UDL is a Mindset, Not a Method

variation-69470_960_720.jpgThe other day, I was discussing how we could better address the needs of our ELL students in the elementary classroom when the administrator gave me an eye-roll and a dismissive, “yeah, I know, UDL fixes everything.”

Well, no, it can’t fix everything, but a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to teaching and learning addresses a far wider variation in learning profiles than our current Tier 1 instruction.  The conversation continued to roll around in my mind until I came across this article on UDL and ELL by Katie Novak in my newsfeed today.

I don’t know why the advocacy for UDL has fallen flat in our district.  Perhaps it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to those of us who are trying to advance the conversation – we tend to be pretty vocal on a variety of pedagogical issues and, because we are overwhelmingly female, are probably seen as “pushy.”  Perhaps it’s because you can’t order UDL in a box from a publisher, complete with workbooks, teachers’ guides, and an assessment program.  Perhaps we simply haven’t been able to explain UDL well enough for the central office to have the “aha” moment that so many of us have experienced when we learned about UDL.

UDL isn’t a packaged product, curriculum program, or anything else you can buy and push out with bundled training hours from the publisher.  UDL is a mindset, a lens through which teaching and learning is planned, executed, and reflected upon with the needs of all learners taken into consideration.  UDL opens up learning options that address many learning strengths and barriers for students whether they have learning challenges or not.

Think about the person you sat next to in your last professional development session.  Chances are, neither of you have learning disabilities that required specially designed instruction or even accommodations.  And yet, do you learn best in exactly the same way?  You may be excellent at decoding, but would prefer to listen to the material provided than read it.  Your neighbor may find that not interacting with the written text on paper would result in learning/retaining less of the information.  As an adult, you probably know which method works better for you because at some point, most likely NOT in during your PreK-12 years, you had the opportunity to try both and determine whether a trip to the local bookstore or a subscription to Audible would suit you best.

Through my work across the state, I’ve had the great privilege of meeting and working with educators who apply UDL in their teaching.  Unsurprisingly, a number of them work in the Groton-Dunstable Public Schools, where Katie Novak is an Assistant Superintendent.  The one comment I hear repeatedly from these educators is that UDL is a way of looking at everything you do, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.   Start small, plan for variation not just disability, and realize that this is a journey that will continue far into the future as new opportunities arise.

But first, educators need to have the support to take the first step.  Schools and districts need to think deeply about what it means to teach all students, articulate their vision, and start to propagate a UDL mindset.


Learning Pathways


The other day, I posted about what personalized learning is not.  This, of course, begs the question of what personalized learning is.  And that will require far more than one post can contain.  I’ll do my best to break this down into different components and address them separately, as much for my own sanity as anything else, but they all intersect.

“Personalized learning seeks to accelerate student learning by tailoring the instructional environment – what, when, how and where students learn – to address the individual needs, skills and interests of each student.  Within a framework of established curriculum standards and high expectations, personalized learning motivates students to reach their goals.  Students take ownership of their own learning and develop deep, personal connections with each other, their teachers and other adults.  Technology is necessary to implement personalized learning effectively, affordably, and at significant scale.  Teachers leverage technology to gain detailed and timely knowledge of their students that guides instruction.  Effective use of technology allows teachers and students to focus more on creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration.” – Massachusetts Personalized Learning EdTech Consortium (MAPLE)

Individualized pathways and student agency in directing their learning are at the center of personalized learning.  What an amazing concept – that students should take responsibility for the what, how, when, and where of their learning!  If there is one thing we know in this age of accelerations it is that learning will have to be a lifelong endeavor as much of the content knowledge students gain during their PreK-16 educations will become obsolete by the time they graduate.  And yet, providing students diverse learning experiences is nothing new; it has been the calling card of empowered and empowering educators since long before computers became a mainstay in our classrooms.  No robot, no matter how developed the user interface or the artificial intelligence algorithms, can provide this level of personalization for students.

This does mean that educators need to focus more on helping students learn how to learn and less on which year Christopher Columbus sailed west.  It means that part of what educators bring to the table is a rich array of student experiences so that students can learn not only content and skills but also which types of learning experiences work best for them.  

We’ve talked about “voice and choice” in learning for decades.  I’m old enough to remember when it was considered a giant leap forward in student-centered teaching to give students  choices in how they would demonstrate understanding based on their interests or “learning style.”  Personalized learning offers students a variety of ways to learn the needed objectives as well as options for demonstrating acquisition.  A simple example of this would be to give students a wide array of “inputs” such as books, articles, websites, videos, role-playing, field trips, etc. in order to learn about a topic.  Educators and districts that build curriculum using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles are already doing this and more.

Educators play an important role in helping students develop agency and creating personal learning pathways.  They offer a variety of ways to learn objectives and a variety of ways to demonstrate mastery.  They assist students in making choices about their learning paths.  And, of course, they are integral in the design of curriculum materials and working with students in a developmentally and pedagogically appropriate manner.

