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Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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Video Sharing, Principal Leadership, and UDL

During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, Principal Sara Soria shares how influential art has been in her life and how it has become a two-pronged tool for her work. First, she models using art to connect with others (be sure to click on the Crystal Blue Persuasion link in the top right corner to hear music while you look at the slides). Second, she shares how Coalinga-Huron incorporates arts into instruction. In each case, she continues to see how this art emphasis improves student outcomes. I visually represent this two-pronged approach below and then share the specific connections to the UDL framework below the figure.

Diagram of how art can be used with UDL to improve student outcomes

Model how art is used to connect with others

For her course assignment, Sara cultivated photos and other images of art to tell her story. When designing this montage, she connected to the guidelines Recruiting Interest (minimizing threats and distractions) and Sustaining Effort & Persistence (foster collaboration and community) to gain a connection with her audience.

Model how art can influence instruction

During the podcast, Sara shares how she encourages her staff to celebrate learner variability and connect to the guidelines by showing how art can be used to represent information to learners via Language & Symbols (illustrate through multiple media) as well as Comprehension (highlight patterns, critical, features, big ideas, and relationships) and how learners can use it to express their skills and knowledge via Expression & Communication (use multiple media for communication).

Sara ties all of this to the need to be transparent as educators. She believes there is a need to show our students who we are, from where we came, and how we’ve traversed barriers. Her interview initiates the question: What stories do you share with your learners? Do you use stories from your life to show how you’ve moved beyond obstacles? How do you feel about storytelling? What are your barriers to telling your own story? Where could you start? This post on offers 30 tips for teachers who want to use storytelling to connect with learners and is an excellent way for you to do some reflection. The ideas can ease you into a genre that might not be familiar to you.

As Sara points out, the arts are a powerful way for teachers to engage learners, to represent information, and to provide different mediums for students to express what they’ve learned. In fact, you can return to earlier podcasts with Rachel Barillari and Jessie Sherman who also focused on the use of the arts to enrich their lessons. But just as each of them said, the power emerges when our learners begin to adopt the skillsets associated with being expert learners. So, if you are already on a journey with using the arts in your learning environments, or you want to begin, remember to take time and examine the UDL guidelines. Investigate how you are providing access to the arts as well as proving opportunities for students to use the arts in their learning. Examine the opportunities you are providing them to become purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed. The more you provide those opportunities, the richer the art becomes, both what is offered and what is produced.

Thinking about Gifted Learners through the UDL Framework

In the first bit of time what I started to learn about UDL was that it fosters an active approach to learning where I think so much of traditional ways of education, including grading and assessment are passive, where students can tend to get in the habit of kind of checking the boxes or becoming good at the game of school, as I call it. – Ian Wilkins

If you were to assess this small piece of your teaching, which would you say your students do more – check boxes or are active participants in their learning? Do your learners know how to play along with the system to just get the grade or are they invested? How do you shift them away from box checking and into investment?

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework’s emphasis of engagement is directly aligned with this idea mentioned by Ian during this podcast episode. And though we talk about all students when we talk about an environment designed using UDL, this blog is going to spend some time talking about the supports we provide to students who are gifted because many of these students know exactly how to play along. We need them thinking.

Students who are gifted need additional challenges to keep them simulated. Before we get into the UDL and gifted connection, this blog from Edutopia reviews the damaging misconceptions some educators have about students who are gifted and talented, but those misconceptions can be addressed through the use of the UDL framework. I’ll share a story first, though.

I was the full-time sub in an 8th grade Algebra classroom during my first year out of undergrad (I had been hired as a paraprofessional in the same building). My colleague and her husband adopted a baby and the process moved more quickly than any of us imagined. One day, I was sitting with my colleague and the principal planning the transition and one month later I was in front of her classroom.

One of my classes included a 4th grader who was dropped off by his mother 5 minutes before class started every day. She shuttled him over from the nearby grade school. I wasn’t terrified of him; I was terrified of failing him. Every day, he sat in the front row, swinging his legs, with his pencil ready and every day I went into my lessons wondering how I was going to support him.

I remember him showing me four overarching emotions/reactions: consistent curiosity, glee, shyness, and frustration. I’m pretty sure the last emotional response included my inability to give him challenging enough options and my general lack of understanding of how to support him. I wish I’d had UDL to guide my lesson and learning environment development. What would I have done differently?

