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Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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Classroom observations can be a powerful method to improve everything from environment design to implementing strategies. During the podcast, Dan described the influence one teacher had on him.

And there was this one particularly talented teacher who would come into my math class. And she would implement or use all these strategies and I would stand back and watch her and I think, wow, if this is working for students who are struggling, why not try it with the students who may not be struggling, but you never really know because they’re not going to freely admit it so why not let everybody have access to the strategies? And so, at that point, really the “Why not?” became my, my mantra for new ideas. I try to use it as sort of a growth mindset. Even student suggestions, you know, why not try it? And so, that’s really where that, “Why not” sort of developed.

Dan was observing someone who came into his classroom, though many times, observations involve going into someone else’s space. However they happen, observations can be incredibly helpful!

Robert Kaplinsky offers an easy comparison between the Pineapple Chart method created by Jennifer Gonzalez and Mark Barnes for their book, Hacking Education, and his method called #ObserveMe. While these two initiatives help educators learn from one another, I want to add to the conversation by offering an observation guide that is specific to UDL implementation.

The guide, Here’s What I See: The UDL Implementation Observation Guide is different than other guides in four ways.

  1. It asks the observer to focus on a single aspect of the lesson or the environment. An aspect can be a strategy, a material (e.g., use of a specific technology, use of manipulatives, how learners interact with the organizational system of classroom materials), or a method. This helps the observer dig into that one aspect and investigate how it is designed into the lesson and/or space and how learners react to it.
  2. It divides the lesson up into three sections: the initiation, the body, and the conclusion. This way, it is not limited to certain lesson structures (e.g., I do, we do, you do).
  3. The reflection prompts ask the observer to consider the three principles of UDL (e.g., evidence of/nuances of design using engagement). This allows the observer to fully consider how the aspect is used throughout the three phases of the lesson in relation to the three principles.
  4. The guide concludes with de-brief prompts and suggestions of how observers can be grouped for effective conversations. The de-brief prompts are written to guide observers to reflect on issues directly related to the UDL framework.

While I’m excited about this observation guide, I hope users will send me feedback so we can co-construct an even better tool to continue moving ourselves toward becoming expert learners!

Illustration of lady construction worker with hard hat and vest smiling and giving a thumbs up while carrying rolled up blueprints with her other hand
Public Domain

In this episode, Monica shares how she and a team conducted action research to discover whether choice would lead to greater engagement in assessments and learning at the middle school level. While sharing that story, she pointed out that their school counselor is a “Gardner guru,” referencing Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences. Later, she talked about the counselor’s use of multiple intelligences (MI) to help the students identify their strengths.

Referencing Gardner’s work provides a wonderful opportunity to remind everyone of his intent when he published information about MI. In fact, Gardner clarified his work in a Washington Post article printed on October 16, 2013, titled, “Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles.’(Strauss).

Through his work on multiple intelligences, Gardner’s goal was to dissuade people from believing that we have a single overarching intelligence that defines how well we will do in life. Instead, Gardner believes there are a series of 8 different intelligences including: intrapersonal, interpersonal, logical-mathematical, naturalist, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic, and musical (www.multipleintelligencesoasis.org). The theory suggests that due to the interconnectivity of our brains, we inherently experience these different intelligences simultaneously and we experience them based on context. While a person may show a propensity toward one or another, that doesn’t mean it defines that person. He uses the example of a person who has the ability to acquire a new language quickly. That person might have a higher linguistic intelligence, but this does not lock this person into a type or style.

At some point, individuals and groups began talking and writing about learning styles. Definitions were created and assessments soon followed. As Gardner points out, though, there are no criteria to back up the definitions and these styles do not hold true across context. Here’s an example. Some people refer to themselves as “auditory” learners, but this style fails to recognize how our brain works. For example, a person might appear to learn best when the learning is attached to music, but not when listening to podcasts. Both are auditory actions (i.e., they make use of hearing), but use different cognitive faculties. The brain works differently even though the “input” is through the ears. To identify a learner with a type of style or to have that learner identify themselves as a specific type of style (a) denies what we know about how the brain functions, and (b) can mislead a learner to characterize themselves in an ill-defined and limiting way.

