UDL & Transition Planning

Universal Design for Learning in Transition Planning

As we each move through our lives, there are moments of transition. Some transitions are simple, expected, comforting or hardly worth noticing. But some transitions are HUGE, powerful, overwhelming, intimidating, and just plain scary!  Think about that transition from middle school to high school, or from college to the “real world” or the first time you had to teach a class.  As a teacher who works with students during their high school year as they prepare for that world beyond high school – that world full of adult responsibilities, employment, independent living, college or other schooling, I am continually reminded of the anxiety that the students are often facing. They may not always verbalize their fears and frustrations, but they may exhibit behaviors of concern, begin giving up, or even try to purposefully fail.  It is fear I see at these times. So, I am often trying to help students feel less nervous and ensure that some supports are in place to help them be successful. As with every change in life, we need to plan for the next step. 

Thinking to those pivotal moments in my life…the big transitions…college graduation, moving to a new city or town, etc…..what scared me? The uncertainty and the insecurity.  This is what transition planning is designed to help prevent! (or at least lessen).

Unlike buying a new pair of socks, which doesn’t take much thought, transition to adulthood, begins well before a student’s senior year. Admittedly, I think we could all do a much better job at preparing students for transition….sadly, time and money often interfere. We do the best we can.  Ideally transition planning actually starts from the first day of the individuals’ life…growing more systematic and meaningful as the journey through elementary school, middle school and high school unfolds.  This process includes gathering information, activities, events, and careful planning to help a student prepare for the next steps in life.

 The National Collaboration on Workforce and Disability published an InfoBrief in February 2012, titled “Using Universal Design for Learning: Successful Transition Models for Educators Working with Youth with Learning Disabilities”.   In this InfoBrief, the authors discuss the importance of embedding UDL strategies to instruct and engage learners of all learning styles in the curriculum and lesson.  Furthermore, the authors point out that by implementing UDL techniques teachers can maximize students’ strengths instead of focusing on their weakness, thereby allowing students to achieve in areas that they may have found impossible to learn in the past.  In order to encourage success in high school and post-secondary education (if desired), we need students to experience success in the classroom and also be more prepared for college.  This makes sense!

The Interdisciplinary Council on Vocational Evaluation and Assessment states that

“The foundation of vocational evaluation and assessment is that all human assessment should be holistic and humanistic.  A holistic approach encompasses issues of diversity, all relevant attributes of the individual, his/her existing or potential environments (ecologies), and the interactions between the individual and the environments. A humanistic approach to vocational evaluation and assessment requires consumer involvement, and processes that are designed and implemented to benefit the individual served, with an emphasis on individual capabilities rather than disability.  Further, the environment should fit the individual rather than the individual adjust to the fit of the vocational evaluation” (VA Board for People with Disabilities, 2011).”  

Think about this for a moment…

 Now think about how we teach transition related activities.  Are we able to gather information from our student about his/her interests from a variety of methods?  So often, students participate in a computer administered interest inventory and print out a result.  Sometimes they are then asked to look up the career interest codes on the computer.  But, does this have meaning to all of the students?  Have we truly tapped into the students’ method of expressing his/her interests?  Did the computer create a barrier? Did the questions create a barrier? Was focus or reading or comprehension an issue?  The point is, UDL principles need to be part of all that we do for all students and, yes, even when it is transition related activities that we are talking about. 

And, as we begin the activities related to transition – the job shadowing, career exploration, interview practice, community exploration, self-care, budgeting, etc. – we need to appropriately transfer the UDL methods used in the classroom to the new environment.  Further it is important that we add (and instruct) any additional UDL solutions that may help reduce barriers.  This may mean learning about assistive technology, digital media, apps and tools.  If UDL principles have been used throughout the schooling experience, this transition  to using strategies in a new environment will be almost second-nature for a student and likely not carry the anxiety or stigma that perhaps would be felt if a student is not familiar with assistive technology or is not comfortable asking for assistance or supports.  The hope is, that when a student is adequately prepared for transition to independent living, employment, or post-secondary education, he has the self-confidence, the self-awareness and understanding, and the self-determination to experience success.  An added benefit to UDL, if it has been implemented throughout school, is that other students won’t view the use of assistive technology as anything different, because with or without a disability, since it was implemented to help all students, it is likely they are using assistive technologies too.

