This episode of UDL in 15 Minutes offers two straight-forward examples of how teachers used the UDL framework to lower barriers for their learners, but within those examples lie the crux of UDL: variability.
In this video with David Rose (one of the founders of CAST and is seen as the grandfather of UDL), he gives a succinct description of variability which includes the following quote: “Learners of all ages, of all nationalities, of all types are highly variable. Whether they’re disabled or not depends on their interaction with the context.” It’s that last sentence that trips up most people.
Our school systems are set up to categorize learners to place them with the right educators. That sounds great, but what happens is that the educator doesn’t always come to the learners, the learners tend to go to the educator. This has all been rationalized in lots of different ways (e.g., master schedule, the amount of time in a day, the expertise of the educator, the level of need the learner has), but ultimately, what we tend to see are separate settings. Separate contexts. And this leads to a mindset that “those learners” have innate barriers to learning that are too significant to be supported in a general education setting. But then, we have examples like those from Konini Primary School in Wainuiomata, New Zealand.
During the podcast, Catherine shares that a particular learner is a “reluctant talker”. And while this learner might receive specific support like working with a speech pathologist (which we did not discuss), these teachers want this learner to participate with his classroom peers. For this writing lesson they focused on this learner’s needs and they looked at the goal of the lesson. They said to themselves, “What are the barriers within the curriculum this learner is experiencing? What can we change to remove those barriers?” They thought to themselves, “We need to scaffold this activity. We need to break it down into smaller parts. But the learner is also really disconnected from the topic, so let’s find ways to connect him.” If you haven’t listened yet, I hope you do. Catherine tells it in a very accessible and matter-of-fact way that really breaks the bigger process of UDL down.
As Bonni shares her story about the learner who is a strong reader but is not connected to the lesson. Instead of explaining to the learner why she should be interested in the reading, the teacher listened to the learner, reached out to her colleagues to identify materials that fit with this learner’s needs and likes, and provided those to the learner. Bonni and her colleague didn’t push the learner out into a different group or force the learner into the original reading material. Instead, they changed the context. They changed the materials. They recognized that the barrier was not in the learner, the barrier was in the original materials. They recognized and attended to the variability.
Here’s what I saw in common in both of these stories:
They wanted the learner to be in that context. (This is huge)
They knew that the current context did not support the learner.
With clarity, they knew want they wanted the learner to accomplish (i.e., they knew the goal).
They decided what areas of the UDL framework would likely support this learner most and took action on those areas.
That learner’s interaction with the context now became the same as the learner’s peers. The learner was able to participate and produce work.
These learners and the other learners who benefited from these changes in the context all took steps forward in their learning.
This podcast is all about helping our learners become expert learners. In this podcast, we heard examples of teachers who lowered and removed barriers so their learners could find purpose and motivation, use their knowledge and be resourceful, and identify strategies and set goals to complete the assignments. These teachers provided that beautiful pathway to their learners – the pathway of expert learning.
The phrase, “it’s in your DNA” has become a catch-all phrase to recognize that some action, reaction, or outcome is ingrained in who you are. During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes I use the phrase, “it’s in your school’s DNA,” because I recognize that Westbrooke Village Elementary School is supporting their students through practices and systems like restorative justice and positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) in a way that is part of the school’s day-to-day life. It is part of their normal. It is part of their daily breath as a community. Their DNA has a strand that says, “You are welcome here every day. We accept you as you are. And because we expect you to do your best, we’re going to do our best to teach and support you.” Now I turn the question to you. What is in your school’s DNA?
That can be a tough question to ask because it can lead to challenging conversations around relationships, expectations, teaching practices, and administrative practices. Your school’s DNA determines hiring practices and hiring decisions, how professional development is decided upon and delivered, whether or not coaching occurs or if it’s on the horizon, and how you’re using your data (e.g., are you using it as the reason to change instructional practices or the reason to keep the things the same?).
