Monday, July 22, 2013

Reflecting on Our Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Course

We started the course by developing a personal definition of UDL as we understand it in that current moment.  My definition was a pretty standard textbook definition: 
"UDL is a framework for student learning that starts with the assumption of diversity and then, through intentional planning, minimizes barriers to learning and maximizes the number of students who are included, engaged and challenged.  UDL requires clarity of the true purpose of curricular goals so the materials and methods can be flexible and a dynamic assessment approach can be employed to increase the probability that individual learners will be learning in the way that is most effective and efficient for them." 
The concept was UDL was not new to me.  It is one that I've studied in some detail over the year and the underlying concepts are ones that I firmly believe in.  What was new was the process of focusing in on UDL exclusively for an extended period of time and trying to connect it to my personal experiences and context. It moved my thinking from UDL as a theory to wondering what it actually looks like in practice.   

One of the highlights of the course for me was a Skype session that the whole class did with Denise DeCoste about the UDL implementation work they have been doing in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.  They have an amazing webpage that outlines their process and has resources related to the work they did with a year-long voluntary PLC process. To start the process, they defined four foundational elements of UDL:
  1. front-loading when planning to benefit a range of students
  2. teachers offering flexible methods and materials
  3. students having choice in tasks and tools
  4. students being engaged in their own learning and connecting with what they do
Defining foundational elements of UDL helps to build understanding of what this would look like in classrooms.  The Implementing Universal Design for Learning in Schools website that they have put together outlines a process that includes reflection and walk-through materials that teachers could use to work together as a PLC team to move towards putting these four foundational elements in to practice.  It was interesting that they decided to focus in on the choice and flexibility before moving on to the technology piece.  UDL is often associated with technology and it seems many initiatives to implement UDL start with the technology rather than the practice involved in UDL. Having the practice of choice and flexibility in place would allow the technology to be used in the flexible ways that it is meant to be used according to UDL philosophy. 

If I had to redefine UDL now, I think perhaps it would tie to the idea of "positive niche construction" that Thomas Armstrong talks about in his book Neurodiversity in the Classroom

Maybe the definition of UDL is as simple as creating that positive niche.  Maybe it's about defining "environment" as being more than the physical and then working towards "creating favorable environments in school within which all students can flourish."  Of course, as the video summarizes, there are many components to making this happen. 

The course has me wanting to get back home to look again at the book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman.  In this book, he talks about Experience Producing Drive (EPD) Theory.  And there it was the connecting quote: "According to the EPD theory, natural selection sculpted our genes so that we would be active agents of our environments, constantly seeking out situations that maximize our chances of survival and reproduction. In other words, we evolve to find the best environmental fit for our genomes. In Darwinian terms, that just may be the meaning of life."

Seeking out and building our niche is what we do in our lives.  In some ways, it is what drives our lives... as Kaufman says "it just may be the meaning of life".  It leaves one wondering though what happens when the environment we create in schools is not the environment that is the best environment to fit one's genome.  What long term impact does spending the formative years of one's life in an environment that is not a good fit have?  Is the answer to move them to a different environment or is the answer to continue to find more ways to create environments that students have enough flexibility and choice within so they can begin the process of figuring out how to impact their environment in way that will develop their genius?

Perhaps the part that I liked most about Denise DeCoste's presentation was that in their implementation process they were not trying to "build Rome in a day".  They were simply trying to lay some foundational elements of UDL at the same time as providing the PLC environment for those doing the implementation to explore their beliefs and practices.  They took it one lesson at a time.  What could we change so one more person would have access to learning rather than what can we change so everyone can have access to learning?  It's manageable and it speaks to the fact that a "niche" is not just physical but extends to the interactions within that environment and that the process is about creating a positive niche for all members who must thrive in that environment.

At the end of the course, I would like to say that I have a nice tidy definition of UDL but the bottom line is that my definition was a whole lot more tidy at the beginning then it was at the end... which is not necessarily a bad thing.  

At the end of the course, I am also feeling that I would like to focus a lot of my blog posts this summer on the how part of some of those flexible methods, materials and choices that could be present in tasks and tools.  There are great starting points for me to explore this like the UDL Toolkit Wiki and Mickie Mueller's Free Technology Tools for Teachers Live Binder and Matt Bergman's Learn-Lead-Grow Blog. I'm just looking at this point to use my blog to share tools and technology we already use and explore in to some new areas. 

1 comment:

  1. Monica
    Thanks so much for your great reflections on the course. Love your evolving thinking in particular the idea of "creating favorable environments in school within which all students can flourish."