 UDL & Transition = Success in Several Ways

  • Students have more understanding of strengths, needs, learning styles.
  • Data collected concerning abilities and interests is more relevant when collected in various methods.
  • Students understand HOW to learn (important for employment & post-secondary education).
  • Students have experienced more success and likely gained more self-confidence.
  • Students are familiar with assistive technology that can be used across environments (education, employment, personal life).
  • Students have learned strategies that work for them in accessing curriculum, gaining knowledge and demonstrating knowledge gained.

References:

Expanding career options with universal design for learning (ECOUDL). (2011, March). Virginia board for people with disabilities (Project Dissemination guide). Retrieved from http://phillipsprograms.pbworks.com

Using universal design for learning: Successful transition models for educators working with youth with learning disabilities. (2012, February). National collaborative on workforce and disability (Issue 33). Washington, DC.

 

The WHY and HOW of Universal Design for Learning : Part 3 of 3

UDL Tools

When introducing and encouraging the use of UDL concepts in the classroom; specifically methodology and tools to embed into curriculum and lessons, I think, just as we do with students, we need to begin with tools that will likely entice and excite teachers and achieve positive results.  By respecting the amount of time that teachers spend in and outside of the classroom to help educate our students, we are more likely to engage the teacher and create a motivation for using UDL tools.

But first, we must determine the individual teacher’s goals and identify their perceived challenges.  Questions like; Do you feel overwhelmed with the amount of one on one assistance you spend with individual students? Do you find that students lack motivation? Are students performing well on tests? What are the current methods used for assessment? Etc. These questions can be asked to help assess where the teacher is coming from, what supports they are willing to accept help with, and what tools may best serve the needs of the students and the teacher.

One method that may prove beneficial when introducing UDL to teachers and attempting to get their “buy in” is to have them visit the CAST website and the Curriculum Barriers Tutorial. I believe that often times, teachers don’t see the barriers that students may face, or they only see that barriers that students identified as having disabilities may face and don’t realize that these barriers may exist for all learners in one way or the other.  CAST Curriculum Barriers Tutorial is available at the above link as well as directly at: http://www.cast.org/teachingeverystudent/tools/curriculumbarrierstutorial.cfm

One challenge that I see all teachers face with students as they begin their (usually) senior year at our school, is that they are not accustomed to learning.  What I mean by this, is they have often learned to regurgitate information for a test or a culminating project. (i.e. memorizing dates, names, places for a test, spewing it out for the test, erasing it from memory, and moving on to the next chapter). I’ve talked about this in past blogs.  For the first time, many students need to really engage in their learning and to learn for lasting memory.  (No longer short term, rote memorization, but learning to apply, to use, to retrieve down the road). When teachers consider how to shift the students way of learning, they will see that UDL tools can assist them in reaching this goal. Remember, long term learning occurs in the Pre-Frontal Cortex where the executive functioning occurs (Willis, 2012). And, the pathways to reach long term memory are strengthened by the release of dopamine and reinforced by active, repetitive use (Willis, 2012).

Below are a list of tools and strategies that I would like to introduce to the teachers and staff at the school where I teach, addressing the most basic concerns that teachers have expressed.  This is a list of beginning tools; those that may produce the most immediate results, take the least amount of time on the teacher’s part, and reduce the greatest barriers to learning, to better serve all students in the classroom.

