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Falling in (Radical) Love with the Checkpoints

During my interview with Lizzie, she shared how she dug into two of the checkpoints within the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines. She shared her deeply felt reasons for why she dug into those checkpoints, but that digging-in really needs to happen with all of the checkpoints. So, how can you get started with this journey? Below, you will find a list of questions that you can use to guide yourself in your own investigation.

My suggestion is that you investigate these checkpoints with another colleague or a group. Your interpretation and experience will always be different than anyone else’s, and it is crucial that you hear the viewpoints of others and that they hear your viewpoints. UDL is meant to be used by a collective of educators who are seeking ways to improve the outcomes of all children. The framework is at its most rich when it is implemented by several who are working together. If you find yourself being the Lone (UDL) Ranger, you can always reach out to those of us in the UDL community who are very committed to the framework and speak publicly about it. You’ll find these like-minded people on Twitter at #UDLchat, #UDLChatIE, and #UDLhe. Just put those hash tagged group names (e.g., #UDLchat) into the search, and you can scroll through the names of people who participate with those discussions.

One of the checkpoints Lizzie focused on was minimize threats and distractions. When you read this, or any checkpoint, ask questions like:

  1. What does the opening sentence tell me? And, how does it differ from the opening sentences of other checkpoints? (this will help you recognize the difference between some of the checkpoints that might feel similar).

  2. How are the checkpoint words defined (e.g., what is a threat and what is a distraction in the context of the guidelines)? Is there another name you would give to that checkpoint? (this will help you “own” that checkpoint).

  3. How do the suggestions under each checkpoint align with or differ from what you thought the checkpoint meant? (this gets you to do some more introspective work on your own interpretations).

  4. What are instances when you have implemented some of the ideas under each checkpoint? What additional idea could you add in to your lesson tomorrow? (this gets you into your own planning and use of the framework).

The UDL Guidelines are dense with information, but this is a good thing. If CAST were to have narrowed the checkpoints, teachers would have less guidance and support in how to design their lessons and environments. Having this breadth of information allows for multiple avenues and opportunities for learners to gain skills associated with becoming expert learners. After all, aren’t those multiple pathways the reason why we implement UDL? It should be.

During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, Jess Lombardi describes how she sets her students up to successfully lead their own conferences. There is no need to present an argument for this kind of design because there is no downside. We need to empower all of our students to identify goals based on data, track their progress toward those goals, and support them to create a portfolio that they present and that demonstrates their growth and reflections across the year. As Jess shares, parents are always amazed, the students are proud of themselves, and the students learn extremely important skills that align with the UDL description of expert learners. So, why don’t more teachers establish this expectation and build this system into their year?

First, some teachers might not be familiar with the idea. If you don’t learn about it when you’re in teacher prep courses, your administration doesn’t promote it, and you don’t have colleagues who prepare their students in this way, then you don’t have that connection. How do we help these educators?

You’re likely reading this blog because you’re an educator. Because you’re an educator, I assume you know other educators. I’m presuming “Birds of a feather” and all of that. Here’s what I propose: the next time you’re in a discussion about education with those friends, ask if they design their environment to support student led conferences. Even if they teach middle or high school, do they design their environment for student led conferences? If they do not, suggest that they listen to this podcast. Suggest that they go to this set of articles from Edutopia that lay out the process and offers tips, checklists, and even printables.

Second, some teachers might think this takes too much time. Honestly, you can do some looking and probably replace one structure with another. Here’s what I mean. My middle school did not promote student led conferences. We were a traditional middle school with back-to-school night at the beginning of the year and report cards. Calls home were mostly for discipline issues, though some made calls that shared a student’s exceptional skills or grace toward another student. I was special education teacher, so I led Individual Education Planning (IEP) meetings, but I wanted my students to take more of a lead in their conferences. There wasn’t a lot out there when I was in the classroom, but there are a plethora of resources now. While others who share their experiences about student let IEP meetings see time as a barriers, I managed to do some swapping to address that time issue.

