Change can be scary. But you’re not alone. Others are learning something new about teaching and learning — and ourselves — every day.
Not through the application of one strategy, tool, program or method, but through a framework called Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
UDL is first and foremost an invaluable blueprint to create an equitable classroom where all students are empowered to learn and grow.
However, UDL isn't just about your students. It is also about you — your personal and professional journey — to help you better understand yourself as a learner and as an educator.
UDL both supports and challenges us. When we view UDL as something to apply to ourselves as learners, we not only gaining insight into how we learn, but also how our learning preference and needs impact how we teach. We can challenge ourselves professionally by asking ourselves:
Recognizing and embracing UDL as a tool for personal growth and professional change, rather than only something we "do" to our students or in our classrooms, brings us meaningfully into the journey of learning together.
You know those dreaded before and after pictures? Usually taken in a bathing suit? While uncomfortable they represent your starting point: a reference to measure your success as you work to get healthy and fit. They help you set goals based on where you are now, and they help you remember just how far you've come.
No worries, what we have in mind doesn’t require before and after photos, but it does need you to strip down and explore some of you assumptions and beliefs about learning, teaching and the current education system. It asks you to challenge yourself and model lifelong learning by diving into UDL.
However, we don’t expect you to just jump in. We encourage you to start where you are. To assess your understanding of UDL before you wade in, take a shallow swim or go for a deep dive. The choice is yours. Over time you’ll dive deeper and swim farther. But for now, it’s important to get your feet wet and what will become (we hope) a lifelong exploration of UDL and the creation of inclusive learning spaces.
Wade in: all-access classroom
Have you ever purchased an all-access pass? The one that gets you into every ride and event? You may not go on the extreme roller coaster, but you could if you wanted to. That's how we envision an "all access classroom" but rather than rides and events, learners can get into every resource and learning event.
Our classrooms are often dominated by print. Removing this big barrier to access learning is an important first step in creating a UDL classroom. It sends a message that there are all kinds of learners and all kinds of ways to learn. That one method or medium isn't better than the other. Limiting your classroom to "text only" is like limiting some of your students to the kiddie rides.
Engaging students in the process of finding, making and sharing accessible resources and tools is one way to bring them into creating a UDL classroom with you. They'll recognize and live inclusion as you work together to create an all access pass.
Shallow swim: building skills, taking ownership
In special education we often talk about transition planning. It usually happens as students move from one school to the next or graduate from high school. It's carefully designed to prepare the student to make the move successfully.
In reality all our students need a transition plan as they move toward a more student-driven process of learning. Without this plan, some students will struggle, and others will just play the game. Students need to develop many skills — basic subject knowledge, strategies for learning, collaborative processes, and organization and planning skills. But perhaps the most important skills they need — those that only happen when we intentionally plan to include them — is metacognition and ownership of learning.
But wait! If we are to pass the baton of ownership of learning to students, then we, too, need a transition plan as we let go of our control over the classroom, take risks in front of others and model a different way of learning — one where we, too, ask questions, embrace change, understand the power of the room and aren't afraid of failing.
Deep dive: internalizing skills, building learner expertise
The goal of UDL — learner expertise — isn't something to be reached by the time students graduate from high school. It's not something you achieve. It's a continual journey that becomes deeper and richer over time.
Regardless of age, everyone can be:
Every learner can develop learner expertise, however, it may look very different in a 5-year-old than it does in a 15- or a 35-year-old.
Depending on developmental level, experience and learning needs, scaffolding may be required to support growth in expertise. Perhaps not surprisingly, 5-year-olds may exhibit more expertise, having had less time to compliantly play the game of school and, as such, be less fearful of failure, and (one hopes) less worried about their grades and getting into a good college.
Share the goal of UDL with your learners. Help them define what each term means: what it looks like and sounds like. Have them reflect frequently on their developing expertise, and their next steps.
And don't forget to model this lifelong learning mindset for your students as you work together to become expert learners.
Kendra Grant has been 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. Luis Perez, Ph.D., is a technical assistance specialist at the National Center on Accessible Educational Materials at CAST. He is the president of the ISTE Inclusive Learning Network and has published two books on inclusive learning and technology, Dive into UDL (ISTE, 2018) and Learning on the Go (CAST Publishing, 2018).