Knowing what kind of challenge you’re facing so you can address it
Kaity Day and Brett Boezeman, current and former building leaders, share the story of Schmitt Elementary School in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation (BCSC) during this episode. They share how they came to know Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as employees of BCSC and how they had the opportunity to learn alongside both teachers and other administrators. It is clear that they value the collaborative learning opportunities they’ve had, but what if you’re in a district that hasn’t adopted UDL across all buildings? What if you’re the lone principal? All is not lost.
Adopting any kind of framework or system that helps improve educational outcomes inherently requires change. You wouldn’t need the framework or system is all was fine. Sometimes that change is more significant than other kinds of change. Because UDL clearly states that all learners can learn and all learners should have every opportunity to learn in a variety of ways, this not only changes how some educators design and deliver their instruction, it also requires a mindset shift. For example, instead of believing that learners do best when consistently separated into learning groups, UDL provides a pathway to develop strong, social learning communities where students explore alongside one another (see Vygotsky’s work). Understanding this mindset shift, though, probably doesn’t feel like enough to help you take on the challenges of systems change.
Like I said above, UDL requires change. Diving into this kind of change requires some planned work. Luckily, there are organizations that focus on systems change. One of those is the State Implementation and Scaling-Up of Evidence-based Practices (SISEP). They organize all of the components you need to consider during change into a collection of what they call “drivers.” Drivers are what are necessary for successful change. The three overall drivers are represented by a triangle and include the Competency drivers, the Organization drivers, and the Leadership driver. Leadership is visually presented as the base of that triangle for good reason – leaders are required to face challenges that comes with the change process. They have to keep the change process going and make the necessary shifts along to way to support staff as they meet their own challenges. There are two terms associated with these kinds of challenges: adaptive and technical.
Adaptive challenges require a response that is nuanced and pays attention to human needs and behaviors. Technical challenges require a response that is straight-forward and directive. A major misstep is when leadership try to fix an adaptive challenge with a technical solution.
Using a non-education example: if you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, a technical response is to take medication. We know, though, that this specific and singular response isn’t enough. The required solution is more nuanced and needs a closer look at human behaviors. The patient also needs help changing her diet, learning ways to move through her stress, and bringing more exercise into her life. How about an education example?
If arrival is particularly chaotic in the morning, a technical response is to unload buses one at a time and require all “walkers” to come in a separate entrance in a single file line. This response might make things more orderly, but it also adds a lot of time to the arrival timeline. The required solution is more nuanced and needs a closer look at human behaviors. Are bus drivers trained in the school’s overall behavioral norms (e.g., expectations) so they can take students through a reminder process once they’ve parked at the school? Is there signage and active verbal support during arrival to remind students of expectations? Is there an environment of “Welcome! We are so happy you are here!” or an environment of “You must follow these rules, or you’re all going to be in trouble!”? I’m exaggerating a bit here to make the point, but arrival time is more of an adaptive challenge. There might be some technical solutions in there, but the overall issue should be approached as an adaptive challenge.
In their books, “The Work of Leadership” by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie and “Leadership on the Line” by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, there grew a table that shows the difference between adaptive and technical challenges. I have slightly adapted that table for the education setting (for the original, see https://www.sgaumc.org/files/files_library/technical_vs_adaptive_challenges.pdf)
|1. Easy to identify
|1. Difficult to identify
|2. Often lend themselves to quick and easy (cut-and-dried) solutions
|2. Require changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships & approaches to work
|3. Often can be solved by an authority or expert
|3. People facing the challenge do the work of identifying and applying solutions
|4. Require change in just one or a few places; often contained within a school or even classrooms
|4. Require change in numerous places; usually across the school or district
|5. People are generally receptive to technical solutions
|5. People often resist even acknowledging adaptive challenges
|6. Solutions can often be implemented quickly – even by edict
|6. “Solutions” require experiments and new discoveries; they can take a long time to implement and cannot be implemented by edict
I talk about Kaity and Brett’s roles as leaders of change toward the end of the podcast, but I’m going to break it down a bit more here. Both of them brought their ability to address technical challenges with them. They both took time to learn deeply about UDL. To date, they can talk about the principles, guidelines, and checkpoints. They can talk about variability, accessibility, options and choice. They know how UDL fits within the policy structures of the district and what their roles as building and district leaders are when it comes to UDL. All of this helps them deal with the easy to identify technical challenges associated with UDL. They can share their knowledge to answer questions and guide that kind of change in the building. Brett’s example of identifying physical barriers as a first step is a great example of identifying a technical challenge and addressing it. The other kind of challenges they’ve needed to address, though, are the adaptive challenges.
Adaptive challenges required them to shift their thinking within the moment and find another avenue to meet their goal. It was their ability to problem solve and see alternatives, including the changes they needed to make in their own leadership (e.g., “I need to shut up and get out of the way with some of these folks…”). Both Kaity and Brett were also willing to look for additional ways to include students with significant disabilities because (a) they knew that this was a goal of the district, (b) because they knew it was what was best for all students, and (c) because they were and continue to be energized by their own journey with technical and adaptive challenges.
If you are looking to or are currently bringing UDL to your building, I invite you to look at your different challenges as technical or adaptive. This way, you can begin to plan how you want to address them, whether you’ll need or want help, and whether you’ll need to make some of your own changes. UDL is a framework that requires us all to learn and grow. It stretches our conceptualization of teaching and learning. It also makes us confront our beliefs about the capacity and growth of all learners. It is a framework that makes us investigate our own expert learner traits as we support our learners to do the same.