We have to teach executive function skills, even to high school students
After asking Amanda, a high school English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, to share why she focuses on executive functions, she said this:
“…, I found that there’s this myth that high schoolers don’t need support in that area anymore because they’re older, but we know that’s not true and their brains still developing.”
I could not have been more excited! It was an unequivocal statement about how we should be thinking about executive functions (EF) for all of our K-12 learners. These are not skills our students gain automatically. You cannot assume they will have picked up these skills in other environments. The phrase, “they should know this by now” does not apply here! Why? Because their brains, and especially this part of their brains, are still developing. Not to put down our brains, but would you ever pull a cake out of the oven at 45 minutes when the recipe says to bake it for one hour and then say, “Why is it not done?” We need to give the time and skill practice necessary for EF skills to emerge. Here’s what you can do.
Amanda shared some awesome resources during our conversation. For example, to help make the point about brain development, she uses this New York Times interactive brain slider (you will need to enable Flash). I love the versatility of this tool. There’s text, there’s color to emphasize the change, and the user interacts with the tool to see the changes in the brain. Just as Amanda shares, it’s a way to point out to learners (and us) that their brains are still developing and they need to practice skills so they can create those pathways in their brains! I’ve put the rest of her list here.
But what if you and your learners are new to this stuff about the brain? Fortunately, there are tons of other valuable and reliable resources out there. One of the first places I always go for this kind of information is the Kennedy Krieger Institute website. To get you started in your understanding of EF, go to this interview with Lisa Jacobson on executive function and executive dysfunction. She shares what schools can do to improve the development of EF. Next, you’ll find this interview with Alexis Reed of the Boston Child Study Center which shares ideas on how to scaffold for EF. If you want to get subject specific and think about math, you can read this interview with Taylor Koriakin. My favorite quote from this blog is, “Attention: Students can only solve problems if they are able to attend to them. This entails paying attention to directions, sorting out which pieces of information are important to the problem at hand, and sustaining focus on the problem. In order to support attention in the classroom as an educator:” That first sentence gets to the point quickly! A fabulous list of ideas follows.
Next are tools that come from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. This activities guide is part of a larger guide on EF. Once you go to this part of the site, you can easily access other areas such as Executive Function 101, and The Science of Executive Function.
Finally, Understood.org is one of my go-to sites. Built as a tool for parents, it also includes information for educators (there is a fabulous video about UDL from a teacher’s perspective). But I see this site as an excellent tool for communication. Imagine you’ve noticed a student is challenged with EF skills. How do you talk to parents about that? This site not only talks about EF without jargon, it is visually appealing, well organized, and easy to navigate. Obviously, there are plenty of other resources out there about EF, but these are ones I trust for their connection to current research and their interpretation of that research (it’s really important that we push neuromyths out of education!).
When you look at the UDL Guidelines, you see that the guideline for Executive Functions is in the lower righthand corner. It’s in the row labeled, “internalize.” It is placed there because we need to support our learners through the use of Physical Action and Expression and Communication so they can use those EF skills. There’s no reason why you can’t use the information in the above tools right away, but UDL (and I) encourage you to get into the other guidelines to see what they enhance and how they support that bottom right hand corner. After all, it takes the entire framework to guide our learners to become expert learners.
This week’s episode with Melanie Acevedo focuses on the use of UDL outside of the core content. Melanie is one of four digital literacy teachers in her school district of about 4,000 students. Having identified that number of digital literacy teachers speaks to the Melrose Public School’s commitment to guiding learners toward thriving in our digital age. Melanie and her colleagues use books, videos, and online tools to help their learners gain these skills and they also turn to resources like CommonSense.org/education/ as a source for lessons, assessments, and ideas. The lessons are research-backed, aligned with standards, and created by an organization that wants to create a digital world where children can thrive. Common Sense carries this out by informing parents, teachers, and the general public through videos, articles, books, recommendations for apps, lesson plans, and more. Melanie and her colleagues, though, take that additional step of viewing all of it through the UDL lens.
The analogy of the lens is very popular in the UDL community, but I want to add an additional component. Very early on in my position as the UDL Coordinator in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation, I was asked to provide a training to the staff of the Northside Middle School. I remember using the analogy of a 3-legged magnifying glass.
Just as the magnifier is balanced on all three legs, as we look through the lens of UDL we need to balance our environments and lesson via the three principles. When we do that, we are moving toward providing greater access, flexibility, and equity. When we do that, we are more likely going to provide our learners with opportunities to move toward becoming expert learners. But, what does expert learning look like when students are putting into action digital literacy? Here are just few examples:
Purposeful – learners choose the digital tools and information they need to reach their learning goal.
Motivated – learners challenge themselves to continue learning about a digital topic (e.g., coding) even when it challenges them.
Resourceful – learners actively and consciously use evidence-based decision-making skills and steps to seek out reliable digital sources.
Knowledgeable – learners connect prior learning about privacy and security when choosing apps they believe will help them meet a goal.
Strategic – learners utilize digital tools to improve the quality of their products rather than using them as a distractor to accomplishing a goal.
Goal-directed – learners identify what they want to accomplish through the use of digital tools and continue working toward that goal.
We are in the midst of the digital age and our learners need support to move through it. We must remember, though, that not all learners will gravitate toward digital tools or sources. Not all learners will want to use them as a primary source. This is why UDL is invaluable to us as we design our digital literacy lessons and environments. UDL reminds us that all learners are variable and we need to provide different types of opportunities and options so our learners can gain these skills and all learners can become expert learners.
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.