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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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UDL in 15 Minutes with Ian Wilkins

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.