For example, I was pretty sure that my 8th graders had not been expected to keep track of their own growth related to their goals, so we started small. They chose one goal to keep track of. Next, I knew that I was going to need to prompt them each week to reflect on their growth toward that goal and identify any kind of results that would show movement (whether there was movement or not). So, instead of having them fill out their assignment notebooks on that day (which was a requirement of the 8th grade teams), I had them work on those reflections and I or the paraprofessionals wrote in their notebooks. To them, this was an awesome trade. To me, it was an awesome trade. And what about those students who either did not write independently or who communicated using echolalia? Number 1, I presumed competence. Number 2, I sought ways to help my students communicate their thoughts to me whether that was through one-on-one interviews, paying close attention to their actions, offering them other ways to communicate (e.g., typing their thoughts, drawing their thoughts, physically pointing things out to me). I won’t say that it was perfect 100% of the time, but the expectation was set and my students certainly worked at it.

Universal Design for Learning is all about helping learners gain skills that lead them to become more purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed. When I think about the prep, the action, and the outcomes related to student led conferences, that process is a homerun when it comes to helping learners continue down the pathway to becoming expert learners. I hope you’ll join Jess and the many others who build student led conferences into their practice. It will definitely help you set the stage for the development of expert learners.

Are you still using a typewriter?

During this episode, Blake shared her passion for reflective teaching and her passion for helping students become reflective learners. In the process of talking through those big ideas, she shared a story that made me remember an attitude I once had. That attitude stated, “You made your choice. Now, you have to live with it.” While many think it teaches a lesson, it doesn’t. It is an antiquated attachment to finality where there doesn’t need to be one. It is like telling everyone that we have to go back to typewriters before the age of whiteout and correction tape. If you make a mistake, you have to pull out the paper and start over again. You are locked in and there are no other choices. It is the same mindset. Instead, take a moment to breathe and provide the student with guidance to be reflective in their decision-making. That is a lesson.

I’m not proud to say that I had the, “You made your choice” attitude when I started teaching, but I am pleased that I moved away from it before I left the classroom for higher education. I want to share how I made that transition, so this blog is going to be different than others. I’m going to share my story rather than links to specific resources or research. Welcome to story time with Loui.

I was raised by two secondary teachers. One (my father) high school, and the other (my mom) middle school. My father’s mother had been an elementary math teacher, and my mother’s cousin (raised like a sister) was also a teacher. I was surrounded by teachers and I loved it. In 3rd grade and volunteered to read to the 1st graders. Additionally, my school identified a cadre of students who liked to tutor other students and put us to work once a week after recess. It was probably only 20 minutes, but I reveled in it. We had access to the encyclopedias kept behind the librarian’s desk (I’m hoping you just shook your head in dismay) and we were each given a special dictionary. Armed with these tools, I felt prepared to help any student with any lesson, even math!

Something else came with this privilege. You got to choose an extra book to check out of the library to read the following week. Every student in the school wanted to check out The Guinness Book of World Records (now, the Guinness World Records). I had never checked it out before and it was available, so I grabbed it. With eager anticipation, I opened it at home only to find that it wasn’t interesting to me at all. I wasn’t entranced by the woman with the longest fingernails or the man who lifted the most weight. The next day, I took it to the librarian and asked if I could exchange it. “You made your choice. You can’t choose another book until next week.” I was stunned, a little angry, and seriously bummed. For reasons I still don’t understand, I was locked out of getting another book that interested me. Instead of fostering my love of books and my advancing my ability to discern my reading preferences, the librarian fostered my frustration. All I learned was to hate rules. Fast forward to 9th grade. By then, I’d been told this phrase in multiple ways with the same message – I was stuck with what I chose because that’s how life is. Thank goodness I had a teacher with a student empowerment mindset.

In my 9th grade English literature class, we chose a Shakespeare play to read during a two-week time period. I chose Romeo and Juliet because I knew it well and figured it would make life easier. Instead, it made life really boring. Three days in, I went to Mrs. Blaylock and tentatively asked if I could change plays. I was prepared for no, but she said, “Of course, Loui. I want you to enjoy Shakespeare!” But she didn’t stop there. She asked me three honest questions (they were not loaded with disdain; rather, she really wanted to hear my thoughts): why did I want to change plays, what new play did I want to choose, and how could I be more effective in my choices next time? Man, that third one was a zinger, but it stuck with me. I was a little intimidated by the process (you mean that my opinion matters that much?) and she required me to be articulate in my answers, but I learned how to be more effective in my decision-making. I gained empowerment.