Students have an important responsibility in their own education as well.  Compliance is no longer enough; students need to be engaged and purposeful in their education.  Even very young students can make educational activity choices with teacher guidance.  Students learn what works for them, their own strengths, needs, and preferences, and can explain the rationale for the choices they make.

In personalized learning, educators motivate students to reach their goals and prepare them for taking ownership of their lifelong learning adventures. Knowledge, technology, and even climate change are all accelerating at an exponential rate, making it more important than ever that our students are able to learn and adapt well after they leave the classroom.

Teacher Appreciation

There’s a Facebook post going around inviting you to name your elementary teachers and I have to admit that I can’t remember any of my teachers’ names.  Part of the reason is my age – it’s been quite a few years since I was an elementary student – and part of the reason is that I spent Kindergarten through senior year trying to keep my head down and not be noticed.  Our schools can be a tough place for students who don’t fit in even now and they were a special kind of hell for introverts back in the 70’s and early 80’s as I made my way through K-12.  In thirteen years, I had one teacher able to see through all of that and who made a huge difference.

As an introvert in a world where being popular and showing off signaled success, I was already at a disadvantage.  Add an unstable home life with dysfunctional parents and I’m still amazed that I managed to muddle through to the extent that I did.  If my high school had sent home a list of the days I showed up and remained in classes for the entire day rather than a report of my absences, they would have saved a significant amount of paper.  I skipped physical education for 3 years in a row.

I spent most of my time in the public library reading and writing.  By the time I was a senior and the end of high school was in sight, I had managed to squeak by in everything thanks to dropping off papers and taking tests, except phys. ed.  Guess what you cannot skimp on when qualifying to graduate in Massachusetts?  P.E.  I was faced with returning to school in the fall to take a whole lot of gym classes.  I was ready to drop out and take the GED test.  I was convinced I had no business being in school, despite being able to get decent grades and great SAT scores without really attending school.

All that changed one afternoon when one teacher gave me something to think about.  He asked me if maybe the problem wasn’t me or my abilities but the school’s.  Had I ever considered that perhaps schools treat everyone the same when we are each different and have different needs?  He then gave me a copy of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development which had recently been released.

My mind was completely blown.  Until then, everything was my fault – my family situation, my parents’ issues, my difficulty engaging in school, everything.  It really had never occurred to me, growing up with that mindset, that maybe the adult world was flawed and who I was as a person was OK.  This was in 1982-1983 and soon Howard Gardner would be putting forth his Theory of Multiple Intelligences and we would begin to look at teaching and learning in a very different way.  Perhaps I was born too soon.

I ended up doing a second senior year of high school in Jerusalem, Israel where I also skipped P.E. but graduated with distinction and a greater belief in myself.  And if there is one thing that motivates me as a teacher, it is the desire to create a better educational experience for my students than I had and to be that teacher who helps a student realize the world doesn’t have to be as it is now.

So, I take this moment to say thank you for everything, Alan November.  For being there, for believing in me, and for helping me to see a way forward.

Oh, and I was the one who stole your Neil Postman books on education.  Sorry.

Personalized Learning: No Robot Teachers

cup of robots ~ on whiteAs students left for Physical Education, Mrs. F. reminded them that when they returned, each student would have an individualized list of the math concepts they needed to work on later in the day.  These lists were created by looking at the classwork, homework, and formative assessments students completed recently.  This is personalized learning.

E. is in fifth grade but is dyslexic and reads significantly below grade level.  He is able to access a digital version of the Social Studies textbook with text-to-speech capabilities.  After listening to the text, he can participate fully in classroom discussions about the events leading up to the American Revolution.  Using the speech-to-text option in Google Docs, he can also respond in writing to the comprehension questions, and writing prompts, and take notes on his reading.  This is personalized learning.

Ms. M.’s class is working to increase their multiplication math fact fluency.  Once students have mastered the concept of multiplication, memorizing the facts in order to better utilize them in problem solving is most often done through the tried-and-true method of flashcards, excruciatingly boring for both the student and the person working with them.  By using a service called Reflex Math, students can practice their math facts with adaptive algorithms that repeat facts that students still need to master, have progress tracking available to student and teacher, and positive feedback.  This is also a form of personalized learning.

Universal Design is personalized learning.  P-B learning (take your pick: Problem-, Passion-, Project-based) is personalized learning.  In none of these scenarios is the teacher replaced by a robot, and yet this is the cry being made by those convinced that human teachers will go the way of the dodo and all students will spend their days from age 3 through 22 seated in front of a computer.

While some will claim that the third scenario essentially replaces a teacher, I disagree.  Flashcard practice has been a home assignment and one that teachers have found parents less and less available to do with their students.  Flashcard practice doesn’t take a Master’s degree in Education to perform; creating rich problem-solving projects that utilize math facts in order to complete them, does require well-trained educators.  Where would you prefer your child’s teacher devote their time?  As an educator, where do you think your planning and teaching time is best spent?

While technology can help facilitate personalized learning, personalized learning is about people and pedagogy, not boxes and screens.  Or robots.