Through the UDL Lens

In that same article, Gardner provides recommendations that I provide here via the UDL lens. First, he calls on us to individualize. He calls for educators to help learners discover ways they find comfortable to learn and support them in those ways. In the UDL community, we build that into the design via choice (as Monica and her peers did for their action research). An important key here is to help learners find ways of learning, not one way, because there is not a single way for any learner to experience learning. Second, he asks teachers to “pluralize” their teaching by teaching topics and skills in a variety of ways. This is at the very heart of UDL and the Principle of Representation. When we use multiple means and methods to demonstrate topics and skills, we are able to connect with all of our learners, providing them opportunities to learn more thoroughly. Finally, Gardner asks us to drop the term “styles.” It’s confusing and has no research-base unlike the principles, guidelines, and checkpoints of UDL as well as the concept of variability.

Wooden figure leaning on its right hand
CCO Public Domain

Currently, there is no MI test and, in fact, Gardner pushes against self-assessment to specifically define oneself (read here). What he does want people to do is understand the interrelationship between our intelligences. He has online activities at the posted link so people can experience these connections.

Ultimately, Gardner doesn’t want us to assess ourselves. He wants us to explore and understand these different parts of ourselves. So, instead of asking your students to assess themselves, allow them the ability to explore and make their own discoveries through choice and reflection. That is, after all, how we support the development of expert learners.

During my podcast with Jana Nicol, she provided some wonderful examples of how she got started with the UDL framework. These included the organization of her classroom supplies, her use of the classroom schedule, and her adoption of flexible seating. Each were quality environment strategies. The difference, though, is how she used the framework to determine the design of each item. Below, I break down the three examples and include the UDL guidelines associated with her decisions.

Labeled bins with cut-out handles on sectioned shelves that stand at the height of her students
Organization of supplies (picture taken by Jana Nicol)

What teacher doesn’t love an organized space, especially when your classroom isn’t particularly large? And while Jana teaches 3rd grade, many of the names associated with classroom supplies are part of students’ day-to-day language. She recognizes the variability she knows will be present. She knows that some of her learners might struggle when scanning the bins to locate the correct supplies. Knowing about variability also leads her to design other presentation and use strategies. The signs on her bins include the picture of the item (Perception and Language & Symbols). To what end? She wants her learners to be motivated and self-driven in their use of the supplies (Self-Regulation and Executive Functions). She wants to open the doors to creativity when they are working on projects (Expression & Communication) instead of requiring them to stop, seek permission, and potentially lose their creative idea while waiting to get the supply they need. And, instead of waiting, they can stay in their zone of excitement and productivity (Sustaining Effort & Persistence). The pure freedom learners have to choose the supply they think they need provides them with more choice and autonomy (Recruiting Interest), leading them to experience both success and challenge based on their choices (e.g., have you ever used a glue stick when you should have used masking tape?).

A pocket chart filled with cards that have the task name and associated picture on them. The top pocket has the day of the week. The order of the cards going down visually models the order of the schedule. A long pole with a cartoon hand is used to point to the schedule items when Jana Nicol reads the schedule out loud.
Classroom Schedule (photo by Jana Nicol)

When I was an 8th grade collaborative special education teacher, students came to my room during two different periods a day. I always wrote a schedule on my board. I knew that helped my students (and me), but I didn’t know why it helped them. UDL helps me understand why.

Students know what is coming, which can help them understand the flow of the class (Sustaining Effort and Persistence) and know what’s coming next. For some, knowing the schedule order provides them with a sense of security (Recruiting interest) and helps them regulate their emotions and reactions toward specific subjects or what they perceive as activities connected with those subjects or activities (Self-regulation). Nicol’s schedule provides images, written words, and she reads the schedule out loud (Perception and Language & Symbols). She ensures her students understand the pattern of the day (Comprehension). By discussing the schedule, learners also have the opportunity to think through their day and plan how they will stay on task, work with others, or meet other goals (Executive Functions). Posting the schedule is a first step, but it is how the schedule is used in the environment that opens opportunities to learners. When you understand the guidelines, you can investigate how you might use a simple organizational structure in a way that benefits more of your learners in a more effective way.