Fast forward again to my 2nd year of teaching. I’m an 8th grade collaborative teacher. I have a case load of 42 students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) across three 8th grade teams. Students on one team are in the midst of a Holocaust multidisciplinary unit. They need to choose a summative project that will be their focus for 9 weeks. We are about 1 week in and some of my students want to switch projects.

Did I use what Mrs. Blaylock had taught me? Nope. Instead, I told my students to soldier on. Sure, I scaffolded things, gave them timelines, pushed them to meet deadlines, but it was a miserable process for all. Why didn’t I take a moment to breathe and apply her three simple questions? Why was I focused on some arbitrary and ineffective stance when I could have been focused on student empowerment? I just needed to ask them the three questions and openly listen to their responses.

  • Why do you want to switch?
  • What do you want to choose?
  • And, how will you be more effective in your choice-making in the future?

I’m really fortunate that I did take the time to reflect on that mistake and I changed how I supported student empowerment. It’s also one more reason why I am so drawn to the UDL framework. It wasn’t in existence yet, but had I been introduced to the framework, discovered even some of the checkpoints under Recruiting Interest, Self-Regulation, and Executive Functions, and understood variability (i.e., students’ decisions, reasons, and needs are going to fluctuate and it’s my role to help them recognize that and find a decision-making pathway that suits them), I would have had a ton of different ways to empower my students. Understanding the necessity to empower learners can lead you to the ultimate understanding: the most important course of action is to help foster the growth of expert learners.

The Power of Backward Planning

In this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, I interview Carla-Ann Brown about her combined use of backward planning and UDL to help design inclusive and culturally sustaining environments and lessons. For this blog, I’m going to spend a little time with backward design which is what Wiggins & McTighe called it when they wrote about it in their book Understanding by Design (UbD) (1998). The overarching reason for backward design is to plan from the assessment backward to the beginning of the lesson or unit. Before anyone starts hollering, “You should never teach to the test!!!” let’s take a moment to understand the premise of UbD and backward design. I’m going to use UDL to get you there.

If you’ve been listening to UDL in 15 Minutes for a while (there are over 50 podcasts!), you’ve heard my guests and me talk about growth mindset (Dan Schmidt and Shelbi Fortner), formative assessment (Christina Khatri), and the importance of continuous growth (Ian Wilkins). We’ve had these discussions from the position of UDL and how these are outcomes of our design. We want our learners to increase their growth mindset. We value formative assessments and understand that they are more valuable than summative assessments. And we need our students to experience and recognize their own continuous growth. But these things do not happen unless we design them into the lesson or environment. Design is key. This is the same premise from which Wiggins and McTighe come.

UbD also tells us two other main points. First, if we want our learners to successfully achieve the goal, we must design processes and activities into the lesson or unit to provide those opportunities. Second, lessons and units are most powerful when students participate in deep thinking, metacognition (they think about their own learning), and they have multiple opportunities to revise and revisit their work. They are digging deep into understanding versus a primary focus on knowledge. How is understanding different than knowledge?

According to UbD (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), when we understand something, we can articulate the meaning behind it. We grasp the theory of the topic. We understand that most knowledge is not absolute and there are multiple dimensions (e.g. be sure to listen to how Carla-Ann talks about how she teaches history from a culturally sustaining position rather than a dominant culture position). We also comprehend when to use a skill or component of knowledge. Ultimately, knowledge is not enough; we must have understanding. This is why UbD and UDL are so well aligned!