First, we know that all of our learners should be given options (that’s why every guideline begins with the phrase, “Provide options for…”), but when we’re constructing our options for a learning environment, we’re thinking through the variability that is present and anticipated. I would have given all of my learners, including him, options around time, space and materials (this was the early 90’s, so there was no technology in the classrooms) to share the connections they were making between the mathematical concepts. That would have been a much more valuable conversation rather than solving math problem after math problem.

Next, I would have provided clear guidance around roles and responsibilities in group work. My 8th graders knew that if they were grouped with him, he’d do all of the work. That meant that some of the 8th graders occasionally wanted to be grouped with him but most did not. They wanted to learn, too. Just as the Edutopia blog discusses, he didn’t have the social maturity to define his own role. He and his peers needed that scaffolding to help them delineate responsibilities, self- assess their contributions, and manage resources. By giving them this guidance, it would have provided the platform for deeper learning through collaboration as well as a platform to solve more challenging problems.

Finally, I would have provided many, many more supports around executive functions for all of my learners. Though most of the learners in this class were identified as gifted, most of them had limited organizational skills when it came to managing the information given to them. They were great at learning specific skills and then applying those skills to algorhythms, but they were not skilled at taking their skills and knowledge and planning how they would use it or the steps they would take to solve a larger problem. Executive function has to be practiced and we have to provide scaffolds to support our students on that journey. This piece lays out a day in the life of a student with executive functioning issues. Though your learners might not have a diagnosis of ADHD, there are some great tips for both home and schools.

There was nothing in my mathematics teaching manual to help me see these and other holes in my lesson plans and learning environment. Throughout that period, I received help from other teachers, but only around content delivery. It wasn’t until the very end of that year that I read work by John Dewey that shifted how I approached lesson planning: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” I began to wonder how I could connect what my students were learning to what they were living and life in general. For me, that mindset shift was part of my journey toward UDL. I began thinking about how to make the learning more real, how to connect him and his peers, and how to help them all with their planning and monitoring skills.

Our gifted students are part of the wonderful variability present in our learning environments. Their scaffolds and supports will look a little different at times, but when you provide the options suggested across the guidelines, you are giving them the guidance all learners need – guidance in how to become expert learners.

Do you hear voices?

Different teachers come to UDL via different paths, but every teacher wants students to be more engaged in learning. The principle of engagement shows us the various ways we can raise engagement, but it depends on the structures around us. For example, Christina was able to add in flexibility to her curriculum. During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, she shared:

So the students were supposed to write an answer to a warm up question, and then they’re supposed to read an article and they’re supposed to take some notes in a specific format, and then they’re supposed to share their notes with each other in a specific format, and then they’re supposed to answer some questions at the end. And I’ve, in the past, had a lot of trouble getting students to really engage with it as well.

Even her description makes it sound tedious. But what comes out in her story is that the structure isn’t necessarily the problem, it’s the design within the structure. She identified space within one of those steps to add in more flexible, engaging options. She had to shift her pattern.

You have patterns. We all do. It’s what humans do. We create and love patterns. Heck, our recognition networks (the neural networks behind the principle of representation) are what guide that infatuation. At the same time, we get really bored with patterns. We become disinterested and disconnected when we’re learned the pattern. We are no longer engaged. What’s an educator to do? Look to the students. Hear their voices.

Humans are wonderfully variable. That means students are wonderfully variable. That means they will have different ways to approach things, like how they will approach parts within a pattern.

While telling her story, Christina said, “So, I wanted to figure out a way to make something that had more options and people could do more in whatever method worked for them. But every time I was always going about it, it would seem like something that would take so much time and so much materials and where would you store it and this and that, and people do it at different paces.”

Before we jump to the solution, go back into her thought process – “But every time I was always going about it, it would seem like something that would take so much time and so much materials and where would you store it and this and that.” That’s a lot of truth-telling right there. When she started to think about what to offer her students as choices, her brain went on overload. It actually went into pattern mode. It was going off of previous decision-making cycles – those responsible adult patterns we follow when designing our lessons. But Christina allowed for a tiny disruption. She allowed student voice. Students shared their ideas and those ideas stemmed from what she already had in her classroom or she had easy access to. And then (and this is awesome) students were so engaged with the activity, they used materials they had at home!

