Universal Design in Learning

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I was privileged to attend Jennifer Katz’s session on Curriculum Implementation Day in Vancouver recently.  She did what only a skilled professional development speaker is able to do.  She breathed life and passion and renewed energy for the work we do.  I love professional development days and curriculum implementation days for just this reason.  It is not teacher preparation time where the focus is on the myriad of daily tasks to be accomplished before going to bed.  It is reflecting on the big picture of what really matters in what we do during the days we spend with our students.  What are the things that our students will remember well into their adult lives?

One aspect of my professional growth plan this year includes working with staff to further implement universal design for learning into the school community.  As Jennifer Katz explains, Universal Design is a term borrowed from architectural design.  It came into vogue in the early 80’s when government was mandating wheelchair accessibility for public buildings.  This was a very expensive process after the fact but it was welcomed by not only people in wheelchairs but also by people pushing strollers or wheeling bags or carts or bikes into buildings.  Buildings and spaces started to be designed to meet mandatory building codes but also provide choices and elements for a wide range of users.

The “L” was added to create the term “UDL” for Universal Design for Learning and emerged as a lens or worldview to physically, emotionally, academically and socially accommodate all of our learners.   The shift allows educators to design the learning environment and programming with diversity in mind.   The original model for UDL was created by CAST at Harvard with a distinctly American context.  Katz has been working with them collaboratively in a Canadian context.  Shelley Moore has provided us with the meaningful graphic of the bowling pins and the reminder that if you want all of the pins to go down, you aim for the edges.  In our lesson design, our planning for those students on the “edges” will allow us to also target those students in the middle.  John Hattie’s well cited research on effect size, bodes well for UDL.  An unusually high effect size of 2.8 is assigned for using the UDL 3 Block Model with struggling readers due to the synthesis of multiple measures.

Ensouling Our Schools – A Universally Designed Framework for Mental Health, Well-being, and Reconciliation by Jennifer Katz is a great read, a wonderful way to invite conversations and an implementation handbook.   It has provided a blueprint for possibilities and her pro-d sessions throughout the district have scaffolded the various options for implementation.  Flexible learning spaces are in place.  Supports and spaces have been designed to assist students to self regulate.  Two types of activity paths are in the halls.  Standing desks and wobbly chairs are physically present.  Many classes provide daily supports such as “Spirit Buddies” to create a welcoming context.  Many lessons are structured to accommodate the wide diversity of learning strengths and needs.  However social and academic inclusion represents an ambitious goal.  Doug Matear, Principal of Student Support Services in the Vancouver School Board, provides a solid goalpost of what we’re aiming for:  “Universal Design for Learning allows all learners to be successful and included in all our lessons.  It provides learning adaptations for all that choose to use them and applies Assessments for Learning principles to foster meaningful and relevant meaning making.”  Cleary this is a process rather than an event.  Fortunately, it is a goal that is supported by the implementation of the new curriculum and assessment in British Columbia, with the emphasis on collaboration and the development of core competencies.

After my very inspiring professional development session with Jennifer Katz, I attended a more utilitarian session and refreshed my learning of the computer system required for ordering and managing inventory.  I got to know a colleague far better in this session as we supported each other.  The instructors of the session anticipated that each person would walk in the door with a different level of comfort with computers and proficiency with the program.  It was designed for everyone in the session to be successful.  Additional staff was available to scaffold participants not on track with the main presentation.   Visuals and hands on opportunities to practice were planned with varying degrees of support.  As a result, everyone walked out the door having learned something at the session.  Nice UDL lesson design!

Next my new buddy from this session and I headed to the annual after-hours mixer with retired colleagues.  To my delight, I was able to visit with my Grade 1 teacher from Queen Mary Elementary School.  When our paths crossed 10 years ago at a function for current and retired administrators, I recognized her eyes instantly.  More amazingly, she recognized my eyes as well, and went on to ask about my mother, Barbara.  In those days, Queen Mary had students who attended from the duplexes for rent by beach, the army barracks and the real estate had not yet sky rocked in the immediate vicinity.  What I remember from Grade 1 is that my teacher had kind and smiling eyes.  Single mothers were few and far between at that time but she also had the same kind and smiling eyes for my mother.  Universal design was not yet in vogue, but she created a learning community where everyone was welcome.  That’s what I remember.

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