Addressing problems of boredom, lack of student motivation, students not engaged in learning or class participation

  • Begin lessons with humor (verbal, visual, video, song)
  • Add technology to the delivery of the lesson (video clips, powerpoint, itunes, photos, youtube, etc.)
  • use quick response systems (anonymous methods of assessing students and engaging students) – ipods, texting, web-based.
  • Add personal stories to lectures.
  • Provide copies of powerpoints/notes so students can follow along, fill in, add to, pay attention to auditory format, etc.
  • Use interactive whiteboards
  • Encourage the use of livescribe pens for students who will benefit from listening to lecture at a later date.
  • Use QR Codes (scan codes) for students to access notes, powerpoints, videos, lecture, etc. at a later time (www.QRstuff.com , www.tagmydoc.com )
  • Supplement lecture/theory with examples and stories.
  • Allow student/s to “teach” or “introduce” a lesson.
  • Use whiteboard paddles or dry erase board to respond to questions (others cant see but students respond and teacher can quickly assess and involved students):  http://www.orientaltrading.com
  • Create emails to encourage students to correspond with you when they have questions.
  • Use collaborative seating arrangements (U-shape, Grouped, etc.)
  • Provide opportunities for choice in project/assignments examples: wordles, i-movies, etc.
  • Provide examples of previously completed projects for reference.
  • Provide easy to understand rubrics in advance of assignments (www.rubristar.com)
  • Allow for peer and small group work.
  • Provide visual references for multi-step tasks.
  • Allow use of highlighters and colored folders or paper.
  • USE DVD/CD/Text website provided with most texts to supplement learning,
  • Provide technology to create final projects, encouraging creativity and choice.

Addressing Problems with organization and daily planning and assignment completion (time management) issues.

  • Breakdown assignments into smaller “check in’ chunks (providing opportunities to check in and experience success and receive feedback along the way).
  • Use technology to build in alarm clocks, buzzers, reminders, etc.
  • Have students document and graph their time on tasks.
  • Use color to code types of materials, assignments, due dates, etc.
  • Use ipods and outlook for calendar management.
  • Allow students to identify technology that may help them with organization and time management.
  • Use internet/web/email to send out reminders regarding due dates or homework assignments.
  • Consider having digital format of text or material available on the web for students to access if they forget their textbooks.

References

Willis M.D., J (2012). Neuroscience & the classroom: Strategies for maximizing students’ engagement, memory and potentials. Integrated Learning Conference. November 7, 2012.

The HOW and WHY of UDL Implementation in the Classroom and School-Wide: Part 2 of 3

HOW

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I began this blog as part of a requirement for a UDL course at George Washington University. As such, this week’s assignment is to discuss how to approach UDL systemic change. One of the questions posed is “What UDL tools might be used to evaluate barriers and opportunities in my particular setting?”  Since I am a learning support teacher and support students in a variety of different ways (within their career & technical education programs, with transition related activities, in math or English, etc.), I am approaching this question in a very broad way.

I would like to see UDL implemented across the school setting.  However, I know that systemic change (school-wide change) cannot occur overnight. It must be carefully planned out to create “buy-in” across the board. Additionally, it must have the infrastructure of technology and staff support.  I will talk more about that in a bit.

Because many people do not like change, and many teachers feel possessive of their classes or program, introducing change too quickly can be problematic. And, yet, we know that administrators are aware that educational systems need change to keep pace with our global society (Anderson, 1993). I believe, for this reason, that change must come from a variety of directions; administratively it must be supported, teachers need to see the value of this new approach, students need to understand how they learn and why they will benefit, and in my case, the sending districts must support the change, as they can provide further resources and direction.

Administrative support and direction is paramount.  The previously mentioned brain research can help support and defend this systemic change. Obtaining buy-in from teachers is the biggest challenge that administration may face. Teachers would benefit from hearing from other CTE instructors across the state who have implemented UDL systems. They must hear about the challenges as well as the benefits.  Providing instructional coaches is one method that has worked at other CTCs.  An Instruction Coach is usually a learning support teacher who supports teachers in developing lessons that embed UDL principles and methods into their lesson.  The Instructional coach then supports the teacher and co-teaches for a few lessons until the teacher is comfortable with the UDL tool used.  I think it is crucial that positive support is provided when we ask teachers to “change” what they are doing.