Four boys sitting around a rectangular table. Two boys are seated on milk crates. One boy is seated on a stool, while another boy is sitting in a chair.
Flexible seating (photo by Jana Nicol)

Flexible seating is a popular topic and has been shown to be a promising structure for learning. In this podcast, we talked not only about the different types of seating learners could choose, but that they also chose where they worked and, when applicable, with whom they worked. It takes careful planning and execution and the UDL framework can help you do both, just as it helped Jana.

As Jana shares during the podcast, her students love choosing where they are going to work (Recruiting Interest). They are able to work alongside one another (Sustaining Effort and Persistence) and they help keep one another on track (I’m making an assumption here, but it fits with how Jana designs her classroom) (Sustaining Effort and Persistence and Self-Regulation). Students who might experience a learning barrier due to the physical set-up of the space can be provided with options and opportunity when there is flexible seating (Physical Action).

Toward the end of the podcast, Jana used a word that is one of the underlying components of UDL: flexibility. When we design environments that allow for learner choice – we build in flexibility – we see them grow. They now have to make decisions as to what is going to benefit them most. Which supply will help them accomplish what they’ve set out to do? How they will manage their needs as they relate to the schedule? And, which seating type and what location will help them reach their goals? These types of decisions are what help our learners become expert learners, and that is the ultimate goal of UDL.

This blog is in response to my podcast with Ben Kelly.

Empowering through investigation

During this episode’s interview with Ben Kelly, he is jazzed about Minecraft as a tool that aligns with the Universal Design for Learning framework. I’m jazzed about his participation in action research. This research method is extremely powerful because it gives us answers about how we can change our instruction or environment to meet the needs of our learners. Ben and colleagues throughout New Brunswick, Canada took part in UDL-focused action research projects that were supported by the University of New Brunswick as well as the New Brunswick Department of Education. This powerful partnership led to the publication of each team’s findings. The teams investigated topics including: student engagement in project-based learning, eBook usage by English language learners, grade 9 math, engagement around a social studies curriculum, promoting student engagement, increasing engagement in an inclusive environment, establishing collaboration among teachers who are implanting UDL, using math exchanges and math stations to improve problem solving and numeracy skills, and using formative assessment to improve skill development, understanding, and self-correction in physical education. Their reported results are enlightening and supportive of the UDL framework! I promise that after you have read some or all of these articles, you will become jazzed about the possibilities action research bring to you!

But if you have never learned about action research or it has been a while since you tried it out, where do you start? George Mason University has gathered quality resources including work done by the University of Maryland as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant called Project Nexus. Linking very nicely to UDL, this project encouraged teachers to use the regular sources of interviews and written text but also included student drawings (a lovely connection to the principle of Action & Expression!).

Maybe you are interested in giving action research a try, but you are not sure whether you want to conduct action research on your own, with a team, at the school level, or at the district level. In this document, written by Eileen Ferrance and published and distributed by Brown University, there is a wonderfully helpful table that guides the reader to understand the supports needed, the potential impact that the research can have, and potential side effects in relationship to individual teacher research, collaborative action research, school-wide action research, or district-wide action research.

Ultimately, action research puts the power in your hands. As with any research, you decide what you want to study, how you want to structure the study, and who you want to have involved in your study, but action research is accessible to teachers. It relies on the assessment of what you are doing in your classroom and the work your students produce. These are things you look at anyway; the action research process provides a more structured and in-depth way to investigate your question, set a strong plan, collect the data, analyze and interpret those data, reflect on your findings, and ultimately finish that loop of formative assessment by making informed changes and sharing what you have learned. After all, you could be like the teachers in New Brunswick, Canada and your lessons could empower a bunch of other teachers!

Clip art diagram of action research process
Action Research Cliparts #2433655 retrieved from http://clipart-library.com/clipart/1605822.htm

…the more I’ve learned about UDL, it really truly is a mindset. I think of it sort of as, like, almost like an ideology really, in approach to education. It’s a totally different world view, a totally different way of looking at students, of looking at a lesson, it’s a different way of thinking about what it means to be in public education and truly serving every child, every child’s needs.