Your school’s DNA determines how the administration guides communication, addresses challenges, develops policy and procedures, minimizes barriers for staff so they can try new evidence-based practices, and communicates and works with other levels of the educational system (e.g., state departments). Your school’s DNA is also intertwined within the administration’s ability to shift between straight-forward decision-making that relies on adherence to policy to the much more nuanced decision-making that relies on flexibility, adaptability, and the recognition of human dynamics. There’s a lot in that DNA!
I didn’t make up that list. It comes from the work on implementation science from the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN). I was introduced to their work when I was at CAST and got to work on a project that was eventually called “A Tale of Four Districts.” Colleagues used NIRN’s work to develop that project and the subsequent tools we all created. I then joined SWIFT which also used NIRN’s work to inform their processes and build their tools. I now use NIRN’s work within my own implementation work with schools, districts, and other education entities. If you’re thinking about bringing in a new framework, curriculum, or system, I suggest you take a look at NIRN’s work, too.
But how does this all tie back to Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? First, these are the kind of questions schools and districts interested in UDL need to be asking themselves as they move into and continue with UDL. Beyond these inquiry questions, the facilitated processes connected with implementation science can help schools and districts identify where they are in their journey toward full implementation. Second, these questions and tools help you identify your current DNA and then you can see how that aligns with the UDL framework. With long-term focused work, you can begin to determine whether your school or district is set up to support the practices and mindset associated with UDL and then take specific, planned steps to begin those shifts. Afterall, it’s those practices and that mindset that help us achieve the ultimate goal – to create the pathway necessary for all of our learners to become expect learners.
When we listen with the intent to learn: Shifting learner outcomes
We use the word “listen” a lot in our classrooms. We ask our learners to “listen up” or to be “good listeners.” “Listen” is often part of social contracts or expectations that are posted in the classroom. When educators get angry at a learner who isn’t following the directions we’ve just given, we’ll say something like, “you’re not listening!” (which is probably not true, but that’s another blog). But how do we show them that we are listening? And why do we need to show them that we’re listening? And, how do we model listening with the intent to learn? This podcast episode exemplifies how educators can exemplify all of these.
Beth and her colleagues at the University of New Hampshire’s Teacher Residency in Rural Education (TRRE) program wanted their graduate students to learn about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). They wove it into their curriculum so learners could understand the multiple ways they could connect with and teach in rural communities. But the TRRE learners also wanted to experience UDL, so they spoke up. They asked their professors and instructors to model UDL. Beth and her colleagues listened and shifted their own practice because of it. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary, but for some, it is.
When we seek to listen to our learners, we’re doing more than using our sensory cortex to receive information. When we truly listen, we seek to learn from our learners. One way we can learn from them is to ask their opinions. Let’s think about this on a continuum where one end is not asking your learners’ opinions about anything and the other is listening with the intent to learn.
Not listening. You create your lesson plans strictly based on the standards and curriculum materials that are easily accessible to you. Your room (learning environment) is set up so you can easily monitor your learners, get to the materials you need to get to, and they can move to get materials when you need them to. You may have a passion for teaching, but that passion is based on what you know is best.
Listening. You ask your students to share their hobbies and passions (e.g., music, dance, YouTube video channels, books, movies, shows, sports, etc.). You give them a space to share about their family without forcing a precise definition of family on them. You ask where they’ve been, where they want to go, what they want to experience, and with whom they want to experience those things. And in each of these cases you ensure all of your learners have a way to share their voice.
You can add to this list of prompts, just be sure your questions respond to the variability of your learners. For example, “family” is a fluid concept for some of our learners. When we recognize the impact of how we pose our questions, we honor that variability. Also, asking what a child or young adult wants to be “when they grow up” can be horribly stressful to that learner. Ask about experiences instead. We don’t live in a world where everyone holds a traditional job or position. Encourage them to explore!
Next, beyond an interest inventory, we need to hear our learners’ opinions about the content we’re teaching and methods we’re using. While the content is governed by standards, we want learners to ask how it connects to their present or future lives. They’re looking for relevance. Support their learning by offering resources that respond to their questions (e.g., connect them to an expert, an online resource, a book or podcast). When it comes to our methods, that can feel like a knife to the heart. Our job is to build strong lessons and learning environments and we put a lot of work into that. But we need to (a) learn how to filter their words to hear the feedback so we can build lessons and learning environments with which they can connect, and (b) help them learn how to provide their own mastery-oriented feedback. It’s a skill everyone should practice.
