Recently I was doing my morning workout in the basement. I know that many people prefer to listen to music when they are working out, but for me, I lean towards podcasts. I think that when I’m tuned in to the podcast mentally, the time seems to go faster, which makes the workout seem easier! On the morning I’m thinking of, the next podcast in the feed was The Innovator’s Mindset Podcast from George Couros. In this episode George was talking to Katie Novak. George and Katie are co-author’s of the book Innovate Inside the Box. I loved that book, so I knew I was going to enjoy the podcast. You can check out the podcast on YouTube here.

Recently, I’ve had several conversations with people about the changing world in education. I’ve seen tweets and heard podcast conversations that talk about how education cannot go back to what it was in a pre-Covid world. I’m pretty sure that I agree with that. But I’m also pretty sure that for a lot of people (myself included), we’re not quite sure what that means. In this episode of the podcast, George and Katie were talking about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). As I listened, I started thinking that maybe UDL could be the key to the type of changes we need to create the schools that students need.

For years on this blog, I’ve made reference to the Best Practice Model that was created by Hamilton Southeastern Schools. You can check it out below. Some of the things that stand out to me from the best practice model are the idea of student voice and choice, authentic learning, access and equity, and applying knowledge.

The reality is that in a traditional education system, what some might refer to it as the factory model, some students are excluded from learning (I’ve written more about the factory model here). If you are a teacher who does mostly whole group lecture style teaching, students who have auditory processing issues are not able to access your learning. I recall during my college career going into one of my first lecture style courses. On the first day, our professor told us that the seats we were sitting in were our assigned seats for the semester. I had chosen a seat about halfway back. This professor was a huge fan of lecture, but also wrote a lot on the chalkboard. At the time I didn’t have glasses, but after a few classes, I realized that I could hardly read what he was writing and I walked out of class each day with a headache. I was talking with my parents about it one day and my mom asked when was the last time I’d had my eyes checked. It had been a while! I scheduled an appointment and found out that I needed glasses. Once I got a pair of glasses the problem was solved!

Just like providing glasses to a student with vision problems helps them to access the learning, UDL provides better access to all students because it is more inclusive. Now some of you may be saying that you aren’t ready to do something new in your classroom. What Katie shared during the podcast is that UDL isn’t so much something that you do, but is more a set of principles or beliefs. There are 3 primary beliefs about UDL:

  • We have to embrace variability – In a previous post, I wrote about some of my take-aways from the book The End of Average by Todd Rose. In that book he talks about how there is no such thing as an average person, instead, each person is “jagged” meaning that each of us may have strengths or weaknesses that are physical, mental, emotional, etc. Our students come to us with jagged learning profiles. Just because a student is strong in math, doesn’t mean that they will be strong in all areas. Similarly, just because a student is weak in math doesn’t mean that they are weak in all areas. So in practice for us, that means that students may have different needs at different times. In my glasses experience above, if I had chosen a seat closer to the front, I may not have become aware of my vision issue until some later time. The tenets of UDL suggest that whenever possible, we let our learners choose/create their own environment. I’ll share more about these thoughts later.
  • Really firm goals with flexible means – When you take a look at your academic standards, you’ll find that for the most part, your standards are really open. This means that you have a lot freedom in how you go about meeting the goals for academic needs. With that in mind, we can think about how we might provide multiple pathways to meet the goal. All students will most likely have the same goal, but they may take a variety of paths to get there and show you what they know.
  • Value expert learning – One of the goals of UDL is to get our students as close to being an expert in their learning as possible. I know that for each of us, we get to be experts in the things that we are passionate about, the things that we feel are most important. Think about how you feel about the words professional development. In my experience, when it’s being done to us, we aren’t huge fans, but when we have choice and voice in our development, we probably learn a lot more. By providing students the flexibility that we talked about in the last bullet point, our students are able to meet goals that you set for them while becoming more of an expert in topics that are important to them.

Now, the reality is that this doesn’t just happen automatically. In the beginning we have to provide a lot of scaffolding and support. In your classroom, when you are starting in on some UDL practices, you might share the goal of your lesson, provide some choices, and then support them while they learn. So here’s an example that I might use if I were to go back to the days of being a 6th grade science teacher:

Goal: Design models to describe how Earth’s rotation, revolution, and tilt cause seasons (The Earth and Space Science Indiana Academic Standards actually includes much more, but this is enough for one goal).

Provide Choice: We could provide choices in how students go about learning or we could provide choice in how students show what they know. First, I’d share with students that they could learn about these topics from a variety of resources I provided them. One option might be the science textbook. I’d also pull a wide variety of books from the library that could serve as resources. Next, I’d have a curated list of websites that might help students. I’d also provide some videos from YouTube, or podcasts on those topics that would help students who are auditory or visual learners. Depending on the topic, there might be other options that could be provided for learning about the topic. As for students showing what they know, for this project I might suggest that students could create sketch that represented their learning, or they might choose to build a physical model. Another option is that students could create a video to share what they have learned. One time, I had a student who created an amazing picture book to teach about the water cycle, and I could see some creative student doing something similar on how the seasons work. Depending on the topic you are studying, there could be a multitude of ways for students to show what they know.

Set Them Free: Here’s the thing about work like this, once we set the students free, our role has just shifted from being the keeper of the knowledge to the facilitator who comes side by side. It’s challenging work, but the challenge comes from having to think on your feet in the moment instead of building really specific lessons and plans in advance. It means creating a system to make sure that you are checking in with your students (there’s always that one kid that manages to slip through the cracks and get to the end of the project/unit without doing any work if we don’t have a system). I’ve seen teachers have a clip chart that students have to update that shows what they are working on. I’ve seen teachers with a chart that they carry around while they wander the room, and make notes on students regularly. I used a spreadsheet to track my student’s progress with a row for each student, and a column for each day, then I’d make anecdotal notes each time I checked in with my students. You could choose whatever system works for you (and it might take some experimentation to find what will work best!).

In the beginning, you as teacher need to be the one to provide your students with options. Think of it as a menu – students can pick their learning style and their performance task. As students become more proficient, you may back off of the choices, saying something like “Here are some ways you might learn about the topic, but you can always suggest others” or you might say “what were some of the ways you learned when we were doing our project on the seasons?” When I did projects like this, I’d provide a menu of potential ways for students to show their learning, but also allow students to make suggestions. As you and your students become more comfortable with UDL, you’ll eventually get to the point of saying:

  • Here’s the goal…
  • How do you want to learn it?
  • How do you want to show what you know?
  • Let’s create a rubric together…

Later in my teaching career, I started doing things similar to this without even knowing that I was implementing UDL. And what I found is that the more choices I gave students, the less “work” I had to do. It’s not that I got to just sit back and put my feet up on my desk, but when we were engaged in UDL type projects, what I was doing was much more of a problem solve in the moment mindset as opposed to having to plan for the entirety of the unit. So near the end of the podcast something George said had me nodding along:

If you’d like to know more about UDL, there are some excellent resources to be found on the website for CAST. Check out their information on The UDL Guidelines here. I agree with the statement that we can’t go back to learning the way it was. Our students have changed, and we have changed. This is a chance to help create major shifts in the education world. Many of our students have been struggling in the factory model of education for quite some time. Shifting the way we teach, providing our learners more choice, and maybe even engaging in some of our own choice based learning will help make a difference for your students today and on into the future, and create the schools that we need.

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