Speaking of theory, a complaint that educators have about UDL is that it is too heavy in theory, but just as UbD points out (i.e., for us to understand something, we need to grasp the theory of it!) that same theory is what makes UDL so powerful! For example, once educators grasp the impact and value of variability, the importance of providing multiple options, and that all design should move all learners toward becoming expert learners taking action through the framework begins to make sense. Without those theoretical underpinnings, though, UDL can feel (and is) hollow. UDL is not a group of coherent facts; instead, it is a collection of research and practice that offers us an understanding of why we should make certain design decisions. UbD is, in fact, a process that can help you understand UDL.

If you’ve not read about UbD before, or you feel like what you’ve read before didn’t give you enough meat, you can read the second chapter of Wiggins and McTighe’s more recent edition of their book on the ASCD website. This chapter will take you more deeply into the concepts of knowledge versus understanding. Other reliable sources include Edutopia, the Cult of Pedagogy, and Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching.

UDL is a powerful framework and UbD can help you determine how you’re going to apply it in your environment. I invite you to see how the two compliment one another in ways that support the development of expert learners.


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Choice is not a Reward

Choice is one of the cornerstones of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Not only is it part of the guidelines (see optimize individual choice and autonomy under the Guideline of Recruiting Interest), it is embedded throughout the Guidelines. Every guideline begins with the phrase “provide options for…” That phrase spurs us to identify and build on the ideas proposed within the checkpoints. For example, “Provide options for Recruiting Interest” tells us that recruiting interest is important and we should read about the checkpoints listed below that guideline and build some of those options into our lessons. We know, though, that there is another step to take. That step is to establish those options as opportunities for choice.

During my interview with Susanne Geise, she shares the different ways she provided her students with choice. Students helped design the lesson, they chose what product they wanted to create, and they chose how they wanted to present that product. It was a really exciting lesson, but it got me thinking about how we position choice and for which students.

First, the positioning. What kind of choice truly benefits learners? Katz and Assor (2007) shared that the perception of choice is crucial. When students recognize and associate feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness with choice, outcomes like engagement are stronger. Breaking that down, you not only offer them the choice in how they will complete an assignment or an assessment, the amount of choice and how the act of choice is structured aligns with the students’ levels of competence, and the choices provided are relevant to them.

Next, to whom do we offer this level of choice? It turns out that not all learners are given access to this kind of choice. Students with emotional and behavioral disorders (Swoszowski , Evanovich, Ennis & Jolivette, 2017), students with disabilities who are Black and Latinx (Waitoller, 2020), as well as students who are low-achieving (Crumpton & Gregory, 2011). But these students need just as much opportunity to experience choice as their peers. How do we move forward?

Let’s use the 5 W’s plus the H to do some introspective work. (Note: if you want examples, listen to episodes with Kate Stanley, Laura Christie, Megan Gross & Lisa Yamasaki, Monica Watson-Bedard, Rachel Chappell, Carrie Preston, Kim Babeu, or Shelbi Fortner). Honestly answer these questions:

  1. Who have you asked to help you add choice into your lesson (e.g., which students)?
  2. What types of choice to you provide (e.g., does the choice lead to learning and reflection or just preference?)
  3. When do you feel challenged to offer choice?
  4. Where can you add in choice?
  5. Why aren’t some students included in the choice discussion (i.e., choice can be an accessible topic for all learners. See below for next step)
  6. How can you shift things to include all learners?

By answering these questions, you begin the road toward a more inclusive and equitable design because you’re prompted to gather the voices of all learners. And more, you are truly helping all learners continue their own journey toward becoming expert learners.

Crumpton, H. E., & Gregory, A. (2011). “I’m not learning”: The role of academic relevancy for low-achieving students. The Journal of Educational Research, 104(1), 42-53.

Katz, I., & Assor, A. (2007). When choice motivates and when it does not. Educational Psychology Review, 19(4), 429.

Swoszowski, N. C., Evanovich, L. L., Ennis, R. P., & Jolivette, K. (2017). Evaluating implementation of check in/check out in alternative educational settings: Stakeholder perspectives. Residential Treatment for Children & Youth, 34(2), 107-121.

Waitoller, F. R. (2020). Excluded by Choice: Urban Students with Disabilities in the Education Marketplace. Disability, Culture, and Equity.