I believe that we already know what barriers students with learning disabilities face in different classrooms. For instance, in the Health Professions Program reading is a huge barrier for students who may struggle with decoding, comprehension, or fluency.  However, I would assert that reading is also a barrier for several students who have not been identified to receive special ed. services. So why not encourage the teacher to embed UDL techniques in the curriculum?  (Examples like this can be found in all 20 programs that we have at our school).

One method to create “buy in” from the teachers, a method that worked in the Concord New Hampshire school system, begun in 1994 (Rose & Meyer, 2002), is to allow the teachers and the students to generate the momentum for the use of UDL.  This is accomplished by approaching teachers in small gropus and sharing excitement for the concept and then showing them the benefits. Instead of a drastic restructuring of the school, I would encourage our administration as well as myself to approach those teachers who are most likely to be open and accepting of UDL strategies and help support them in their use of these tools. I would then encourage them to share with their colleagues the benefits of using these tools. I believe that when teachers talk to other teachers and share ideas, they will listen far more openly than when they are directed to do something by the administration.

Finally, time must be allotted for the implementation; the exploration of ideas, the development of materials, collaboration, and reflection.  This is probably the biggest hurdle in our school. Our teachers don’t even have a planning period. The administration may have to look at grants to be able to offset the costs of hiring substitute teachers to come in and allow teachers planning time.

For additional material; a template for creating systematic change to apply the Concord Model; http://www.cast.org/Teachingeverystudent/model

Concord Administration describes UDL’s Systemic Implementation:  http://www.cast.org/Teachingeverystudent/UDLImplementation

References

Anderson, B.L. (1993). The stages of systemic change. Educational Leadership, 51, 14-17.

Rose, D.H. & Meyer, A. (2002).Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: ASDC.

“Teaching style does matter; you get what you give out.” (Click for an example of how NOT to teach)

The WHY and HOW of UDL: Part I of 3

WHY UDL

When we talk about Universal Design for Learning, we are talking about techniques to reduce and remove barriers that students of different learning methods or different abilities may face.  We are not approaching this in the same method that we often approach special education or working with students with disabilities – assessing the deficits of a student and then altering our curriculum or our methods for that particular student –  instead we are approaching our lesson from the perspective of making our lessons accessible to all students.  We are embedding methods of instruction, of delivery, of assessment into our curriculum and lesson plans, in order to reduce barriers that any student may face.

Universal Design for Learning, in essence, can reduce the time spent reacting to the individual students whose barriers to learning became evident AFTER the lesson was taught. We, as teachers, can instruct in ways that may make these barriers less evident, thereby being proactive in our teaching; reaching more students in adequate ways, and even improving the learning of those students who with traditional methods of instruction may have learned adequately, but not to the level that they are capable of.

So, how do we approach Universal Design for Learning?  How do we begin to change our way of thinking; individually or systemically?

I recently attended a conference where the opening speaker was Dr. Judy Willis. Dr. Willis is both a neuroscientist (M.D.) and holds a Master’s in Education. And, yes, she has spent time as a teacher in the classroom as well. She presented a pre-conference session entitle “Neuroscience & the Classroom: Strategies for Maximizing Students’ Engagement, Memory and Potentials”.  The research she talked about serves as an excellent reference for “defending” or “supporting” UDL in the classroom.  When we fully understand how the brain learns (and this is fairly new science), we can promote methods of teaching to achieve the best possible outcomes. When we look at the brain and the methods that we gain information (intake) and move it into long term memory and then are able to demonstrate learning (output), we are better prepared to demonstrate the reason why UDL, from a scientific (data) perspective, makes sense.  Sometimes what drives systemic change (administratively, state wide, or at the federal level) is data, research, “proof”.

