Listening with the intent to change
So, I started with surveying the students about what they felt they would want. Do they learn best if they have a video? Do they learn best if they have audio support? Do they want audio support on vocabulary words that are unknown? And do they prefer reading on a digital platform or do they want to read in the traditional textbook or do they need both? Do they want on their desk the iPad and also the paper version of their textbook, and what would that look like? And I asked them if they would be willing to try out different strategies to find a just right fit.
The above quote by Laura Christie comes from this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes. In it, she’s asking for her students’ input, but that request is supported by something else – intent. What she intends to do with their responses sets the pathway for building trust, true opportunities for choice, and opportunities for her students to develop assets.
In their research, Dana Mitra and Stephanie Serriere of Penn State University define what they call the ABCDE’s of asset development. These include:
- Agency: acting or exerting influence and power in a given situation
- Belonging: Developing meaningful relationships with other students and adults and having a role at the school
- Competence: Developing new abilities and being appreciated for one’s talents
- Discourse: Exchange of ideas and diverse opinions to work toward a common goal
- (Civic) Efficacy: Cognitive belief that one can make a difference in the world, and the responsibility to do so (2012, p. 746).
In the UDL community, we talk about providing our learners with choice so they can identify the different ways they like to approach and participate in learning, but if the choices we are providing aren’t built from the concept of agency, they are hollow choices. All students need to experience situations where they have influence over a decision or outcome.
During class visits to the media center, there was a policy that students were only allowed to look at books in a determined section because there were always three or four classes in the media center together. Though they rotated sections each time, Tanisha and Terrence were very interested in designing fashion and knew the books and magazines about sewing and design were not in their designated section that day. They began protesting in loud voices, but their teacher Mr. Cunningham quickly came over and said, “I’m here to listen.” They shared their frustration with the policy and he suggested they talk through with him what they could say to the media specialist to communicate their request. After a few tries and with some coaching from Mr. Cunningham, they went to the media specialist, Mrs. Carey, with their request and the reason for their request. Mrs. Carey listened and said that she appreciated how mature they were in their request, and asked them what solution they proposed. They suggested that they would go straight to that section, get the books and magazines and then come right back to sit with their class.
When the UDL community talks about choice, we need to ensure it is true choice. True choice is backed by agency. These students knew what choice they wanted to make, but there was a barrier to their choice. In this example (which is factual, though the names have been changed), Tanisha and Terrence were given the guidance to have some influence in that situation. They had a meaningful conversation with both Mr. Cunningham and Mrs. Carey and were appreciated for how they made their request. In that short scenario, they hit on agency, belonging, competence, and discourse. This kind of conversation takes time, but without it, students do not gain these skills.
Clarence Ng, a researcher in Australia, recently observed and interviewed teachers and students about the shift that happened when students were given agency to share their opinions about the silent reading time. Based on their input, the time was shifted (it had been right after lunch), they were given more latitude in their choice of reading materials, time was provided for them to talk with another student or the teacher about what they were reading, and they could read with a partner or in a group. Prior to sharing their opinions, silent reading time was a battle and no one won. Throughout the process of hearing their opinions, the students were provided agency, they knew they had a role in the change, they were listened to and appreciated, they shard other diverse opinions (some of them didn’t manifest in the end, but they could still share them), and they experienced how to make a change. After that came the daily choice during silent reading and they relished that time.
The ABCDE’s are not the only system out there focused on asset development. The Search Institute has 40 positive supports to guide the development of assets along with tools and lessons that are widely used. It’s worth your time to investigate the site and supports.
The concept of developmental assets fits hand-in-hand with UDL as a support to what the framework wants to accomplish. They are the competencies learners need to gain to become effective in their academics, their relationships, and their futures. These assets are logical partners to the experiences we must provide to help our learners gain the skills necessary to become expert learners.
Mitra, D., & Serriere, S. (2012). Student Voice in Elementary School Reform: Examining Youth Development in Fifth Graders. American Educational Research Journal, 49(4), 743-774.
Ng, C. (2018). Using student voice to promote reading engagement for economically disadvantaged students. Journal of Research in Reading, 41(4), 700-715.