“Experience is the teacher of all things.”
The title of this blog comes from Comments on the Civil War (Commenterii De Bello Civili, c. 52 B.C.) written by Julius Caesar. It is likely Caesar was reflecting on the hard-won lessons of war. There were things he and others might have read about or talked about but they would have never truly understood them unless they had the experiences they had.
Leaving behind the connection to war, I find that the quote is applicable to all experiences. My first job was at a garden shop. I knew how to keep the plants in my home alive and loved reading books about plants (I was passionate about my high school botany class), but I learned through experience that each plant within the cells of the flats were individual organic beings. If I wasn’t careful, I could easily kill a number of them. Maybe the water wouldn’t reach the roots of one plant because its foliage was thick and then the soil would dry up. Or the sun would scorch the plants closest to the blacktop so it was important to rotate them or move them up a shelf. It was also my first lesson in the economics of business. Dead plants can quickly eat into the bottom line of a family-owned business. Respect the plants.
Justin Freedman puts this quote to work within his college course at Rowan University. He knows that his pre-service teachers not only need the experience of using the UDL framework to consider the design of the lessons and learning environments they hope to construct in the future, they also need to use the framework as a lens to observe the lessons they view and learning environments they visit. But here’s where Justin makes this a 365-degree experience. Justin designs his own learning environment and lessons using the UDL framework. His students experience what it is like to be in an environment that responds to their variability. The environment is flexible, accessible, goal-oriented, rigorous, and driven by choice.
During the podcast, Justin talks about his dissertation study. It focused on the professor-student relationship as perceived by students requesting disability-related accommodations. One of his findings was that many students did not want this request to be the basis of the initial relationship with their professor. They did not want to be perceived as asking for anything special and would, in fact, clarify that they would not take advantage of the requested accommodation unless absolutely necessary. The conversation made the students feel disempowered versus empowered. This was a catalyst for Justin in the design of his own learning environment. His purpose for using the UDL framework is to ensure all students experience emotional, physical, and academic access to learning.
You hear Justin discuss the design of his course, how he clarifies his expectations, and the flexibility he provides to all learners, but my biggest take-away is how powerful these pre-service teachers are going to be in the classroom. I know they will be powerful because these learners spend time thinking about their experiences in their own learning environment and then reflect on how those experiences might align with their future students’ experiences. How does the environment make them feel as a learner in relationship to themselves, to others, and as a community? Are there issues around equity? If a student is allowed to use a computer to write her exam essay versus hand-writing the essay, is that advantage harmful to others who also have choice in how they express their knowledge? (The answer here is no. When all learners are given the opportunity to best express their knowledge and skills, everyone has the advantage). These learners are experiencing a learning environment designed using the UDL framework. They are learning that there is not a stand-alone example of UDL. They are learning that they have to take more responsibility for their learning. They are learning how to be purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed learners. They are learning how to be expert learners.