As for the learning space, a previous podcast dove deep into the possibilities of learner involvement in space design. Learners want their spaces to be conducive to learning, but we need to scaffold the design and decision-making process. Kate Stanley gave a great example of this.
Why do all of this? Why listen with the intent to learn? One reason is because it leads to autonomous learners. Autonomous learners take more control of their own learning and show higher levels of responsibility when working collaboratively with others. They are more goal directed and reflective. Additionally, autonomy is at the heart of self-determination (another topic discussed in this blog), a skill all learners need to acquire but will only acquire if we provide them the opportunity. Finally, autonomy is at the root of learners being purposeful and motivated, but it’s also at the root of becoming resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed. Since we want all learners to become expert learners, I say that building autonomy through listening with the intent to learn is a great path to follow.
 I use “experience” to replace the often-used word “see” because seeing communicates that all teaching is visually captured. In reality, much of teaching is our emotional connection with our learners. The results of that connection can sometimes be seen, but much of it rests within each person.
Deep conversations about UDL: The model of mentoring
If you’ve ever had a positive mentor in your personal or professional life, you know how valuable they can be. These are individuals who help you to problem-solve, view situations through a different lens, see both outside and within yourself, learn from your mistakes and celebrate your contributions. This EdWeek article defines the eight qualities teacher mentors should have, including: respect for themselves and for you, the ability to listen deeply, the skill of challenging you, the act of collaboration, guiding you to celebrate, telling the truth, providing a safe environment in which to share mistakes, and the ability to empathize. And, as pointed out during this episode, under all of this is trust. Trust is the base of all successful relationships. But how does the mentor/mentee relationship get started and are there real benefits?
Mentors can be assigned or come about naturally. Either way, research from 2017 shows the positive impact mentoring can have on students when mentors focus on providing guidance in lesson planning and how to analyze student work. That’s why this episode’s conversation with Tracy Pendred and Kimberly Spears is so valuable. They clearly voice the benefits of mentoring. Beyond that, though, they voice the impact mentoring can have on the implementation of UDL.
Teachers often come into UDL already having lots of skills and knowledge but what they don’t always have is a shared language. This can make conversation more challenging. They might be talking about similar ideas, but language gets in the way. They don’t have a term that helps them talk about how differently students learn and react to learning in different settings and across days (i.e., variability). They don’t have vocabulary that lets them clearly communicate how their students persevere and use their coping skills more successfully when they have choice around what they are studying, reading, or investigating (i.e., the Principle of Engagement). They might talk about how they use manipulates to teach a math lesson or show a video to help students understand what they’ve read in a new way, but they don’t get to the depth of why they choose these options or how they can take additional steps to shepherd their students toward deeper comprehension (i.e., the Principle of Representation). Or they talk about how exciting it is when students produce products to demonstrate their understanding, but they miss that every student could have produced a product if they’d all been provided that basic level of access suggested under the Guideline of Physical Action within Action and Expression.
When we combine the act of quality mentoring with the consistent investigation and deep learning that comes when implementing UDL, we create learning environment and lessons where all learners benefit. We create an environment where the expectation is that every learner can grow toward becoming an expert learner.
When our learners gain agency, they gain something for life
In the universal design for learning (UDL) community, we refer to learners rather than students because (a) learning takes place both within and outside of the classroom, (b) learning can be guided, independent, and everywhere in between, and (c) learning takes place outside the traditional classroom. There was a shift to learner after realizing that the term student connotes (a) where the learning takes place (i.e., the classroom), (b) from whom the learning is received (i.e., the teacher), and (c) that it ends when the person steps out of the traditional classroom. I think shifting to the word learner also advances how we think about the people we instruct, whether they are 3 or 103. When we place an individual in the role of a learner, we begin to give them agency. When we position them as a student, they are beholden to us.
