Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was the subject of the third keynote delivered by Dr Katie Novak (USA) at Ulearn14. Giving UDL such prominence at Ulearn14 was no accident.
Kia ora Katie
Thank you for making the journey to us from Boston. Thank you too for sharing your passion for learning, and your knowledge and experience of implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to support inclusive practices in the US.
It was really exciting to see awareness of UDL among participants at ULearn increase tenfold. The large show of hands indicating no knowledge of UDL at the beginning of your keynote seemed to indicate that those of us implementing UDL are still running below the radar. The response also highlighted that, although the “Effective Governance Building Inclusive Schools information for school boards of trustees 2013 guidelines identify UDL as a tool to support best practice (p.11), there will need to be a concerted effort across the sector to support a deepening understanding of UDL and how it can be used to support inclusive practices in all learning contexts.
Your keynote, Universal Design for Learning: An introduction pushed a few buttons for people, provoking responses that roughly ranged from, “We’re doing this already”, to, “Why hadn’t I bumped into this before, it makes so much sense”.
To the former you acknowledged, that yes, much of what we consider effective practice sits within the UDL framework. For example, there are specific UDL checkpoints that outline the value of providing choice and autonomy, the use of multiple media to support different modes of expression, and importance of connecting learning to culture.
However, the 70-minute keynote didn’t afford you time to look at examples of less common practices in New Zealand schools. For example, we only see in pockets:
- the selection and creation of videos with closed captions to increase access and support understanding,
- the use of strategies and assistive technologies traditionally used to support students with dyslexia or ASD being made available to all students at the outset of a task, and
- the practice of teachers consistently asking students to give them mastery-oriented feedback on their own effectiveness.
To those who experienced an “aha”, and with whom we had conversations following the keynote, most epiphanies related to the idea of valuing and planning for diversity at the outset and what teachers might do differently to make that happen.
Your modelling of a UDL approach in the delivery of your keynote also provoked much discussion, and challenged many presenters and facilitators in the room, myself included. Some of the things you modelled were:
- breaking up your keynote, and building in regular opportunities for those participating to connect their own learning and experience to your stories
- actively inviting diverse perspectives using the Twitter feed
- responding to questions immediately from the stage, eg, “What’s the difference between UDL and differentiation?”
- getting on and off the stage and going into the audience so you could weave people’s stories and responses back into your own storytelling to strengthen connections and build understanding
- touching base with a group of us throughout the keynote to get feedback on the effectiveness of your delivery and the relevance of your content to make adjustments on the fly.
Student-centred UDL workshops
Your two workshops, unsurprisingly, were full of gatecrashers; teachers who wanted to know more, and who dropped out of other sessions to dig deeper into UDL and your extensive classroom experience. In both workshops your focus was absolutely tied to the students and what they bring to the effective design of learning.
Firstly, you talked about and modelled how you:
- introduce the UDL guidelines to the students
- support students to advocate and take responsibility for their own learning needs using the guidelines
- support students to give mastery-oriented feedback to both other each other and to yourself.
Secondly, your consistent challenge to participants was the need to outline explicitly to students why a specific outcome, skill, or activity is important — beyond passing a test. Your creativity in connecting learning to things that matter to students was hilarious in its ingenuity, and, as a group of teachers, I think I could make a collective assumption and say, we were in awe.
A personal response
On a more personal note, it was great to step back and reflect more deeply on my own understanding and implementation of UDL in multiple contexts. Spending time with you, quizzing your thinking, and watching you model UDL really prompted me to take a closer look at those guidelines. In particular those checkpoints I embrace and action readily, and those I habitually overlook.
On reflection, I started my UDL journey adjusting areas of my practice that I could immediately see were creating barriers to learning for other people. I looked first at:
- the accessibility and flexibility of my teaching resources and presentation materials
- how to build choice and opportunities for autonomy into the learning process from end to end
- connecting my planning back to knowing learners, valuing what they bring and building learning opportunities on that knowledge base
- integrating the inclusive use of digital tools
- applying UDL to the design of online environments.
I am very much still working on the above, but next base is to rethink how I can weave that mastery-oriented feedback process explicitly into my own teaching and learning. For example, can I say at the beginning of a workshop or lesson, "OK, I am working on this. This is why. If you can let me know how I'm going by giving me some feedback that would be great"?
I know I will also need to consider
- What might be potential barriers to learners giving feedback?
- How can I remove or minimise those barriers?
- How can I build in supports and options at the outset?
Until next time
So Katie, thank you again for coming to New Zealand.
I remain convinced that UDL has something to offer every part of the education sector, and is a valuable approach to underpin teaching and learning in any workplace. We have much to learn about UDL and what it can look like in our New Zealand context. But, we are not starting from scratch, and neither are we travelling alone.
As you slip back into your curriculum leadership role whilst keeping one foot in the classroom, we hope we have wooed you sufficiently to maintain an ongoing relationship with us here in New Zealand.
We hope too, that in your additional work as a consultant for CAST, you will weave into your story-telling reflections from your time with us, as we now weave into our thinking anecdotes and illustrations from our time with you.
Go well into the Fall, and best wishes to you, your family, and the wider UDL community in the US.
Ngā mihi nui
P.S. Here’s a few of the links we chatted about:
- Research evidence for UDL – An overview of the research base from the National Centre of UDL
- Universal Design for Learning – succinct introduction to UDL
- UDL and differentiation — what’s the difference? – overview for teachers
- UDL Supporting diversity in BC schools – videos of students and teachers in Canada talking about the impact UDL has made on their teaching and learning.
- UDL VLN group – a public discussion space for NZ teachers devoted to UDL
- #udlchat – international Twitter chat: 1st and 3rd Thursdays of every month 2.00 – 2.30pm
- Education that fits: Review of international trends in the education of students with special educational needs. A Ministry of Education commissioned paper that highlights the value of UDL as an approach to support the flexible and inclusive design of “all facets of education: from curriculum, assessment and pedagogy to classroom and school design” (Mitchell, 2010).