The Right Tool in the Right Environment

In this episode, Brandy and Lauren share their use of a HyperDoc doc to inspire and educate their freshmen about the research process. As Lauren stated, that’s a hard topic to teach because it’s so overwhelming and it can be dry. They were really excited about the outcomes their students experienced and how they’ve updated it each year. A copy of their hyper doc is at my website with their podcast recording.

Jennifer Gonzalez at the Cult of Pedagogy put together a fabulous piece, “How HyperDocs Can Transform Your Teaching” which gives wonderful guidance and links and includes a podcast where she interviews the authors of The HyperDoc Handbook. It’s all worth your attention.

What I want to talk about more, though, is the point I made toward the end of this podcast. The HyperDoc, or any teaching tool for that matter, is only as good as the environment in which it exists. Whether that environment is online or face-to-face, there are key structures that need to be in place and UDL helps us remember those.

A simple walkthrough of the guideline Recruiting Interest under the principle of Engagement helps us remember that we need to: help our learners know they have real choice when it comes to learning (individual choice and autonomy), connect with what they are learning in a meaningful way (relevance, value, and authenticity), and feel secure (minimize threats and distractions). All of that (plus more) is under that top guideline! I could walk through the rest of them, but I’m going to stop here and empower you to do this work.

Let’s say you haven’t dug into UDL much yet. You have some favorite teaching tools (maybe it’s the HyperDoc), but those tools aren’t necessarily benefitting all learners. Or, what you’ve determined as poor attitudes and behaviors are getting in the way. Many times, it’s because you’re asking the tool or strategy to do the heavy lifting. Instead, always look at how you’re giving your learners emotional access to learning.

This tool, developed by the Search Institute and is specific to the COVID-19 crisis, provides some quality relationship-building steps you can take with your learners. These will help you build the kind of environment all students need to flourish, especially now, whether you will be teaching face-to-face or via distance learning. Some of the questions are specific to distance learning, but it’s easy to either shift them to focus on the face-to-face environment or pull them out. I encourage you to do a side-by-side analysis of this tool and the principle of Engagement. You will find deep connections and some places where you can add to the tool and make it even more effective!

There is a lot of uncertainty right now, but learning must and will happen. I want you to get really excited about strategies and tools, but I want you to get even more excited about the design of your environment and how you’re going to make it accessible (emotionally, academically, and physically) to all of your learners. Afterall, that’s how we can help them become expert learners.

Not So Fast: When Quick Thinking Doesn’t Belong

During this week’s episode, high school math teacher Lauren Helberg tells a great story of how she personally connected with Universal Design for Learning (UDL). You’ll want to hear the whole story, but the tale reminds us that speed does not equal capability or, for that matter, intelligence. Before we move forward, let me break that down a bit. If you’re a school psychologist, special educator, or counselor, you’re likely familiar with the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC) and/or the Woodcock-Johnson III. These are assessments used in many schools to determine a student’s eligibility for special education services. If you are familiar, you’re probably saying, “Wait a second, Loui. Processing speed is part of both of these assessments!” Yup, you’re right. But in both cases, it is not a standalone component. Processing speed is part of a composite score. Why does that matter? Processing speed it is part of a larger set of assessment areas; processing speed alone does not determine intelligence. Also, processing speed is part of our variability and variability is highly dependent on the context. Where you are, what you’re doing, and your relationship with the learning environment will affect your processing speed. Unfortunately, though, processing speed is often the lynch pin in academic scoring both in the classroom and in standardized testing. Lauren was left wondering what she could have demonstrated on a standardized exam had she been given the time.

Back in 2014, Edutopia published a piece about research by Dr. Jo Boaler and it included the following quote from her article, “Timed math tests can discourage students, leading to math anxiety and a long-term fear of the subject.” Boy, did that comments section blow up! Both sides of the math-timed-test issue came roaring to life. One side was with Dr. Boaler and the other argued (among other things) that timed tests improve math fluency. One teacher reasoned that students who struggled with speed-based fluency (e.g., quick multiplication) would struggle in higher level math. Interestingly, when Linda Gojak was the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, she wrote a piece reminding educators that math fluency is much more than speed and accuracy. Her argument was the need to build a better balance between computational understanding and procedural skill rather than focusing on speed. In fact, her position is echoed in the updated Position of the NCTM answering question, “What is procedural fluency, and how do we help students develop it?” What we’re getting to here is an agreement that fluency is important, but (a) there needs to be a stronger focus on procedure rather than computation, and (b) we need to quit using processing speed as the ultimate indicator for success.