For instance, we know, as Dr. Willis points out, that the Prefrontal Cortex of the Brain controls the Executive Functioning. (Video of Dr. Willis’ discussion about Executive Function and the 21st Century Learning: http://www.lcc.ca/cf_media/index.cfm?obj=6027 ) We also know that this part of the brain is not yet developed in our students (5 – 25). Furthermore, we know that the way that information is obtained and moved to the Pre-Frontal Cortex (long term memory) is through pathways through the Amygdala.  Stress reduces the ability for this pathway to be “clear”.  However, Dopamine, which occurs with pleasure, increases the strength and speed of this pathway (Willis, 2012).

What does this tell us, as teachers?  This tells us that when we find ways to increase the production of dopamine, we can increase learning!  And, what does this have to do with UDL? Well, some of the best ways to increase the production of dopamine in the brain are to create activities for positive interactions with peers, to incorporate music, being read to, humor, choice, movement, predicting, etc. (Willis, 2012)  And, these are all the same concepts employed by UDL!

Let’s look at another example that Willis shared.  Teens love video games! They will play them for hours. They will lose over and over again, and yet they will continue to play. Why is this?  How many times have kids “quit” when they don’t “get” something in school?  How many times have we felt guilty, as teachers, when a student is continually given a reading test, and we KNOW that they struggle with reading and so they are continually, seemingly, given a test knowing they will not do well? First, we know that video games release dopamine in the brain. They provide predictive actions and they provide feedback. They involve the person and they provide just enough attainable challenge that they will continue to play even when they experience failure.  When we look at implementing UDL in the classroom, we can look at what Willis refers to as the Video Game Model, to justify why we need to use strategies of UDL to reach students; to engage students in their own learning, to build intrinsic motivation, to make learning pleasurable, to reduce barriers to education, and to continue to challenge our students to learn to the highest level possible.

For more information on Dr. Willis’ work: www.RADTeach.com

For a quick reference about your brain by Dr. Willis:  What you should know about your brain. http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200912_willis.pdf

References:

Willis M.D., J. (2012). Neuroscience & the classroom: Strategies for maximizing students’ engagement, memory and potentials. Integrated Learning Conference, November 7, 2012. Available at www.RADTeach.com.

Willis, M.D., J (2002). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

UDL Framework and Assessment

As mentioned in my most recent blog, assessment should be delivered in meaningful ways; reducing barriers to students and provides authentic and relevant assessment data, thus identifying what is working and what is not, what additional supports may need to be provided for which students, and the ability to adjust the methodologies used along the way. In addition, teachers are able to address various individual learning styles, promote self-confidence and self-determination.  Universal Design for Learning; a concept that grew in part out of Vygotsky’s educational concepts and Bloom’s Taxonomy, provides avenues to both instruct and assess students through methods that include scaffolding, peer coaching, collaboration, creativity, etc.

UDL identifies three guiding principles for developing curriculum that eliminates the barriers that often prevent learning; providing multiple means of representation (Supporting Diverse Recognition Networks); provide multiple means of action and expression (To Support Diverse Strategic Networks); and to provide multiple means of engagement (To Support Diverse Affective Networks).

It makes sense that the same barriers that affect the learning process also may affect the assessment process. So, it further makes sense that teachers provide opportunities for assessment that reduce barriers. By successfully identifying preferred learning styles and possible barriers that may exist for all students, teachers can adjust assessments to provide opportunities that meet the needs of all learners. These assessments are then valid, formative, authentic, and relevant.

What are the benefits of approaching formative assessment from the UDL framework?