– Dakota Hudelson

The Mindset of UDL

If you’ve been around the UDL community for a while, you’ve heard the framework described as a mindset, but how can a framework be a mindset? A framework is a thing. In fact, when people struggle to understand what a framework is, I point them to the periodic table as an example of a framework. A framework is a structured way to organize and categorize information to make it more understandable and useful. But the UDL framework has two sides to it: a way of thinking and a way of doing.

A way of thinking. UDL brings together quality research and practices into one place. That’s why so many teachers initially say, “I’m already doing this!” After a while, though, teachers who are intentional about their use of the UDL framework begin to see that the framework challenges them to think even more broadly about two things: how they can remove the barriers keeping students from learning, and how different strategies and practices can be barriers for some and accessible to others. UDL makes us recognize, over and over, that there is no single way to teach anything. And, each time we teach it, it will need to be different because the learners who are present will be different. Finally, our teaching practice expands when we recognize the variability among our learners and we invite learners of all types into our environments. What I mean when I say that UDL is a way of thinking is this – to effectively implement UDL, we must believe that all learners bring something of value to the environment and it is up to us to lower the barriers so those students can share their contributions and build additional knowledge and skills.

A way of doing. As UDL continues to shift our thinking, it’s going to affect our doing. Returning to the teachers who initially say, “I’m already doing this!” the following question is asked: in your process of planning your lessons and setting up your environment, are you planning for the variable needs or planning for the average and then adding things in later for students who don’t fit the average? All of the research that established and continues to uphold the information within the UDL framework confirms that there is no average. By using the framework as a tool when designing your lessons and environment, you begin to add in options that support the variability that will be present. In other words, you design your lessons and learning environments, anticipating learner variability. Doing so causes you to provide multiple opportunities and options for students to connect with, understand, and demonstrate their understanding of the subject or skill.

In short, UDL is:

Illustration of young man thinking with question marks around his head
Thinker by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay
Note with "LET'S DO IT!" written on it and tape on one corner
Lets Do It by Maklay62 from Pixabay
A way of thinking A way of doing
We must believe that all learners bring something of value to the environment and it is up to us to lower the barriers so those students can share their contributions and build additional knowledge and skills. You design your lessons and learning environments, anticipating learner variability. Doing so causes you to provide multiple opportunities and options for students to connect with, understand, and demonstrate their understanding of the subject or skill.

Isn’t it funny how we interpret rigor throughout education? As Liz Hartmann points out during our podcast conversation, many educators fall into the trap of more, more, more. They pile on the reading assignments, projects, and things to do. Liz shares how they decided to add rigor by closely investigating the way they had students engaged with the content. Realizing that their desired amount of reading was occurring but the level of comprehension and subsequent application was not, the team turned to the UDL framework and challenged themselves to redesign how their learners were using the background knowledge as well as their learning strengths to gain new knowledge.

I want to break this down a little more, though. In the podcast, I comment that, “we’ve got some folks out there who unfortunately misinterpret UDL, and this concept of lowering barriers, and they see that as, “making things easier.”” When I hear that belief, I immediately know that the person does not understand the purpose of the framework. One way to show the difference in mindset is to provide comparison. In the table below, I’ve used the definition of rigor (from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary) that some might unfortunately bring into the classroom. Alongside each breakdown of the definition, I’ve written out the mindset of UDL and its intent.

Black and white photo of open dictionary on a table in a library
Dictionary by greeblie is CC by 2.0
Rigor (noun) UDL (noun); UDL implementation (verb)
Harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgement. Believing there must be an infiltration of flexibility within the design of learning environments so as to challenge students to become self-determined thinkers and decision-makers.
The quality of being unyielding or inflexible. The quality of recognizing, designing for, and implementing based on student variability.
An act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty. The development of an environment upheld by neuro-science research which supports educators and learners acquiring and applying social-emotional learning.
A condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable. An environment design that minimizes the level or threat a learner might feel, but supports the student to learn ways to mitigate or negotiate around those stressors in the future.