I’ll give you another example. Let’s say you typically give your students timed math tests to assess their basic skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division). The more they complete correctly, the higher their score. I guarantee that if you use the same test to assess those skills over time, you have at least one student who memorizes the answers. That was me. I got the answers down really quickly and I got more of them correct over time, so I was rewarded. I didn’t care if I started off with a low score, I had a strategy that helped me achieve the goal (get more answers correct each time). My teachers thought my speed and accuracy showed how well I knew my basic skills. Nope. What I had was the gift for memorization. I didn’t apply that gift to memorizing the multiplication table, I applied it to that single sheet of paper because those timed tests held a lot of sway in classroom capital (i.e., whether your name was listed as a Super Star).

My strategy got me all the way through grade school and did not prepare me for junior high algebra. Yikes! And what about those times when I did have to perform my facts on homework, tests and quizzes? I was frustrated at how slow I was, but that didn’t matter as much because the reward wasn’t attached to being timed (and having my name on the Super Star bulletin board). I knew how to do the computations, but didn’t have the speed. Honestly, I gained a false sense of success that came crashing down in about 8th grade. I would have been much better served had my teachers focused on procedural fluency.

And that takes me right to the UDL framework. If you look under the Principle of Action & Expression, move into the guideline of Expression & Communication, there is a checkpoint labeled, “Build fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance.” Within the first two sentences describing this checkpoint, CAST reminds us that students “often need multiple scaffolds to assist them as they practice and develop independence.” UDL does NOT tell us to move away from fluency; rather, UDL tells us that we need to offer our students different pathways to achieve that fluency. UDL also tells us that we need to turn our eyes and energies toward building opportunities for procedural fluency. You can and should have games that encourage fluency building. Students need a non-threatening way to build those skills. At the same time, though, help them shift into procedural fluency where they tie those skills to application. Ultimately, the focus is to create learning opportunities where students gain knowledge via application. That is the route that takes them on the journey toward becoming expert learners.

Practice Profiles: Part of the Package

This week’s episode was recorded live during the UDL-IRN 2020 Summit on Demand for their Network and Learn Live Series. The video chat included an interview with me about UDL in 15 Minutes (how I got started with UDL and my intentional design of the podcast), the interview with Cherie, and a follow-up Q & A. I pulled the audio of the interview out to produce this posted episode because I didn’t want the conversation about practice profiles to get lost!

I learned about practice profiles the year I was at CAST for a Fellowship. CAST had a Gates Foundation grant to work with four districts on their implementation of UDL. It was an exciting project that produced some wonderful material. Brief interviews about UDL implementation with the participating school and district leaders can be found in the National Center on UDL’s YouTube playlist: UDL Implementation: A Tale of Four Districts.

The work we did with the districts utilized the work of State Implementation and Scaling-Up of Evidence Based Practices (SISEP). SISEP focuses on implementation science – what structures and actions are used, needed, and acted upon to support the effective implementation of any practice or system. The practice profile is a tool within SISEP’s broad array of materials to support the implementation process. You can find lessons about the processes of implementation science within the Active Implementation Hub and one of those lessons is on the practice profile.

As Cherie and I discuss briefly, creating a practice profile takes time and deep, deep thinking. As a group, you have to agree that there is a change to be made. That first step is not always easy! In your separate minds, you have a vision for what this change is and what it will look like in action, but those are a number of brains seeing a number of visions. The process behind the development of a practice profile gets everyone to come to consensus about what they want to see and to provide written clarification around that vision. When everyone is involved in the process of identifying what it should look like, then the descriptions can be rich and helpful to every educator. As Cherie stated, the district she is working with decided to use the principle of Representation within their practice profile and embed links to articles, videos, and the UDL framework to help solidify the examples.

