One of the complications people encounter in implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) stems from a misconception about the term choice. We hear over and over again that we need to offer choice in order to generate engagement, but people often understand that to mean that we have to offer (lots of) choices. In reality, we need to work to offer choice.
As you begin to implement the UDL Guidelines in your teaching or administrative practice, it can be a good start if you begin by challenging yourself to offer choice rather than focusing on choices. What do I mean by that? Think about your adult life and brainstorm ways you have choice every day.
- I choose between two different conditioners in the shower.
- I choose between two routes to work.
- I choose when to leave in the morning based on what time I want to arrive.
None of these choices are fun or exciting, but all of them are empowering. And that’s what we seek for our kids. Any time we can offer choice, even when it’s just one more choice than before, we empower our students and we open the door to increased engagement. When you start to implement the UDL Guidelines, you will get more mileage from including one more choices in more places rather than concentrating all choices in one or two assignments: for example, adding choice to most nightly homework assignments will have a bigger result than making one or two choice projects per unit.
Another way to think about this is to say that sometimes choice and entertainment become conflated. On another blog post, I described how I have been rethinking my current homework practices. In the past, the homework questions were on paper, students wrote down their work on a piece of paper, and they showed that to me the next day for homework. For this year, I’ve been thinking about incorporating some online sources as options for my students. Our district adopted Eureka Math which is based on the open source curriculum of Engage NY. Since it’s an open source material, it was possible for the ASSISTments team to upload it. This allows me to go from having one homework choice (on paper) to having to two homework choices (doing the homework on paper or doing the same problems on ASSISSTments). Adding this second choice does not add to my workload in an appreciable way–the problems are already loaded, so all I have to do is make them available for my students with the click of a button. In doing so, I have doubled the number of choices that I make available to my students.
How do I think this will play out with my students? Here’s my hope. When a student goes home and begins his/her homework, I hope there is increased engagement from the very beginning in that he/she has to choose between two options. Many students, such as myself, are big fans of doing math work on paper and we’ll take the more traditional option. However, I dream of a reluctant math student who is drawn to technology. Possibly, for this student, having the option–the choice–to use technology to do exactly the same problems will be compelling enough to engender some engagement. This student, who might have done zero homework if given only a paper option, might be sufficiently drawn to the idea of doing it online to actually do some of the problems.
How else could this play out? I am imagining a different kind of student, one who never uses the answer key for feedback. Or, maybe, a student who would do his/her homework if she/he knew the work was correct. For these students, the draw of getting immediate feedback from ASSISTments could be sufficiently enticing that they might do homework. Or do more homework. We have seen this play out with Khan Academy, where students get really involved with submitting their answers and become very engaged in the immediate feedback of knowing whether their answer was right or wrong. Although I always make answer keys available to my students, it doesn’t have the same draw of submitting an answer online and getting a response back right away.
Let’s think about adding a third scenario. I have been encouraged to try a new program called FlipGrid. In this program, students can submit a video recording of themselves on a topic set up in advance by the teacher. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m imagining that I could use it by having students have the option to submit a video response describing the work that they’ve done for homework. How will this increase engagement? We all like to be heard. So, for a student who is struggling with paper and pencil and/or struggling with math in general, having the option of recording him or herself and being heard through this technology could be the hook that this student needs to become more engaged with doing homework.
As you read through these examples, keep in mind that my goal is not 100% homework from 100% of the children 100% of the time. In the immediate, and in the realistic, what I’m hoping for is increased engagement from my students. When I offer choices to my students and those choices are different from each other, I am increasing the chance that I will have an option that appeals to a student who might not have been enthused about the initial assignment as originally presented. Every every 20 minutes of homework from a student who was going to do zero, every answer checked and revised at home, every small piece of engagement that happens, has a cumulative effect for both that student and for his/her capacity to be engaged in his/her own learning.