Some children express themselves readily through art or music, some are fascinated by the natural world outdoors, while others are delighted by an entire afternoon with a difficult jigsaw puzzle.

As schools serve increasingly diverse student populations, the need for educators to differentiate learning activities to meet the needs of their students is growing tremendously (Immordino-Yang & Darling-Hammond, 2018). Adapting a lesson to engage all students—including those with learning issues related to neurology (e.g., ADHD, autism, or dyslexia)—and to keep them persistent and productive in their tasks is not easy. It requires considering the cognitive assets and deficits of each child to leverage learners’ strengths to support them while they power through tougher assignments. Educators need support to deliver classroom approaches that are inclusive and draw on the unique strengths of neurodiverse learners (Tomlinson, C. A., & Strickland, 2005). In particular, technology such as video games may play a key role in supporting learners with diverse needs (Goodwin, 2008; Parsons, Leonard, & Mitchell, 2006).

Neurodiverse learners’ tendency toward systematic behavior and compulsion for detail, labeled in school as a “learning disability” related to cognitive inflexibility, can be seen as exactly the skillset needed to thrive in a computational world (Abraham, Windmann, Siefen, Daum, & Güntürkün, 2006; Dawson et al., 2007; Schmidt & Beck, 2016; White & Shah, 2011). Many IT companies, such as Microsoft, have specific hiring programs for neurodiverse people, because the companies understand the unique capabilities these employees bring to the table for tasks such as quality assurance and debugging software. Divergent thinking and impulsive reactions that might be seen as disruptive to classrooms could be just what a design team needs to break through a rut in problem-solving.

This overlap between neurodiversity and technology-related problem solving has led our team to study the intersection between Computational Thinking (CT) and Executive Function (EF). These are two “hot areas” in education and may have more in common than first meets the eye. Our current project INFACT (Including Neurodiversity in Foundational and Applied Computational Thinking) developed out of our research observing how students build CT skills from their use of video games, and educators’ reflections on how different types of learners engage with CT. We are now building tools that prepare students for a computational world and also support executive function, so each learners’ unique strengths can shine.

Read the full post here.