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UDL in 15 Minutes with Brandon Bean

The teeter-totter or empowerment

What does it mean to empower our learners? When we empower our learners, we are giving them opportunities to discover themselves as learners and to see how their input has a direct impact on their outcomes. The difficult part is knowing how deeply our actions can affect our learners. Every once in a while, though, we get a glimpse.

During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, Brandon Bean shared how he used a bulletin board about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to communicate what UDL is, how the students would use the UDL-aligned resources during their lessons, and what it meant for them to be expert learners. One of this third-graders became so taken with the concept of expert learning she renamed it to “becoming a brain master.” She took ownership of the concept and gave it her own name. She was empowered.

Empowerment is looking at a learner and saying, “I celebrate you for who you are, for what you bring, and I’m so excited to be alongside you as you grow.” Brandon empowered her to learn about UDL and expert learning. He empowered her by teaching her about how her brain works and showing her what she could take advantage of in her own learning environment. He empowered her by listening to her. He empowered her by celebrating the language she created to name expert learning. This is all so wonderful! So why is empowerment so hard? I have a few ideas.

Let’s use the analogy of a teeter-totter. A teeter-totter is a slat of wood across a bar. When the person seated on one end goes up the person on the other end goes down. Removing the physics of gravity for this analogy, when you are the person planning and delivering the instruction, you are automatically at that high position. But, when you empower a learner, you’re willing to let them stretch their legs a little bit which lowers you down a bit. Maybe you’re not even, but you’re giving them a little room to bounce. As you empower them more, you lower a little bit more. Maybe you go back up to your high station when you introduce something new, but after you’ve introduced it, you hand that new information over so they can play with it in their own mind. The learner is given the chance to approach this new thing in different ways and create their own understanding. They rise up a bit, but you’re still on the teeter-totter with them. Sometimes you’re even, sometimes your higher, occasionally you’re lower, but you’re always on the teeter-totter with them. And because you’re the instructional designer, you choose whether you’re up, even, or down.

Here’s the hard part. Sometimes learners want to bounce the teeter-totter. Did you ever have that experience as a child? I would get on the teeter-totter with my friend Greg and he would push off as hard as he could sending me downward fast and hard. My seat would bounce on the ground and he would get a bounce on his end. I would then push off as hard as I could, propelling him to the ground to bounce and subsequently making me bounce (I’m sure this story terrifies the parents of young children).

Sometimes our learners want to bounce the teeter-totter hard. Maybe they’re feeling insecure about the social context or what they’re trying to learn. Maybe the growth we want to see is too big of a leap for them. Maybe bouncing is the only sense of control they have in their otherwise higgledy-piggeldy environment. What I’m saying here is that you have to stay on the teeter-totter and convince them to stay on the teeter-totter with you. As you offer them more and more opportunities to become empowered, the ride becomes smoother. There will always be bouncy moments – that’s inherent to growth – but the teeter-totter keeps moving. With the smooth ride comes those opportunities where they stretch their legs and you see them grow.

There are key moments from my time as a classroom teacher when I saw my students take on empowerment. I watched them grapple with the responsibility of a new epiphany while simultaneously become giddy with the possibility of blossoming independence. Something as small as my co-teacher telling them that they could sharpen their pencils whenever they needed to instead of raising their hands each time gave me this glimpse. Other times, the moment was more significant. I remember a student coming to appreciate that he could choose the partner he wanted throughout the next unit as a way to demonstrate his ability to make learning-centered choices (notice that I didn’t say “good” choices – we made the goal very specific). With really specific guidance in hand, he set off to demonstrate that he could make choices that benefitted his learning. He was empowered in the moment and even empowered by his own decision-making and staying with the goal.

Playing on the teeter-totter is fun. Empowering learners is fun. Both take the willingness to shift your position and take the occasional bounce. I promise you, though, you will be amazed and excited by what you see because helping your students move along the journey of expert learning is the most fun of all.