UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Of brains and Bunsen burners

The strange assumption that a group’s distribution of measurements could safely be substituted for an individual’s distribution of measurements was implicitly accepted by almost every scientist who studied individuals, though most of the time they were hardly conscious of it.  (Todd Rose, The End of Average, pg. 62)

High school biology was a disaster.  I only made it through because of my friends, one of whom went on to be a high school science teacher.  They cut up formaldehyde-soaked creatures while I worked on not vomiting on my classmates.


Things did not get better in chemistry.  I had a 99.9% average on the error section on all labs the entire year.  Mr. Carter was speechless, lab after lab.  I was a top student–no fooling around, no running in the lab, but I still managed to set a Bunsen burner on fire (those shut-off switches really do work), melt an Erlenmeyer flask so the top separated from the bottom, and create the only inedible candy cane in the entire class in December.

My guidance counselor told me I would never get into a competitive college if I stopped taking science after two years, but I thought I had done enough damage, so I dropped any future science classes, threw in five years of math, a few Advanced Placement courses and some college credit, and called it good.  I figured science just wasn’t my thing, but I loved to read, so I assumed I would end up in English and it wouldn’t matter anyway.

As I’ve written about in an earlier post, I was all over the place in undergrad–theater, economics, Spanish, math, English.  But it became clear, pretty early on, that I had strengths and interests concentrated in two major areas:  English and math.  I started tutoring in the Writing Center at the start of my second semester, the earliest I could.  At the same time, I was also asked to be a TA for a calculus course, thus being the only person, at least at that time, who worked in both tutoring centers.

The older I got, the more the discrepancy between these two areas of interest became pronounced.  As a math teacher, I am expected to “get” science.  Guess what?  I have never taken physics.  I didn’t want to talk about pot brownies or plant parts in my college botany class.  And I still wouldn’t let me near any lab equipment, for the safety and well-being of all.  At the same time, as an avid reader and English major (twice, over!), I am supposed to enjoy history and the other non-math courses.  And I don’t, at all.

It wasn’t until I read The End of Average by Todd Rose that I finally found some language to describe this “non-traditional” mix of strengths I have.  Rose talks about our variability and our jaggedness (The End of Average, pg. 80), the fact that we think of ourselves and others in terms of an average, but that we are actually a collection of strengths and weaknesses across every scale or factor or measure.  Finally, a way to describe how my world feels, what it’s like to live in my brain!

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When I first started teaching in my current school, we had a Gifted and Talented program.  It was a disaster, for two major reasons.  One, the students moved in a single group through all core academic courses and, two, they were expected, as students identified as gifted and talented, to be gifted and talented across all aspects of their day.  There were other issues, such as the pressure these students put on themselves and the lack of emotional support from staff trained in specifically supporting gifted and talented students.  But a big part of the disaster was that each child was jagged, going through their days struggling on some things and excelling on others, watching each other do so day after day, with no sense that this jaggedness was normal.  Rose describes this as “[Francis] Galton’s notion of rank, the theory that if a person was talented at one thing, he was likely to be talented at most other things, too….[from the idea that] some people were simply born with brains that learned quickly, and these fast-learning individuals would not only be successful at school, they would be successful at life” (pg. 53).  This is clearly not true and I bet I am NOT the only adult reading this who can identify in themselves their own jaggedness.

Even with students who are not identified as gifted and talented, we see variability.  When we talk about our students as a teaching team, we often find that students are markedly different class to class, teacher to teacher, material to material.  How can we embrace this?  How can show our students this is okay?  I know this is still true for myself as a professional and in my personal life.  My favorite unit of the year?  Algebra.  The neatness, the tidiness of the work, it just makes me happy.  My least favorite and most challenging to teach?  Ratios and Statistics are tied.  They are amorphous, unclear, situation-dependent topics.  Does this make me a bad teacher?  No.  It means I have to work harder when teaching those units, but this is just variability at play.

If you have ever had the good fortune to take a course with Dr. Katie Novak or to hear her speak, then you are probably already familiar with jaggedness and with Rose’s other ideas, since Dr. Novak shows us how meeting these needs of our students, each of them jagged and individual, is the purpose of Universal Design for Learning.  Although I’ve taken a half dozen courses with Dr. Novak, I didn’t really understand the deep truth of variability and jaggedness in my own life until I read The End of Average, even though it always made sense to me when I listened to Dr. Novak.

And I’m now thinking about what I do with this awareness.  How can I celebrate the jaggedness of my students without allowing them to fall into the “I don’t learn visually so I can’t draw” trap we often see with multiple intelligences?  How can I support my students whose jaggedness manifests as struggles in math?  How can I help students begin to build an accurate picture of their strengths and struggles, so that they can advocate effectively for themselves and their best choices?

“…the individual is not error, and on the human qualities that matter most (like talent, intelligence, personality, and character) individuals cannot be reduced to a single score.”  (Rose, The End of Average, pg. 68)



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