Instead of making things easier, when we have a better understanding of educational rigor and use the UDL framework to design our learning environment (e.g., the physical things and social-emotional structures present), we can truly move our learners toward rigorous learning. I like the way Robyn Jackson talks about rigor. When students have to (1) make meaning of things, (2) organize what they are learning in a way that makes sense to them, (3) figure out how small pieces and parts become part of a bigger process, and (4) then apply that new knowledge to other situations, they are doing something rigorous.

Linking back to the podcast, having students read 3 articles and watch 2 videos to understand a UDL guideline is not rigorous. Requiring students to share their interpretations as well as how they connect what they’ve learned to what they already know establishes a base for rigor. This is further amplified when the learners know they will receive feedback and assignments/challenges that push them further into the content and to connect that guideline to the entire UDL framework. Finally, they have to apply their knowledge of UDL to a new product, be it an app or the design of a future lesson. Instead of being pushed into the deep end and told to sink or swim (the falsehood of read+watch = understand), they have their choice of flotation device, swimming style, and beginning depth (the truth of guided goal-driven reading and watching = a new interpretation. Now, rinse and repeat). Ultimately, the learners know they are all moving toward the same goal in a rigorous way.

During each of my podcast interviews, I ask the guest to describe the students in his or her learning environment. Rachel’s school, Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, serves students who have disabilities as well as students who are ethnically, socioeconomically, and linguistically diverse. As she began to describe why she loved teaching these students and teaching at her school, she named characteristics that not only pointed to the culture she established within her classroom, but it also pointed to the culture of the school. I asked her to talk about that school culture and this is what she shared:

Yeah, I think that it’s a big part of our staff and the fact that many of our teachers feel, um, have this desire to really foster these core character traits in our kids. Um, you know, like I said, the school is a small school and, you know, everybody knows everybody. And our principal, you know, really enforces this idea of it takes a village and we all are looking out for all of these children. And so those core values, that’s what we call them in my classroom, core values, things like curiosity, reflection, kindness, and grit, and persistence, um, are things that are felt throughout the school and, um, as well as you know really trying to work on those social emotional learning needs of our kids and restorative justice practices. Many teachers in our school use those practices as well, which really, you know, really tackle that whole child approach to, to our kids.

A positive and strong school culture is crucial to the full implementation of UDL. Sure, students can go into a few select classes designed using the UDL framework and have a positive, deeply affective, challenging, rigorous, experience, but when they leave those environments, they lose the opportunity to become expert learners and it’s in that shift that we can lose them. The disconnect is dangerous.

Puzzle with child's face looking out from behind it
Puzzle by Milan Nykodym CC BY-SA 2.0

Most students experience multiple teachers/educators and learning environments throughout the day. Think of it as a giant puzzle that students put together every day. Each learning environment is another piece in their day. They know when those pieces connect and when they don’t. So, how do we create a culture where those pieces connect?

Just as Rachel described, when each educator feels they are part of a positive collective and understand their connection to the collective, that connectedness is communicated to their learners via common expectations, support structures, and norms. The school and district leadership lead that development, including the development of norms around the implementation of UDL. Where do you start?

Suggested tools that can guide leadership to establish a strong and positive culture can be found at www.swiftschools.org in their Guide.

Specific to UDL, these videos are of building and district leaders who have brought UDL to their districts and schools and are making UDL implementation part of the collective culture. See what’s possible in your environment.

UDL is a powerful framework, but its power grows exponentially when it guides the design of a school or district’s culture. Imagine a district where families, students, and community members know that the entire environment is designed so every learner can become an expert learner. Now, that’s a positive culture!

“I sat there and I kind of crossed my arms and I said, “I already do this! I already do UDL!” And then I kept thinking, “Ah, these are just good teaching strategies. Everybody teaches this way!” Oh, and then I thought, “Oh, it has to do with elementary teachers just do this then. Maybe they don’t do it at the middle school, high school level, but we already do this.” And I just kept thinking it was really a new buzzword and that there wasn’t anything new. And then by the end, it was a week-long course, and by the end of the week I thought, “Oh, wait a minute. I guess I really don’t do this.” And I think I had been teaching for so long that I thought it really was what I was doing, but the more I dove, you know, I dove deeper into what UDL was and I realized it really was different. That there were a lot more levels to and layers as to what UDL was.”