Also referenced in the episode, Michael McSheehan and I developed a practice profile on behalf of the Indiana IEP Resource Center titled, Reimagining MTSS through UDL. What we thought would take a few months ended up taking almost a year to produce! Our protocol includes physical look fors as well as mindset indicators. Our protocol is meant to provide an overarching model that can be adopted and edited to fit the local context.

I’m sharing Cherie’s practice profile example from Celina and the Reimagining MTSS through UDL practice profile to show how different they can be (and should be) based on the implementation purpose. Celina’s practice profile is focused on classroom instruction whereas the MTSS and UDL practice profile is focused at the district level.

The development of the practice profile is a facilitated process and you’ll want to have someone on hand who is comfortable with the work of moving a team along when they experience disagreements and conflicts. A good facilitator helps a group move beyond the the-loudest-gets-their-way dynamic or the other challenging dynamics that can appear along the way.

Ultimately, any practice profile must be a tool for change that is grounded in clear communication and intent. It must provide a clear goal – a clear message of what the community is working toward. Within the UDL community, that intent is always going to point toward the development of expert learners.

Sometimes, simple is most effective

We all love and crave simple solutions. They just feel good. I think that’s why the mantras around this issue flow freely. One end of the continuum asserts that complex problems require complex solutions. The other end of the continuum asserts that complex problems are best solved via simple solutions. I almost always find that solutions rest somewhere in the middle of that continuum.

These solutions take into account the complexity of the issue, but break the issue down into smaller manageable parts based on a timeline and/or known and available resources. The smaller size creates the opportunity for simple solutions. At that point, the solution can seem like a straightforward, logical, and obvious fix.

In this episode, Catherine shares how her school has been a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) school for the past ten years. Early on, they adopted Google Classroom as their platform. This allowed access via the different devices, but a colleague observed that while the students could get to the Google Classroom via their device, the pathways they could take to get to those resources were numerous and it was confusing. The perceived complexity included the devices, the inherent nature of digital platforms (i.e., multiple entry points), and a large school setting of 1,200 students. But by asking the question, “what is the barrier?” the colleague saw through the complexity and offered the solution of a single or narrow list of pathways for the learners to use. The confusion the students we’re experiencing was a barrier to their participation. The solution, from the outside, looks like a simple one.

At the heart of UDL is identifying potential and current barriers. We look for potential barriers when we’re planning and thinking about the systematic variability – the variability we anticipate based on experience, knowledge about the students, and the environment. An example of systematic variability is reading. Regardless of where you teach, what you teach, or the grade level you teach, you will have variability in your classroom when it comes to reading because reading is a very complex process. The UDL framework with its options under the nine guidelines provide guidance on ways you can support and encourage that variability all while moving your students toward the goal of the lesson.

The examples of navigating to lessons and reading are very different even though they both happen in instructional environments. Are there similar processes we can use in these situations as well as others? There are, but I am going to suggest you always have at least one thought-partner. Whether this is a community of practice, a professional learning community, or just a colleague with whom you work well and can give and receive honest feedback, this will help you solve complex issues. As you read through these suggestions, I hope you think, “wait…this sounds like she pulled this stuff from the UDL framework!” Yes. Yes, I did. Good for you for spotting it!

First, use tools on hand to represent the complex issue. You might be someone who makes sense of things by talking them out, but creating a graphic can be a powerful way to enhance communication. You can write out the smaller pieces of the complex issue on notecards or sticky notes and establish an organization that helps tell the story. Maybe you connect ideas using yarn or post the sticky notes to a white board and draw lines with a dry erase marker. Whatever resources you use, you’re not trying to solve the issue at this point, you’re just trying to identify all of the components and communicate it.

Next, put on your student glasses. Look at this complex issue through the lens of your learners. Where do they experience barriers within this complex issue? Make sure you start by assuming positive intent (i.e., students want to learn). Coming into this step in any other way will directly impact the supports you design and whether they will truly helpful to your learners. As you’re identifying those barriers, add those to your visual model (e.g., extra sticky notes, write on the white board).

