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5 ways to drive professional learning the UDL way

By Kendra Grant
March 6, 2018
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Professional development and professional learning are two terms educators hear frequently. But what’s the difference between the two? And why do the different definitions matter?

Professional development (PD) is often defined by someone else, say a school district or administrator, and is usually an event led by an expert. While these events can run the gamut from sleep-inducing to re-energizing, they have failed to move the needle in school transformation. People attend and enjoy (or not) the event and the traditional classroom remains.

Professional learning (PL) is defined by the educator and refined through collaboration and reflection. It's the type of growth prescribed by the ISTE Standards for Educators: It’s the daily, intentional act of teaching informed by research, data, experience and sharing. Professional learning is an iterative process where educators work together to inquire, plan, act and reflect with the goal of intentionally changing practice and improving student learning.

How does UDL fit with your professional learning?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for instructional design that recognizes the variability of learners and seeks not only to make learning accessible, but to build expert learners who are purposeful, motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic and goal-oriented.

UDL is also an excellent framework to guide your professional learning, helping you move from one-size-fits-all PD to professional learning designed by you, recognizing your — and your students’ — variable strengths and needs.

Here are five ways to drive your professional learning the UDL way:

1. Resist the average, embrace your jagged PL profile.

UDL recognizes and plans for learner variability.

In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose explains why “average” doesn’t exist. Through neuroscience, we now know that every learner (including educators) has varying strengths, needs, interests and preferences. In other words, variability is the norm.

There are two ways you can embrace your jagged profile:

  • As a learner, recognizing you have strengths and needs, and seeking ways to support and improve them helps you recognize the diverse needs of your students.

  • As an educator, recognizing you have professional strengths and needs gives you opportunities to learn from others and, in turn, mentor and support others.

Both encourage you to embrace, adapt and change. The first step in your professional learning journey is to embrace your jagged PL profile and resist the average in order to change and grow.

2. Include options and choice to personalize your experience.

UDL includes multiple means of engaging, accessing, processing and producing information as a means to address variability.

You don’t have to give up your favorite PD events to include multiple means. Instead, consider how you can extend and expand how and what you learn, and who you learn and connect with. One way to make this happen is by building your professional learning network (PLN). We define this as your personal curation of people, sites and resources that provides both pressure and support to try new things. Beyond traditional workshops your PLN might include:

  • Educational thought leaders you follow through their blogs, Twitter posts, videos and podcasts.

  • Professional colleagues you interact with through online courses, Twitter chats (#UDLchat), live video streaming (Google Hangouts, Periscope, Facebook Live) and other social media feeds (Instagram, Pinterest, etc.).

  • Outside (but related) industries, such as higher education, workplace training, neuroscience or specific areas of interest such as computational thinking, STEAM, social and emotional learning, assistive technology, etc.

Just be sure that your PLN serves a dual purpose. Yes, it’s great to get — and share — tips, resources and lesson ideas, but to move your practice forward, seek out support to try new ideas and new approaches like UDL or project-based learning (PBL). The strength of your PLN is its ability to support your professional growth beyond the latest tech tool or classroom resource.

3. Intentionally plan and iterate, and proactively seek to change.

UDL isn’t just good teaching, it’s an intentional process that you refine and deepen over time.

As a professional, adopt an iterative approach to your professional growth. Whether you use our four-step process: Inquire, Plan, Act, Reflect model or one from your district, it’s important to embrace a growth mindset. Teaching is both an art and a science, and as such, we can always improve and grow.

Continuously using data — observational and quantitative — to ask questions, research and plan next steps, try things in classrooms and then reflect on outcomes is a surefire way to support continuous renewal and growth throughout our careers.

4. Leverage technology to support, enhance and accelerate your learning.

UDL can be implemented without technology, however, beyond “leveling the playing field,” technology also offers everyone the potential for significant growth and change.

Technology makes it possible for educators to connect with other educators around the globe. It expands our classroom and our thinking. It also provides us with platforms to curate and share what we learn, moving us from passive “lurkers” to active “engagers.” This shift will do more to accelerate your professional growth than any other activity.

Finally, by committing ourselves to expanding the variety and type of technology tools we use (including assistive tools such as text-to-speech) to communicate and create, we expand our understanding of providing multiple means of access to and demonstration of learning, and we model for other educators and our students the potential of technology to elevate our learning.

5. Use UDL as your lens and catalyst for change.

UDL is a framework that can guide your instructional practice and inform your professional learning.

We believe UDL is a heuristic tool to support professional growth that will also, when implemented, have a profound impact on the lives of your students. It’s a lot like swimming. Some educators sit hesitantly by the side of the pool, waiting for someone to direct our swim, while others dive in alone, perhaps ending up in water that’s too deep. We invite you to wade in, take a shallow swim or, when ready, a deep dive, using UDL as your lens to guide your professional growth.

Luis Pérez and Kendra Grant are the authors of the soon-to-be released ISTE book 
Dive Into UDL: Immersive Practices to Develop Expert Learners, Luis is a senior technical assistance specialist for the National Accessible Educational Materials for Learning Center at CAST. He holds a doctorate in special education and a master’s in instructional technology from the University of South Florida. Kendra's multifaceted career includes stints as a teacher, library media specialist, special ed coordinator, co-founder of a professional learning company, online course creator and large-scale technology implementation consultant. She holds a master's of educational technology from the University of British Columbia.

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