Student voice and student choice are a mantra in the UDL community. If you’ve listened to any of the UDL in 15 Minute podcasts, read any books on UDL, watched videos about UDL, you’ve heard about student voice and choice, but there’s a barrier that remains. And that barrier is patterns.

Here’s what I want you to do. As an observer (not a judge), I want you to keep track of the patterns you have in your planning and in your classroom. If you think you’ll judge yourself, bring in a colleague to watch for patterns or listen to you list your patterns (just list, not change). Do this for a week. Then ask, where can you open the door to student voice? What place (e.g., folder storage, bookshelf placement), action (e.g., where they sit), or lesson design (e.g., what do they read during independent reading time) pattern can shift. Next, be open with your students. Tell them why you’re trying this. Give them ownership.

Each UDL in 15 Minute podcast is devoted to help educators understand shifts they can make to lead their students toward becoming expert learners. This is one of the most significant steps you can take. By giving students voice, letting them know why you want to hear their voice, and then using their opinions to design a lesson or your learning environment, you are positioning them to see the purpose in their learning and to build motivation. You are moving them down the path of becoming expert learners.

Listening with the intent to change

So, I started with surveying the students about what they felt they would want. Do they learn best if they have a video? Do they learn best if they have audio support? Do they want audio support on vocabulary words that are unknown? And do they prefer reading on a digital platform or do they want to read in the traditional textbook or do they need both? Do they want on their desk the iPad and also the paper version of their textbook, and what would that look like? And I asked them if they would be willing to try out different strategies to find a just right fit.

The above quote by Laura Christie comes from this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes. In it, she’s asking for her students’ input, but that request is supported by something else – intent. What she intends to do with their responses sets the pathway for building trust, true opportunities for choice, and opportunities for her students to develop assets.

In their research, Dana Mitra and Stephanie Serriere of Penn State University define what they call the ABCDE’s of asset development. These include:

  • Agency: acting or exerting influence and power in a given situation
  • Belonging: Developing meaningful relationships with other students and adults and having a role at the school
  • Competence: Developing new abilities and being appreciated for one’s talents
  • Discourse: Exchange of ideas and diverse opinions to work toward a common goal
  • (Civic) Efficacy: Cognitive belief that one can make a difference in the world, and the responsibility to do so (2012, p. 746).

In the UDL community, we talk about providing our learners with choice so they can identify the different ways they like to approach and participate in learning, but if the choices we are providing aren’t built from the concept of agency, they are hollow choices. All students need to experience situations where they have influence over a decision or outcome.

During class visits to the media center, there was a policy that students were only allowed to look at books in a determined section because there were always three or four classes in the media center together. Though they rotated sections each time, Tanisha and Terrence were very interested in designing fashion and knew the books and magazines about sewing and design were not in their designated section that day. They began protesting in loud voices, but their teacher Mr. Cunningham quickly came over and said, “I’m here to listen.” They shared their frustration with the policy and he suggested they talk through with him what they could say to the media specialist to communicate their request. After a few tries and with some coaching from Mr. Cunningham, they went to the media specialist, Mrs. Carey, with their request and the reason for their request. Mrs. Carey listened and said that she appreciated how mature they were in their request, and asked them what solution they proposed. They suggested that they would go straight to that section, get the books and magazines and then come right back to sit with their class.

When the UDL community talks about choice, we need to ensure it is true choice. True choice is backed by agency. These students knew what choice they wanted to make, but there was a barrier to their choice. In this example (which is factual, though the names have been changed), Tanisha and Terrence were given the guidance to have some influence in that situation. They had a meaningful conversation with both Mr. Cunningham and Mrs. Carey and were appreciated for how they made their request. In that short scenario, they hit on agency, belonging, competence, and discourse. This kind of conversation takes time, but without it, students do not gain these skills.

Clarence Ng, a researcher in Australia, recently observed and interviewed teachers and students about the shift that happened when students were given agency to share their opinions about the silent reading time. Based on their input, the time was shifted (it had been right after lunch), they were given more latitude in their choice of reading materials, time was provided for them to talk with another student or the teacher about what they were reading, and they could read with a partner or in a group. Prior to sharing their opinions, silent reading time was a battle and no one won. Throughout the process of hearing their opinions, the students were provided agency, they knew they had a role in the change, they were listened to and appreciated, they shard other diverse opinions (some of them didn’t manifest in the end, but they could still share them), and they experienced how to make a change. After that came the daily choice during silent reading and they relished that time.

