My first introduction to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) left me reeling–I felt like I would need to completely overhaul my entire practice and redo all assessments and……it was really overwhelming. It was also incredibly inspiring and that inspiration has carried me through to today, along with the fact that UDL allows me to teach the way I always thought I should be teaching, but I didn’t have permission to before.
As my practice moves forward, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways that people leading UDL implementation, like coaches, can make UDL more user-friendly for the people, like me, who find it overwhelming upon first introduction.
“Up-cycyling” (see my earlier blog)
Experienced teachers generally have amassed a collection of multiple resources aligned with their curriculum. When starting to implement UDL, those teachers can use that to their advantage. When we think about the emphasis in UDL on providing options, most teachers are way ahead of the curve because they have multiple resources, so their work isn’t to find more, it’s to think about how to use what they already have. Remember, having “options” and “choice” really only means having TWO options, although I think it’s often understood to mean having lots of options. A teacher only needs to add one more item to an existing lesson to have begun the process of providing options/choice. For students, having the opportunity to have some agency in their own education, even starting as small as being able to choose between two versions of the same material, can be hugely engaging.
Putting Theory into Practice
What would this look like in practice?
- Take an existing lesson.
- Rather than teaching it the way you currently do, think about whether you can identify the core part of it and teach that core material in less than 15 minutes.
- Use the rest of the lesson and another resource that you like to serve as options for the students for the remainder of the class time.
- Prepare resources such as notes and answer keys to support independent students engaging with the material as you work with more struggling students.
- Repeat the next year and add another resource or approach….or re-use a certain format within the lesson in a future lesson.
In the scenario above, all students sit through the brief instruction, but then the students have choices between two different approaches for working with the material. One option might be continuing with the material that you would normally have prepared and presented for this lesson. Another option might be reviewing some skills using Khan Academy if there are clear prerequisite skills that kids might be weak in. (I would limit that option to 10 minutes and I would give kids a timer so they don’t use the entire class period on skills, but it’s good to let kids know that it’s an effective choice to self-assess and strengthen skills to support grade-level material.) You also might have some extension options available.
Why do things this way?
What are the benefits of this approach?
- It allows teachers to use material they already have, thereby reducing preparation time and making UDL less overwhelming.
- It allows all students to work on the same core material, but at their own pace.
- It allows more independent students the autonomy to make challenging choices, while making it equally okay for struggling students to access direct teacher support.
- It allows those choices to change even within a class–students are not pre-assigned based on teacher perception, nor are they held in a certain “group” all the time.
- It builds student engagement because students are making choices and have access to resources that allow them to be independent.
The first few times you do this, you need to be okay with the fact that kids are going to choose the “wrong thing” and you need to have some plans in mind. For example, maybe you have two teachers in the class that day and you’re doing more circulating than you normally can with only one and so you’re having lots of conversations with kids. Why did you choose this option? How is it working for you? How do you know how it’s working for you? If it’s not working for you, what should you do instead?
You also want to probably choose a topic that you will be doing for more than one day, so you can give up part of a day to allowing students to experiment with making choices, whether good or poor, without feeling too much curriculum pressure. For example, some kids who you know already have the skills will try to do Khan Academy, which is one reason why you said it for 10 minutes and you’re done. Other students who, evidence suggests, have not yet mastered the basic material will try to do the extension work. It’s important to be very careful with those those kids in particular because the fact that they don’t normally seem to show us that they’re capable of doing the extension work doesn’t mean that they actually aren’t. For example, you might offer an extension option that is so intriguing that a child moves out of his/her comfort zone and takes on the challenge. But if you only offer that challenge as extra work or something to do after the regular work is done or something that’s only available for certain students, then those kids feel shut out of the whole experience. Instead, students just need to be able to choose.
The Power of Choice
One thing that’s very important to keep in mind is that the students have to do the choosing. As soon as a teacher puts together two projects and then assigns children to certain ones, you are moving back into Differentiated Instruction; you are not doing UDL. In addition, you are taking away from the students opportunities to self-assess, to self-evaluate, to fail and learn from failure with low-stakes work which allows for failure as a learning experience rather than an end game.