A while ago, I visited a small rural school that had introduced a range of literacy support tools in a systematic way across all of their classes. The school had recognised that much of the content shared and used in their classrooms was in written format and that this was creating a barrier for students.
Soon after implementation, staff were excited to note that one student in particular had started working in class and had answered some questions. The literacy support tools removed a barrier for her, and the success story quickly spread around the staffroom.
Removing barriers to learning – Liberation representing the concept of Universal Design for Learning, Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire interactioninstitute.org madewithangus.com
One staff member talked to the student in question (let’s call her Jane) about her success using the literacy support tools. Unfortunately, the staff member did not realise that Jane was very sensitive to being singled out and made to feel different from her peers. The small act of talking to her had unintended consequences…. from that moment, Jane stopped using the literacy support tools.
This story, while very sad, has reminded me about the way we think of some students as having “additional needs”. We sometimes call them our priority learners; we recognise that they need more help than others to be successful in our classrooms, and we provide targeted resourcing for them.
But, if some students have “additional” needs, does that mean, by implication, that the rest have “normal” levels of need?
The very idea seems flawed when we consider the uniqueness of each and every student. When we embrace diversity, everyone has such a variety of individual learning needs that saying some are “additional” and some are not, no longer makes much sense.
Our traditional approach to supporting students like Jane is to identify their individual needs and provide targeted support. Hence, we design for most of our students and then differentiate or provide adapted resources to meet the “additional” needs of other students.
One of the unintended consequences of this approach is that it tends to focus on the student as the nub of the “problem” and any support they need as “extra” to everyday teaching and learning.
Another unintended consequence is that it can make students feel different or “under the spotlight” — this was the issue for Jane on this particular occasion.
The catch-22 for schools is that we want to continue to provide targeted resources where they are needed but the process of identifying needs requires a focus on identifying a student’s difference from the (illusionary) “norm” of others. Further, the process of identification can result in negative or deficit labelling of students.
That is why Universal Design for Learning resonates for me.
Why Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
He waka eke noa 1
A canoe for one and all 2
If someone is finding learning difficult, UDL asks, what we can do to design teaching and learning that works for everyone rather than what is wrong with the student. UDL aims to cater for a range of students first and foremost by offering flexible and personalised ways to learn rather than focusing on differentiating for the odd “different” student.
Developing strong, trusting relationships and knowing our students well and can help us be aware of how small actions on our part could lead to unintended consequences for our students.
In a recent visit to the school I saw students using a range of literacy support tools in their everyday work. The tools were not used widely but they were a flexible option that could be used when and if the students wanted or needed them.
Just as ramps and accessible toilets aim to make buildings barrier-free environments, the school I visited recently is continuing to identify and remove barriers using the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
Enabling e-Learning video: BYOD supporting inclusion
If you are interested in hearing more about UDL and Inclusive Design, make an inquiry to CORE Education.
2 The use of this whakataukī here is to support the ideals of inclusivity.
Removing barriers to learning – Liberation representing the concept of Universal Design for Learning, Interaction Institute for Social Change by Angus Maguire, interactioninstitute.org madewithangus.com (used by permission).