  • Instruction, when presented with UDL principles, matches with assessment.
  • Data will now be used effectively to identify possible barriers that students may be facing, identify learning styles, identify teacher methodology that is working effectively, and provide data that shows what has been effectively taught vs. whether a student can take a paper and pencil summative assessment well.
  • Immediate Feedback: Students are able to get immediate meaningful feedback to help them improve their understanding (Petty, 2011)  Link to Formative Assessment Youtube Video

    Link to Formative Assessment Youtube Video

What are the Challenges of approaching assessment from the UDL framework?

  • Time: Teachers are often required to cover specific amounts of material in specific time frames. Providing a variety of opportunities for varied assessment can be time consuming in both the delivery and in the teacher’s ability to provide immediate and relevant feedback.  I believe that formative assessment, however, can be embedded into instruction which may allow for a reduction in the required time for planning, implementing and grading.  How can this be done?

Links to the “HOW”:  HOW to embed assessment into instruction

  • Administrative Support:  These non-traditional methods of assessment may not be well understood from administrators or other teachers.  The concept multiple choice summative evaluations has been used for many years and can be a barrier with older or more traditional teachers.

Understanding the Difference between Formative and Summative Assessment: youtube video

Writing a Classroom Instruction Goal that Lends Itself to Flexibility for Diverse Populations (UDL)

As Rose and Meyer point out in Chapter 5 of “Teaching every student in the digital age, universal design for learning”, “Well-designed standards focus primarily on ‘learning how to learn’, calling for students to gain knowledge, skills, and understanding.”  So often, however, standards may be too specific – including methods of instruction or specifics that don’t allow for flexibility of instruction or assessment.  Other times, teachers themselves, may become too wrapped up in “teaching to the test” or get caught up in the misperception that they need to create very structured goals and objectives that end up becoming very limiting and putting unnecessary constraints on the educational process in their classrooms.

A traditional goal that a teacher may use could be “Students will use the web to research a health related career and complete a PowerPoint presentation to provide information about this career to present to the students.”  Thinking about the purpose of this goal – learn about a health related career, this is using the Recognition Network, I believe this goal can be made more flexible by realizing that the methods of gaining the information can be varied as well as the demonstration of the knowledge gained.  A better statement of goal may be “Using a variety of methods (interview, web, text, etc.), students will present information about a health related career”.  This allows for a variety of methods of gaining the information about the career and offers flexibility in method of presenting; PowerPoint, YouTube video, brochure, report, poster, videotape, etc.

By creating goals that allow individual thought and creative problem solving for students, we are preparing them for employment and post-school success.  Employers often state that they want workers who can problem solve and think creatively.  This is exactly what we are encouraging of our students when we take the time to recognize the real purpose of the lesson and then set a goal that is not limiting and instead, encourages flexibility and appropriate challenge and support.

Changing how I see my classroom: Looking through the UDL lens

The questions were raised “Think about the strengths and challenges of some of the materials and methods that you have used in your classroom, in your transition setting or in the workplace, How could you enhance those resources through a UDL lens? Who would benefit from these changes?”

I am a learning support teacher, one of two, who supervise 8 paraprofessionals who support approximately 80 students in 20 different classes (19 different career and technical programs).  Students attend out school for one year in hopes of acquiring skills and credentials for employment and/or post-secondary education following their graduation.  Our instructors come directly from industry prior to becoming teachers. Most have chosen to become teachers because they believe in their trade/career and want to educate youth to enter their field.  Once hired, they begin their coursework in Vocational Education.  Having said this, most teachers at our school teach the way they were taught.  For some this means textbook reading, answer the questions at the back of the chapter, write out vocabulary words, listen to an hour of lecture, demonstrate a skill, teach the steps through demonstration, and then have the students perform and practice the skill.  Overtime, most teachers expand their delivery system to encompass “best practices”.