– Laura Taylor, sharing her reflections about a UDL training during her UDL in 15 Minutes interview.

During our conversation together, Laura openly shared what I’ve heard other experienced teachers say when they first hear about UDL. When you listen to my podcast with Laura, you’ll hear what she took from that training. She shares what changed about her teaching after 25 years in the classroom.

From a training perspective, an incredibly interesting thing about UDL is that each person takes away their own thing. They might take away a better understanding of choice versus variety. They might take away a new understanding of accessibility. They might come to a deeper understanding of the power of goals. That’s because all learning is based on our background experiences and knowledge. That not only includes the experiences we had as learners when we were children, teenagers, and as adults, but it also includes experiences driven by the locations in which we have taught, the student populations we have supported, and the support we have been provided by the other professionals in our midst. Bring in the experiences we have outside of our professional lives, and you have all the ingredients for a variable learner of UDL! This also means that some people automatically connect with the UDL framework and others need some time, space, and additional information before they are ready to try it out.

Let’s say you’re the person in your building or department who is most enthused about UDL.  You see its potential, but your colleagues still have their arms crossed. What can you do? How do you provide them with more information and support them so they can absorb UDL in a way that suits their needs?

  1. Share stories told by other UDL implementers. I have guests spanning preschool to grad school from around the globe lined up for “UDL in 15 Minutes” in 2019. Sign up via iTunes, subscribe to my YouTube channel, and make sure you come back to the website for the follow-up blog posts.

  2. Share your stories. What one or two things did you take away from the framework that made an impact? What changes did you see in your students?

  3. Join a community of UDL implementers. Twitter has groups like #udlchat and #udlhe where educators talk about UDL. You don’t even have to post anything! You can just read what other people write and post. If you don’t know how to get started, just email me and I can help you join the Twitterverse!

  4. Connect with CAST and the UDL-IRN. CAST has updated The National Center as a hub of up-to-date stories about people, ideas, and conversations in the UDL community. The UDL Implementation and Research Network (IRN) has a weekly newsletter with tips and tools for UDL implementation.

We all come to UDL in our own wonderful ways. We start from where we are. And as we learn more about ourselves as expert learners of UDL (and life), we can pass along our lessons to our students through the design of our learning environments. Now that’s a real gift.

This blog is in response to my podcast with Jessie Sherman

Some schools choose specific teaching methods like project-based learning or defined practices of teaching like arts integration as a way to teach their learner population. Both are excellent mechanisms to support exploration and learning. What Jessie and her colleagues discovered though, was that while their school adhered to both project-based learning and arts integration, there were learners who were not fully engaged and participating. Enter Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Note: If you have not listened to my interview with Jessie yet, I suggest you listen to UDL in 15 Minutes and then return to this blog.

Project-based learning is grounded in authentic learning, providing learners the space and time needed to fully explore and respond to complex challenges. Arts integration focuses on drawing learners into learning via fine and performing arts. Both are highly valued and researched, showing quality outcomes for learners (see American Institutes for Research and DefinedSTEM for reports). As noted though, the strong and positive outcomes reported were highly reliant on the design and implementation. What happens when that design and implementation doesn’t reach all learners?

That’s exactly what concerned Jessie. While Jessie was concerned about the participation and outcomes of her students with disabilities (they do not have a substantial number of English learners in their school), Jessie recognized that she always had some learners who weren’t inherently connecting with the projects, or couldn’t or wouldn’t participate in the fine or performing arts. She also noticed that these weren’t a certain type or demographic of learner. Fortunately, Jessie was introduced to a framework that helped her think even more expansively about the barriers learners might face. Welcome to UDL.

My biggest takeaway from my conversation with Jessie was how she and her team of supporters identified structures and supports that opened up opportunities for all of her learners while staying true to the mission of their school. Jessie did not see UDL as a competing framework or “one more thing.” Instead, the UDL framework spurred her to broaden the choice of reptiles within the designed project. The UDL framework guided her to take a closer look at the painting option in relation to the arts integration. She realized there were additional mediums and processes that allowed access. The heart of the lesson was still driven by project-based learning and arts integration. UDL enhanced learners’ access and the flexibility of the learning environment (e.g., more choice).