Suggesting the word learner versus student aligns with this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes because the main message Kate shares is her focus on learner agency. Giving students the power to take charge of their own learning. She firmly believes that learners with agency are stronger thinkers and doers. Kate isn’t alone. Teachers interviewed for this article by MindShift, an education radio show and podcast through KQED of Northern California, offer strategies and their reasons why they support learner agency.
Agency propels our learners forward as the designer of their own educational landscape. Within and beyond the classroom, gaining, understanding, and using agency allows learners to be the commander of their own lives rather than relying on others as the primary decision-makers. This is a learned process, though. Ideas like those shared by Kate and the teachers in the MindShift piece are a start. Another place to look is the literature on self-determination.
Self-determination came from the field of psychology, but made its way into educational psychology and special education. That latter field defines it as “a combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior. An understanding of one’s strengths and limitations together with a belief in oneself as capable and effective are essential to self-determination. When acting on the basis of these skills and attitudes, individuals have greater ability to take control of their lives and assume the role of successful adults” (Field et al. 1998, p. 115). All learners need to obtain these skills, this knowledge, and these beliefs.
Often misinterpreted as the ‘principle of entertainment’, the Principle of Engagement is rich with supports geared toward learners gaining skills like self-management, independent living skills, an internal locus of control, choice-making, decision-making, problem-solving, goal-setting and attainment, self-advocacy, self-efficacy, self-awareness and understanding, and self-evaluation and reinforcement (Algozzine et al, 2001), but leaners only gain these qualities if we design those opportunities into our lessons and learning environments. But where do you start?
Pieces like this one from the American Psychological Association get you started in your understanding, but this piece written by researchers at Vanderbilt ties together research and practice. Researchers asked administrators to think about learners with and without disabilities and their needs around acquiring self-determination skills. The results are eye opening (hint: importance is high, but how often the skills are taught is lower). I like this piece because it ties in example strategies for educators in each section.
Helping our learners gain agency is an incredibly important and layered goal. The fabulous news is that you can start anywhere within those concepts and skills related to self-determination and you’ll all be on your way. And guess what? It’s all woven into the Principle of Engagement! So, pull out those guidelines, dig into them to understand them deeply, and move forward! You’ll help guide your learners toward becoming expert learners who have agency.
Algozzine, B. Browder, D., Karvonen, M, Test, D. W., & Wood, W. M. (2001). Effects of interventions to promote self-determination for individuals with disabilities. Review of Educational Research, 71(2), 217-277.
Field, S., Martin, J., Miller, R., Ward, M., & Wehmeyer, M. (1998). A practical guide for teaching self-determination. Reston, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.
While Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is all about choices, we never want to overwhelm our learners with choice. After publishing 23 associated blogs for UDL in 15 Minutes, there’s a lot of choice. To help you decide which blog(s) will be most meaningful for you (of course, I’m hoping you will think they are all meaningful (*wink*)), I’ve created a quick reference table with the descriptions or titles of each blog. I purposefully keep each blog to 2 pages or less and each blog is directly related to that episode’s podcast. If you want to return to the podcast, there are links embedded within the blogs. Many of the blogs also link out to other resources and tools that can be helpful in your implementation of UDL. Happy reading!
Choice and Control: When One Leads to the Loss of the Other
When Carrie and others who design and teach using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) talk about choice, they are referring to the variety of options presented to learners throughout the lesson and the choices that are built into the environment. When they talk about control, they mean they are stepping back and allowing their learners to make those choices. Carrie Preston talked about the unit she created using choice and control in this way:
It was open ended. They could get and do things the way they needed to and the products were so superior to anything that they produced when I had 95% of the control in the past and I said this is what we’re going to do, this is how you’re going to do it.
During the podcast, I promised to talk about the alignment of the unit to UDL because we didn’t get to it during the interview, but I want to weave in specifics about choice and control, too.
Beginning with the standard and identifying the goal
“…the standard that we worked on was a writing standard and it was writing for a specific audience.” Carrie did what UDL asks us to do – begin with the standard, establish the goal of (in this case) your unit, and begin designing.