My position is unique as I don’t teach a specific class. Instead I support paras and teachers in helping to convey information to students related to their career, work one on one or in small groups with students to help them complete assignments, prepare for tests, complete projects, or provide support. Often I work with students to help motivate and encourage and build self-esteem.  I help create linkages to agencies for post-school and help them apply to jobs, apply to college, or work on other issues or skills needed for future success.  So, to implement UDL within my daily work, requires me to shift my thinking a bit and actually look at a variety of avenues for implementation, from student to para to teacher. Furthermore, each program is so entirely different not only in their content, but the nature of the skills needed, the expectations of the program, and the style of the teacher, that it is difficult to provide an overview of how expanding UDL techniques in our school could impact our ability to provide successful education to our students.

In Chapter 3 of “Universal Design for Learning in the Digital Age”, Rose and Meyer point out that traditional classrooms use books and lecture as methods of instructional delivery.  These text and print and word delivery methods do not allow for flexibility in learning.  The complexity of the brain requires many skills/abilities to be able to gather information and even demonstrate knowledge which can, for some students, make barriers very evident, when only traditional methods of delivery are used (text, picture, sound).   As an instructor, I am forced to look for those individuals who have barriers and then create other methods of conveying information or assessing those individuals.  But even then, I am missing those who are not identified, but maybe could do much better with other methods of instruction and assessment!  This traditional method of instruction, from the teacher’s perspective, from the learning support teacher’s perspective and even from the student’s perspective is reactionary. In other words, I am forced to react to those who are struggling.  It’s exhausting as a teacher and unmotivating as a student.  UDL strategies can change all of this!  As an instructor, if I could employ new methods of instruction and assessment (websites, wiki’s, video, youtube, blogs, etc.), I could engage students in learning and even create it so they are becoming the learner’s driving their own education with me, as the teacher, facilitating the process!   I, as an instructor or teacher, am no long reacting to the barriers and needs of students after the fact, but preventing the barriers in many cases from taking the front seat. I am ensuring that all students have a chance to learn the material in as many ways as possible.  They are engaging in the learning process.

The student who has ADHD and tuned out during lecture/theory time, is not reinforcing whatever was missed through interaction on the website where he can replay the lecture that was recorded and corresponds to a blog where students are discussing the chapter content and the youtube videos that the students made demonstrating the skills they are learning.  Textbooks exist as supplemental material but not as the only material.  Tests are important in preparation for industry certification testing, but other assessments are used as well.  As Rose and Meyer mention, this new approach offers flexibility in instruction but also requires that educators become flexible in their thinking about instruction.

To answer the final question: who will benefit from this…EVERYONE! Teachers included – think about the time that won’t be spent reteaching and retesting or brainstorming how to support the student who fell through the cracks because the lesson didn’t include an accommodation for a specific need, or the time spent coming up with a “special assessment” for a student with a special need.  And, at the post-school level, we have helped students become learners and self-advocates and motivated and engaged!

UDL: An Educational Opportunity for All!

I am continually fascinated with research about how learning occurs within the brain. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with partial-complex seizures (epilepsy).  For those of you unfamiliar with the different types of Epilepsy, I encourage you to educate yourself, since this is far more common than you realize, and if you work in education, you should know! My seizures are non-convulsent. You wouldn’t know that I was having a seizure if I had one, in fact, I can continue to talk right through it, though I would prefer to pause for a few seconds while the flushing feeling goes through me.  It’s all controlled by medication, but along with the medication comes some short term memory issues and sleepiness.  Why am I bringing this up? Because although not diagnosed until recent years, I believe that I likely was having seizures in my sleep for many years growing up and didn’t know it.  I also wonder to what extent these seizures may have impacted my executive functioning skills or organizational skills and the like? (maybe I have found a valid excuse for having the absolute worse organizational skills and difficulty finishing things I start?)  I likely will never know, but the brain is fascinating to me.