Those of us who are whole-hearted supporters of the UDL framework know that UDL is not a panacea. UDL is a framework that has to be purposefully implemented. That purpose is driven by the desire to create fully accessible, flexible, choice-filled, goal-driven, rigorous learning environments. These are the design outcomes inclusive educators want and the UDL framework offers the pathway to that design.

Pathway through a stand of trees
This photo by Unknown Author CC BY-NC-ND

This blog is in response to my podcast with Shelbi Fortner.

Growth mindset is a concept that has received a lot of attention and for good reason. If you aren’t familiar with it, if you aren’t sure of what it is, or if it feels too shallow to you, read this clarifying piece from The Atlantic. And, because growth mindset is such a crucial component within the UDL Guidelines (check out Sustaining Effort and Persistence), we really need to understand it.

An important reminder that came from The Atlantic article is that all of us, learners and their educators, demonstrate a growth mindset when we turn to the resources around us to help us develop our solution (Gross-Loh, 2016). That is exactly what Shelbi described when talking about her design shifts during her interview. Note: If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I suggest you do and then continue reading. In other words, spoiler alert!!

During this podcast, Shelbi shared her professional journey as a teacher and as a learner. More importantly, she shared her willingness to try something that might not have worked in other settings. When she designed the assessment for her Honors Biology students, her focus was on giving them different ways to think about visual models like photosynthesis, DNA replication, and protein synthesis. She asked them to compare and contrast, to state which models they believed were better at describing a process and why, and which models were more accurate. The students didn’t even have to answer the same questions – they chose the questions that made sense to them. This UDL-driven design worked because (a) she was in a context that supported her growth mindset, and (b) Shelbi exhibited a growth mindset during the design process.

Shelbi’s administration gave her the room necessary to try things like her non-standardized final exam design. She turned to the administration as a resource, informed them of her idea, and they encouraged her to run with it. They knew that high quality teaching and learning were going on in that Honors Biology learning environment. The administration was also eager to hear the results of the of the students’ thinking. Ultimately, Shelbi and her administration were united in her implementation of UDL.

Next, Shelbi demonstrated a growth mindset in her willingness to turn to others for suggestions. Several from the UDL Core Team, Shelbi, and I sat and discussed ideas when she was first considering this exam design. She took those ideas and established a final that provided her learners the room needed to astound her. To do that, though, Shelbi had to grapple with her own beliefs around what a final exam is, the purpose of a final exam, and how to hear the voices of her students in those final exams. Instead of giving up, she pushed forward by reaching out for new resources. That’s what someone who has a growth mindset does.

There are several other ingredients that had to be in place for this final to work. Some of those included a year of discussions, activities, and assignments that required those students to evaluate, assess, and critique their own knowledge. They were practiced in this level of thinking. In addition, while Shelbi embraced and embodied a growth mindset, she knew that she needed to guide her learners in the creation of theirs.

As discussed in The Atlantic article cited above, growth mindset focuses on helping students learn to use the resources around them to problem-solve, not “try harder” and repeat methods that are not adequate or appropriate for the situation. They cannot learn this through modeling alone, though; learners need to be provided specific opportunities with clear feedback to help them know they are establishing a growth mindset. Shelbi provided those opportunities and feedback throughout the year. And, a final example of Shelbi’s growth mindset showed up in her desire to figure out how she will create a rubric to support her design and support her students in the future. Shelbi isn’t done learning and she’s not done using the resources around her.

A final note about growth mindset: Dr. Dweck points out that having a growth mindset does not mean always being in that state. In fact, depending on the context, we might experience a fixed mindset (I hope you saw the word context and immediately connected that to variability and UDL!) Context is key and none of us are a certain type of learner. I encourage you to think about times when you experienced a growth mindset and when you experienced a fixed mindset.

What triggered your fixed mindset?

How did your mindset affect your teaching?

How did your mindset affect your learning?

How does your mindset affect your route toward becoming an expert learner?