Third, think about those barriers from the adult point of view and the resources you have that can lessen those barriers. Look at your visual model and see if there are barriers that are closer to the “heart” or the center of the issue. You might get lucky and find a solution for other issues that are further out or down the line. In Catherine’s example, they defined a single pathway, created that link, posted it, and the communicated that to the learners. The resources used were time (i.e., time taken to identify which path, time taken to communicate that link) and their digital knowledge. This solution was more toward the heart of the complex issue (i.e., students not attending to coursework, students not completing coursework, students not logging in) and helped solve those other issues.

Finally, make sure you take time to identify how you will know things have shifted. Your graphic will help with this. By looking at the components of the issue and the barriers identified, you can create a watchlist to make sure you look for improvement and whether the supports you identified to lower the barrier(s) are doing what you thought they would do. This step is crucial. Sometimes, solutions are put in place that actually create other barriers (e.g., that time I put a tray for student work on my desk which was across the room from the door to the hallway. Students would forget to put the work in the tray on their way out the door. I moved the tray and the number of students turning in work improved instantly!). Ultimately, any solution we find should support our learners in their journey to become expert learners.

A Rubric for 1-to-1 Adoption

Obviously, I am a proponent of Universal Design for Learning. I believe the framework offers the needed guidance to help us think deeply about the supports and services we are providing to all learners. Those supports and services don’t sit within the four walls of a classroom, though. Many times, they begin outside of those four walls and technology is an excellent example of this. This is true in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation (BCSC). As Brenny stated during the podcast:

…Universal Design for Learning is our instructional framework. And the way that translates to the technology department is that it really guides every decision that we make, from what technology tools we put in the hands of our students, what hardware we mount on the walls, what software we use for assessments and our delivery of online lessons. UDL is really that goal that we’re all in the rowboat towards all of us are rowing towards it together and it’s all guiding us there.

Many times, the technology (e.g., hardware, software, or apps) chosen for a school or a classroom is either identified based on need or through introduction (e.g., someone sees something demonstrated at a conference). But what does your school or district do from there? Here are some typical questions:

  • Does this duplicate something we currently have or use?
  • How many students will this impact?
  • What will the trainings needs be?
  • Is this meeting an immediate need or a systematic need?

When BCSC was adopting 1-to-1 across their secondary schools in 2012, a group including the Director of Technology, two principals, department chairs, teachers, and I went to locations in North Carolina and Texas that began implementing 1-to-1 district-wide several years earlier and were recognized as leaders in that area. We, however, wanted to look at the use of the technology through the instructional lens of UDL. We didn’t want our debriefing sessions to focus on the number of charging stations or whether students were forgetting them in their lockers. We wanted to focus on how access to the devices was improving the experience of learning for all learners, so Bill Jensen, Mike Jamerson, Eva Cagwin and I developed a rubric to focus our observations and conversations. The rubric was provided in three different ways (i.e., multiple representations) to support effective use.

I’ve attached the rubric which is divided into four sections with space for observation notes. The users of the different sections are identified (e.g., teachers, admin, Mike, Loui) because of how the visits were organized.

  • Section I: Classroom use of technology
  • Section II: Scheduled/impromptu conversations with teachers, students, and administration
  • Section III: Conversations about the technology infrastructure
  • Section IV: Conversations about the technology infrastructure

The rubric represents what we felt needed to be in place for full implementation of UDL. We wanted to identify and observe these examples and then process these options and opportunities as a group. You will likely notice that some of our look-fors are pretty intense. For example, an advanced representation on page 4 for: “Going around and underneath: allowing for and encouraging innovation to create change,” is “It is recognized that reforms and head-on interventions do not create change; rather, allowing for and encouraging innovation creates change.” Obviously, this kind of evidence could only come from specific questions to several individuals, but we did our best to collect those voices.

Based on what Brenny shared, you can see that BCSC has advanced in their adoption of technology (i.e., hardware, software, and apps) and the supports they offer to their teachers, but what continues to drive all of their adoption is UDL because they want every learner to become an expert learner.