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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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UDL in 15 Minutes Podcast with Beth Fornauf

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.