I have very few good stories to share about my trips to the dentist and the doctor, but I do love to share the story about how my primary care physician, who has now been my doctor for about 17 years, told me I was experiencing issues with my blood pressure because I was “too compliant” with my medication. Anyone reading this who knows me in person knows that the phrase “compliant” has NEVER IN MY HISTORY been applied to me. In fact, the best way to make sure I don’t do something is to tell me I have to do it. Now that I am in my early 40’s, I can at least acknowledge that I know this to be true about myself, for all that I haven’t quite made it to the point where I can quickly dial down my defiance into graceful compliance.
Our educational system values compliance, although it often engenders defiance. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) seeks to generate engagement and one of the best ways to do that is to provide choice and to build a climate that values choice, including giving students choice about making their own decisions and providing feedback to teachers about the options provided.
I have written before about the difference between Universal Design for Learning and the role choice plays in UDL and the mistaken practice of replacing one non-preferred activity with something “cool.” Two years ago, at the start of the school year, our principal at the time played some FlipGrid videos new students had recorded to introduce themselves….yup, you guessed it. He then told us to all go off and record our own FlipGrid videos introducing ourselves to the staff. Be back in 30 minutes….
I hate listening to my voice. I abhor seeing myself in pictures and videos. When given this directive to make a FlipGrid, I went into full-on defiance mode, complete with temper tantrum and a fair amount of “he can’t make me.” As I said, I’m in my early 40’s now, so I managed to vent most of it on my colleague in the privacy of my classroom and I did make a grudging FlipGrid video, but I hated, hated, hated every second of it. If that’s what defiance feels like to me, I can easily imagine how difficult it is for our middle school students to maintain some baseline behavioral norms. On the other hand, I honestly believe that, if I had been given a choice (make a FlipGrid or write a brief introduction), I would have experienced little to no defiance. I enjoyed watching other people’s FlipGrid videos–I don’t have any issue with learning about my peers–but I couldn’t even enjoy that part of the process because I was so off-put by the requirement of a set form of the presentation.
As I have said before, when we move from offering and valuing options to replacing one activity with another, even if the new one may seem “cool” or “engaging” to the person developing or proposing it, we are not doing UDL.
I am guilty of this myself, of course. My colleague, Irene Witt, reminded me just last week about how we keep talking about changing our whole instructional approach to move away from giving students copies and copies from our district-approved Eureka math curriculum. Irene and I have discussed more than once this year how much we are enjoying the “By the End of ______” documents and that approach that we are taking this year. We find it particularly valuable in topics where 7th graders typically experience wide variability, such as in solving equations, where some kids just “see” the structures underlying the norms of communicating your algebraic solutions and where other kids just see alphabet soup. The “By the End of” structure allows students to move through the content at their own pace and, for me, it gives me lots of time in class to provide targeted and individualized instruction and reteaching.
…as Irene keeps reminding me, we haven’t really changed the format of the bigger picture–it’s copies and curriculum from Eureka over and over again. We don’t have a structure in place yet to have students develop projects and their own assessments and other practices at the next level in UDL. I look forward to making that available as an option–imagine how much more engagement we might get!