I have been reading about how we each learn.  How different parts of our brain are used to recognize, for instance, a word in writing vs. a word that is spoken, or attaching a word to a picture.  How we retrieve information and how we apply information learned.  What is also fascinating to me is how our approach to students in the classroom can focus on deficits (presenting barriers to learning) or focus on strengths and abilities (creating opportunities for learning).  By changing the approach to education – by taking a proactive approach to learning/teaching – we are able to reach more students during the first round of teaching.  In our traditional method of teaching, we often present information and then check for understanding and have a handful of students who because of skill deficits or learning disabilities we react to by creating one-on-one or small group instruction opportunities, reteaching our material to the whole class, etc.  But when we change our approach to teaching to begin by providing instruction for all students, regardless of barriers, we can greatly reduce the amount of reteaching we need to do. Furthermore, those students who “sort of got it” when we taught it in our traditional manner, likely really “got it” when presented in this new way!

And, so this makes me think about UDL and Transition. It also makes me ponder how to best use my knowledge and skills to help serve the students who I work with. One of the biggest complaints I anticipate with the “talk” of UDL in the classroom, once people realize that this is a concept that stretches beyond ACCESS to classrooms and curriculum, is the perception that incorporating technology and the like will be time consuming.  What I hope to be able to convey to others is how much time it will free up if you reach students on the first round instead of having to reteach and review with those who didn’t “get it” on the first go.  I envision a shift in thought from seeing students with disabilities as those who need the multi-modality of teaching to seeing all students benefiting from various methods of presenting, incorporating, engaging, and assessing.

I believe that over time, when more teachers understand the benefits of UDL in it’s entirety, students will begin to become actively engaged in not only their own learning but their own understanding of the learning process.  With this comes empowerment and self-determination!  It is my belief that transition personnel, whether in schools or agencies, can help to promote the broader concept of UDL by informing others that UDL extends beyond accessibility for individuals with disabilities.  It ensures accessibility and opportunity for all students.

Some great resources for teachers The UDL Toolkit

There is no “Average” student!

In a world full of standardized tests and labeling, where students are grouped and categorized and schools are judged on things like scores on tests given once a year at select grade levels, it seems hard to believe that there is no “average” student.  But think about it…how could there be an “average” student when we KNOW that we each learn differently?  Our brains, complex computer-like systems, are not all the same. We, in education, have known for a long time that we each learn differently….but I’m not sure we realized just HOW differently we learn. It’s not as simple as “I’m a visual learner” or “He’s a kinesthetic learner”.  (I always struggled when asked how I best learn – it always seemed to me that I learned SOME things through listening/talking, but other things by doing or applying what I was learning. And still other subjects I learned simply by seeing and visualizing.)  And, now, according to cognitive neuroscientists and research in education, it seems I am right! I learn different things differently!

It seems that if we, as educators, approach teaching with the belief that there is variability among learners, not only in the method that they gain knowledge, but also in the methods that they interact with information and demonstrate their knowledge, that we can ensure that we reach each student to the best of our ability.  And, not only that we reach the student, which should be of primary importance, but we will also become proactive teachers as opposed to reactive teachers.  So often, we teach and then look around for the students who have missed something and we attempt to adjust our teaching in a one-on-one or small group setting to help that particular student or group of students “get it”.  Or, we change the method of evaluating for that particular student.  Instead, by approaching education with an understanding of systematic learner variability, we can prevent this reactive teaching. We can prepare our lessons and our instruction and our evaluation to become better teachers. We will no longer be presenting barriers to education but we will present students with opportunities to become actively engaged in their learning.

This concept of learner variability extends past the walls of traditional educational environments. Professionals working with individuals with or without disabilities can benefit from having an understanding of how our brain works and how we each learn and in remembering that the brain is a complex organ that varies from person to person.  When we change how we approach learning to consider learner variability, we eliminate or reduce the tendency to look at the disability, and instead look at the unique strengths and abilities.  This shift in thought allows us to focus on positives and reduce the tendency to compare to a nonexistent “average”.

Video: Learner Variability and Universal Design for Learning

Video: Learner Variability and Universal Design for Learning.

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