Remote/Digital Learning · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

The Fourth Wall

There is an expression in theater, film, and literature about “the fourth wall,” the “conceptual barrier between any fictional work and its viewers or readers” (Oxford Languages). After working in virtual education since March, particularly after having taken a new job in one of the two virtual schools here in Massachusetts, I have decided that this concept often applies to teacher practice in virtual education as well as to the arts.

Teaching done “fourth-wall style” results in a teacher practice that is frequently one-directional, generally characterized by a reliance on teacher-to-student interactions. The situation is exacerbated by wide-spread use of programs such as PearDeck, a Google extension to Slides or Powerpoint, or Actively Learn, both of which are designed to have a single teacher be able to see all the work from a group of students at one time. What’s the problem with that? What’s the problem with any of this? This is where I see the existence of an “educational fourth wall”–student communications might be available to a teacher and a teacher might be calling on students or commenting on their answers…..but where are the collaborative conversations student-to-student? Like members of an audience held captive at a live performance, the students sit immobile behind their screens, locked away from conversation with each other, directed to converse only with their teacher and to receive feedback only from their teacher.

I contend that we must be aware of this tendency in virtual education and we must make a concerted effort to change teacher practice to include student collaboration, even in a virtual setting. In a time of isolation that we have never lived before, we have a moral obligation to implement Guideline 8.3, “Foster collaboration and community,” from the UDL Guidelines, equally as much as we are tasked with teaching content standards. Possibly even more so in this time of intense isolation.

In my new job as a 6th grade Special Education teacher in a virtual school, I am allowed to plan and execute up to three Do Now’s a week in Math class. I have taken this opportunity to model some of the practices that I think, at least in miniature (I am limited to about 10 minutes on average out of a 45-minute period), should be happening in all classes on a regular basis.

The following characterize the Do Now activities I plan and implement:

  • daily use of Break-out Rooms to build engagement
  • providing students with a minimum of two options for work to increase engagement through choice
  • weekly use of Google Jamboard (or similar practice) to engage students in practicing and reflecting on collaboration and ways to make it successful
  • including a variety of grade-level activities that change format to provide choice but do not lower expectations

In order to work together, students have to share their screens and their work, to talk to each other, to engage in turn-taking, to learn to give and take feedback politely and appropriately, to learn to deal with disappointment and frustration politely and appropriately, and to otherwise practice life-long collaborative skills that will carry them into adult work situations. It has not been easy! As with any new practice, the first few rounds were more about the practice and less about any content. Students struggled to talk to each other, to figure out how to make decisions, and so on.

With practice and reflection, however, some amazing things have emerged. In this first example, I came into a break-out room and found that students had set up a poll in Canvas for each other to decide who was going next on the screen. Although we give students polls, we have never taught them how to create one; they figured that out for themselves.

As we have done these Do Now’s on a regular basis, the practice has spread into Science a bit, where students are currently working in groups on a project. Our second work day ended with the following private message to me from one of the students:

One of what has become my “classic” set-ups for a Do Now is to pick a topic, usually operations with fractions, and put one operation per slide with the same two fractions (i.e., 1/2 + 1/3, 1/2 – 1/3, etc.). Students are randomly placed in groups in break-out rooms and they can work on any of the operations/slides together or separately during the ten minutes. The last time we did this, I went into one break-out room and found the following:

Again, as with the poll example above, students had taken the initiative to use a tool, in this case, the shareable white board in Canvas, and had also taken initiative around how they wanted to use the options they had been presented with. On every level, they had transformed themselves, even just for those ten minutes, into “expert learners who are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgable, strategic and goal-directed.” And this while learning in a virtual school as COVID rages outside our collective walls. This is the promise of Universal Design for Learning.

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