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.