Knowing how you will assess their work
She then identified six overarching questions that drove their self-assessment and her overall assessment: What is your topic? Who is your target audience? What do they already know? What do they need to know? What method of communication would be most appropriate? These were the questions that guided her daily check-ins with the students and ensured she didn’t have to create a rubric for each of the specific products. This type of assessment provided students with an optimal level of choice and decision-making which lead to their superior products.
The interrelationship of the principles
While I normally dissect a lesson or unit into the different guidelines during podcasts, I’d like to talk about the interconnectivity of the principals for this example. Carrie shares:
I wanted to keep it simple, but I wanted to give students a lot of choices and I wanted to make sure that we got that engagement piece in. That they were interested in what they were working on and that they would work with the people that they wanted to work with and produce a product that suited their skills and their audience needs.
While this example is clearly linked to the principle of Engagement (e.g., recruiting interest as well as sustaining effort and persistence), she also supported the students’ executive functioning (the principle of Action and Expression). She shared this when she explained:
I did have to help them with a little time management or some maybe functioning as a group. Sometimes I wouldn’t support some groups. There I couldn’t just say hands off, you know, that’s, that’s for you to figure out. I did provide some guidance, there were some students so there were still some supports and scaffolding in those areas, too.
And to help them maintain that movement forward throughout the process, she guided how they processed their information by consistently reminding them of the six overarching questions (Comprehension under Representation), provided that information in a variety of ways (Perception under Representation), and sustained their effort and persistence (the principle of Engagement):
They were on the board all the time. I would always ask them as I did our group checks, and they were on Schoology, we used Schoology to post materials and sometimes I would post tips or things that they could check out or different apps or things that they could use to create their end products for their projects, and we talked about them all the time.
Throughout the unit, students were able to access the tools they wanted to use: “…students could use browser readers to access the content, they could look at videos to research their topic or to come up with ideas. They could use text if they wanted to. They could read text or magazine articles or research about their topics.” This type of choice aligned with both language and symbols and perception under the principle of Representation because students had access to materials that not only offered them clarity about the language, they used multiple media representations and they could manipulate those representations.
Finally, as the students created their final products, Carrie involved guidelines from across the framework. By checking in with the students, she helped them self-regulate and sustain their effort and persistence (principle of Engagement), identify the best way to communicate with their audience (principle of Action & Expression) and move through this long-term project at the end of the year with graduation approaching (executive functions under the principle of Action & Expression).
Carrie showed her own expertise by using the framework to design and implement a unit that allowed all of her learners to show their best work: “I just got such a better product from such a greater percentage of students.” And the ultimate proof of engagement? Student voice: “They said it was the most fun they had all year in class.” These learners got to experience being expert learners. The best type of learner.
Co-teaching. Two adults sharing a space. Two people trained in different disciplines bringing together different content. Two people who each come at relationships and interactions in their own unique way now creating a single space together. Two personalities. Two bodies bringing their own mood to the classroom each day. That “two” isn’t just a 2. That “two” is exponentially bigger.
In this week’s podcast, Karen Keener and Jordan Landis share why they think their co-taught classroom is so successful and how they believe Universal Design for Learning has benefitted them to frame their “two” and make it successful for all learners. Below are a few of the themes that I heard and appreciated.
Co-teaching is an expectation in their building – Brick 1
Karen and Jordan’s building administration value co-teaching. They value it to the point that it is in the master schedule. Teachers know that this will be dedicated time together and it is a defined expectation. This is an incredibly important step that administrators need to take. To ask teachers to co-teach is a positive step, but those teachers need support in what co-teaching is, what structures should be in place, and how to plan with other another. There are plenty of quality online articles (more are here) specifically about getting started with co-teaching. These pieces are for both administrators and teachers because that unified knowledge will lead to better outcomes! And then, teachers need designated time for planning. Karen and Jordan designated a specific time each week during the defined planning period and have fallen into a comfortable pattern of what they do during that time and about how much time it will take them to do that planning. They have shifted from planning alone during that slot to planning together. This is another shift each leader will need to support with resources, examples, and guidance.