The ABCDE’s are not the only system out there focused on asset development. The Search Institute has 40 positive supports to guide the development of assets along with tools and lessons that are widely used. It’s worth your time to investigate the site and supports.

The concept of developmental assets fits hand-in-hand with UDL as a support to what the framework wants to accomplish. They are the competencies learners need to gain to become effective in their academics, their relationships, and their futures. These assets are logical partners to the experiences we must provide to help our learners gain the skills necessary to become expert learners.


Mitra, D., & Serriere, S. (2012). Student Voice in Elementary School Reform: Examining Youth Development in Fifth Graders. American Educational Research Journal, 49(4), 743-774.

Ng, C. (2018). Using student voice to promote reading engagement for economically disadvantaged students. Journal of Research in Reading, 41(4), 700-715.

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, 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.

Expert Learning in the Digital Age

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 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.

Magnifying glass with legs

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.

Grade/subject Guest and Topic in podcast Episode number
Kindergarten Laura Taylor – The influence UDL has even after 26 years of teaching 4
Kindergarten Karlene Warns – Executive functioning 17
2nd grade Jessie Sherman – Making arts integration even more accessible 3
3rd grade Jana Nicol – Designing the learning environment 10
3rd and 4th grade Kate Stanley – Supporting agency in learning 25
4th grade Camille Wheeler – Making assessments more flexible 16
4th – 5th grade Adria Gold – Chunking information in English Language Arts 14
5th grade Dan Schmidt – Making sure he knows his “why” when teaching math 12
5th grade Tracy Pendred and Kimberly Spears – Mentorship, friendship, & UDL 26
5th grade Shannon Van Horn – When you know about UDL and others don’t 28
6-12 STEM Ben Kelly – STEM, Minecraft, and UDL 9
1st – 6th grade Diana-Grace Morris, Bonni Ramage, and Catherine Wong 29
7th grade Dakota Hudelson – UDL and social justice 8
7th grade Monica Watson-Bedard – Choice in assessments 11
7th grade Rebecca Chappell – Using UDL to make a learning app fully accessible to all learners 19
7th and 8th grade Rebecca Chappell – Choice and fidelity? Small shifts lead to big outcomes for these 7th graders 21
8th grade Karen Keener and Jordan Landis – Co-teaching and mindset 22
8th grade Rachel Barillari – Engagement in poetry 5
12th grade Carrie Preston – End of the year and fully engaged 23
High school Kim Babeu – Choice within Human Physiology assessment 1
High school Kim Babeu – UDL, classroom management, and SPORT 13
High School AP Biology Shelbi Fortner – Choice within AP Biology assessments 2
Higher Education Liz Hartmann – Using UDL to get high achievers to take risks 6
Higher Education Justin Freedman – Designing the higher education learning environment 18
Higher Education Beth Fornauf – How UDL changed a teacher training program focused on rural educators 27
District resources teacher Melissa Toland – Using her experiences as a 7th grade teacher implementing UDL to help others learn about it 15
Everyone A discussion guide for UDL in 15 Minute episodes 7

The Driver of UDL is Variability

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:

  1. They wanted the learner to be in that context. (This is huge)
  2. They knew that the current context did not support the learner.
  3. With clarity, they knew want they wanted the learner to accomplish (i.e., they knew the goal).
  4. They decided what areas of the UDL framework would likely support this learner most and took action on those areas.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

It’s in your DNA!

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?

3D illustration of standing figure holding strand of 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[1], 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.

All of this information (the inventory information and the feedback) is collected and revisited over time to emphasize that we all grown and change, but this information becomes your treasure trove to drive Engagement, Representation, and Action and Expression. You tap on this information to recruit interest. You tap on this information to give examples of how they are already sustaining effort and persistence, self-regulation and executive functioning in their own lives and you want them to use that same skill set in the classroom. You tap on this information when seeking language and symbols to communicate a topic or skill. You tap on this information when activating their background knowledge. You tap on this information when designing the multiple ways learners can express and communicate what they know.

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[2]. 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.

[1] 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.