I’m writing this post as our February vacation comes to an end, nearly two months after I first ready Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn by Mike Anderson…and I’m still inspired by quotes and passages from the book. Although we now know that only adding choice, without taking it further, is only Emerging on the UDL Progression Rubric, it’s still a powerful place to begin any journey into Universal Design for Learning.
A statement from Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn that resonated with me was that “identify[ing] what potential problem you are trying to solve” is one place to begin developing choice (pg. 94) or, by extension, to begin implementing Universal Design for Learning. I think my colleague, Irene, and I experienced this when we created one of our early “By the End of” documents last year in the probability unit.
We designed this document to help deal with discrepancies we saw in student mastery of understanding tree diagrams, an organizational tool used in probability to generate and keep track of possibilities arising from a probability situation. Some of our students got the concept right away; others struggled, both on the content and with the physical organizational requirements involved in drawing the diagrams. When brainstorming how to address the need for more teaching or practice, we knew we didn’t want to teach the lesson to the whole class again. Instead, we started thinking about how to offer a range of options for working with the material that would allow students to move forward when ready and/or to practice more as needed, without holding the entire class to one position or the other.
Conversations about how to set up that situation led to opening up the entire topic by using a different, larger, overarching concept (“how to organize data” rather than “how to create a tree diagram”). Opening the topic up like this also allowed us to bring in resources from other programs (Open Up) to augment our Eureka curriculum without creating a situation where the two curricula were in conflict because they taught the material from two different approaches. Since the overarching goal was exploring different ways to organize data and probabilities, both curricula were equal in their contribution.
Anderson also says to “Begin with what you have” and to “tweak or amend the activity by giving some choice” (pg. 94). This approach/thinking makes a lot of sense to me–we have so much to do in our daily professional lives that I think it’s important to find ways to use material, work, and approaches that we have already tried out, while also leaving open the possibility for ourselves that we can revise them or use them differently, without having to start from scratch. Sometimes the templates/graphic organizers we create allow us to do this by having students still work with the challenging Eureka curriculum, which allows us to avoid (1) rewriting lots of material and (2) not using our adopted curriculum, while helping to identify the repetition in the approach that allows students to feel supported and knowledgable as they tackle challenging work. When we find ways to help students identify the underlying patterns in math content, we help reduce the scattered-ness that characterizes much student work.
As teachers, I think we can model some of this patterning by revising and reusing material that we have from past years. We might frame it or organize it differently, and we always push ourselves to do more and to do better, but we also can use material that we’ve worked with before. Offering choice allows me to use materials that might not be meaningful for every student, but that exactly meet the needs, on either end of the spectrum, of some students. It also challenges students to think about why they choose the material they do and what need it meets for them. And it allows me to use rich and challenging activities that might not fit into my current curriculum but that push or support students in just-right ways that the curriculum, if given wholesale to all students, might not.