Co-teaching is a relationship – Brick 2
All relationships need time and trust to grow. Karen and Jordan have worked together for a few years and fully rely on one another to complete whatever tasks they’ve defined. They’ve consciously and subconsciously agreed upon their norms for building relationships with the students. But the most important piece is the equal partnership they have developed and convey to one another and to their students. They recognize the strengths, talents, and gifts they each bring to the space and work collaboratively to share those with the students. In a profession that is still predominantly developed as solo effort, this can be a huge request. Co-teaching becomes a critical time for personal reflection on how to meet the needs of the learners through the benefit of two teachers. There is a great Edutopia article about this topic.
Understanding how co-teaching can elevate UDL implementation in the classroom – The mortar
Karen and Jordan are clear about how UDL has improved their co-teaching. UDL created a mindset shift, but they both experienced it. They shifted from asking why the students wasn’t learning to investigating what they designed that kept a student from learning. As Jordan put it, “…what kind of changes do we need to make so that kid can access the material in our classroom?” But here’s the key to this: they both experienced and owned that mindset shift. Going back up to the former point, co-teaching is a relationship and mindset is a foundational piece of any relationship. There are other resources out there, including great articles and books that bring together co-teaching and UDL that get to this mindset piece as it develops in a co-teaching relationship, but I like the way Karen so bluntly put it when I asked her how UDL had affected the way she designs. Now she asks, “What’s wrong with our lesson that kids are not getting where they need to be?”
UDL places us in a position of investigating our mindset and investigating our design. It’s a framework of checks and balances. We need to have the mindset to design that environment that will truly empower all of our learners to become expert learners.
When you think of standardized assessments, do you think of student empowerment? I didn’t either until this conversation with Rebecca Chappell. As she shares in this podcast, she figured out how to maintain the fidelity of an assessment while providing student choice within the assessment (you’ll have to listen to find out how). She states, “And I think just reflecting on it for me was just to see how just two small changes in how I approach [the assessment] has really impacted how the students engage with it.” Just two small changes. To me, that’s the magic of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). That’s why it works. There’s a lot of debate, though, throughout the educational community about UDL. Some don’t believe in it at all, saying things like, “If you can’t measure it, it’s not worth it,” or something like that. And while there are a healthy number of people working to figure out how to measure it, I come at it a different way.
UDL requires us to have a behavioral change and a mindset change. Beginning with the behavioral change, if you’re someone who used to be more sage-on-the-stage, you (hopefully) shifted from that because you now understand that the sage brings little relevance and authenticity, provides little or no opportunities for students to develop any kind of self-assessment skills or strategies, and offers few opportunities for students to use tools to construct and compose (and that’s just a few of the things that are minimized when an educator talks too much). You altered your planning and teaching behaviors to align more with the UDL framework. That’s a good thing because the framework is made up of researched and validated evidence-based practices. As I say, it’s all the really good stuff neatly organized and ready to use! Next is the mindset shift.
For some, the mindset shift comes immediately. For others, it comes after working with the framework for a while. One isn’t better than the other because the mindset shift that occurs with UDL is not a race, it is a process. It is within that process that you experience a release similar to what Rebecca shares:
“I was just really surprised, and I think relieved, to see that little change. And just thinking about these guidelines and what I want my students to leave my classroom being able to do is not just be able to produce a bunch of words in a certain amount of time and half correct writing sequence and spelling. I also want them to have the skills that are that are a part of those expert learner characteristics.”
The mindshift happens when we realize that education is much, much bigger than standardized assessments. We realize that knowledge is only 1/6 of the expert learner package. Education is providing our learners with opportunity after opportunity to gain skills that lead them toward owning purpose, motivation, knowledge, resourcefulness, being strategic, and being goal-directed (those are the 6 traits in case you’re wondering what the other 5 are). None of us are born as expert learners. We acquire these, but we only acquire them when provided the opportunity to do so.
I know that the field will continue to demand a way to measure UDL because our current education culture leans that direction. But I hope you take the time to see where you sit in your teaching behaviors (i.e., how you design and deliver instruction) and your mindset. We operate in a field where we are consistently and persistently evaluated. I’m asking you to take a step toward personal empowerment, a step toward becoming your own expert learner, and examine where you are. If you do that, I guarantee that you’re one step closer to helping your learners travel the pathway to becoming expert learners.