Recognising diversity empowers teachers

Issue: Volume 98, Number 14

Posted: 19 August 2019
Reference #: 1H9x2x

Universal Design for Learning, a teaching framework that recognises all students learn in different ways, aims to empower teachers to design flexible classroom environments and remove barriers to learning.

Dr Jon Mundorf visited New Zealand and conducted workshops with educators, as well as staff at the Ministry of Education in Wellington.

As a new teacher in Florida, Dr Jon Mundorf felt so frustrated and overwhelmed at trying to meet the needs of all the 9–10-year-olds in his classroom that he considered leaving the profession.

“I kept hearing things like ‘teach to the middle – most kids are in this average range – they will respond to a really good lesson and then you can remediate or accelerate later on’. And I remember thinking ‘when does the later on happen – I don’t have extra time’,” he says.

“While we had plenty of fun in the classroom, I didn’t feel that I was good at what I was doing, and I couldn’t imagine spending my whole career feeling that way.”

Now an international Universal Design for Learning (UDL) consultant and expert, Jon was in New Zealand last month to conduct workshops and sessions with educators in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

UDL is a framework that uses neuroscience to help teachers design flexible classroom environments for students without having to develop individual programmes. It suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach can be inflexible and disabling for teachers and students.

UDL was in its early stages in the US when Jon studied it at the Harvard School of Graduate Education.

“One of the things that caught my attention about UDL was that it shifted the burden away from talking about the learner being the problem to ‘how can we shift the environment’? Instead of thinking ‘how do we standardise this kid to meet expectations’, it was really thinking about ‘what are the barriers that are preventing the learner from accomplishing – how do we make the curriculum more accessible?’

“Learners being different is really good but also they are different in a really predictable way. When things are predictable, it means you can design the environment and think about those differences from the outset as opposed to coming up with one perfect lesson and then remediate or accelerate later on.”

No such thing as an average learner

New understanding of learning has found that variability is the dominant feature of the nervous system. Neuroplasticity is an emerging idea that the brain is constantly changing, shaping and co-constructing.

“The idea that intelligence isn’t fixed – that we can grow and learn – that’s really empowering to learners in the classroom but also to teachers. When we try to work in a one-size-fits-all system, we act surprised when people are different. But there is no such thing as an average learner,” says Jon.

Jon returned from Harvard excited about the idea of designing an inclusive environment and making an impact on his learners. There was a student with severe dyslexia in the class, who was essentially blind to the printed text.

“He confided in me that he didn’t feel that school was for him. I told him we are going to create a classroom that is going to work for him. What that meant was, we’re not going to try to change him, but we started to think about the barriers for him.

Responsive curriculum needed

“I recognised that because of that predictable variability, other students were struggling with printed text as well. I needed the curriculum to be more responsive, so we started thinking about how we could present text in different ways, like digital versions of books that he could listen to and read at the same time.

“There’s all kinds of evidence that that idea of bimodal reading, using two senses, is really important for those students who have struggled with reading, but it’s also really good for other readers as well.”

Within a few weeks, with a range of audio resources available to him, the boy became more engaged in the classroom and told Jon that he felt like he was learning more. Jon also found that his strongest readers enjoyed the combination of reading and listening to stories as it helped them to visualise more and think more deeply.

The predictability of variability

There are three ways in which all learners are going to be predictably different, says Jon. The first is how learners engage with material – what matters to them – the ‘why’ of learning.

“So instead of thinking we are going to have one single thing that’s going to engage everybody, we need to say, ‘what are the different ways that we are going to engage learners?’”

The second area is how individuals receive information.

“We perceive the world differently and so we shouldn’t be on a quest to find the ONE single way to present information to learners. Instead, we want to think about the different ways we can do this.”

The third area of learning focuses on the front part of the brain where the networks around action and expression exist. All learners are going to vary in the ways they take action in the world, and a UDL framework provides options for how students can show what they have learnt and know.

“Instead of putting a learner into a one-size-fits-all environment, we are now saying we are going to have this flexible environment for the learner who is the BEST learner they can be at this particular time.

“Before the school year starts, we can predict that there’s going to be a certain level of variability and we can design an environment that’s going to be a little bit more flexible before the students even walk in. Then as we get to know the learners, we can adjust and modify within a flexible setting. This provides a level of comfort for the learner.”

Neuro-diversity is normal

When neuro-diversity is not presented as normal as students are developing, they may start to feel something is wrong with them and try to suppress or hide their difference. This can cause anxiety, which affects cognition. It’s important to say upfront that learners are different and that this is a good thing, says Jon.

After 17 years of teaching and being a university school assistant professor and researcher at PK Yonge Developmental Research School at the University of Florida, Jon says that while the goal isn’t to improve test scores, as UDL is enacted, students do achieve better and he has many stories of students being helped by designing learning with a UDL framework.

“We need to think about the barriers that exist – it could be around the goals or the methods or the materials. Sometimes the printed text might be the barrier for learners, so we might make the text digital so they can make the words bigger or smaller, or they can have it read to them. There are all different ways that the materials can be used to create accessible opportunities.

“That boy with dyslexia – as the year went along, as he found his space in the classroom, his attitudes towards working with his peers changed, the way in which he engaged in other classrooms changed. He also felt valued. Typically, what happens when learners exhibit dyslexia is they are removed from the classroom and made to feel like outsiders,” he says.

Empowering teachers as designers

Universal Design for Learning isn’t a ‘quick fix’ but aims to help teachers find ways to respond to the challenge of learner diversity, says Jon.

“We know that teachers are working really hard and they don’t need more work. What I say to teachers is, ‘think about that environment; think about the spaces where those struggles are occurring and instead of trying to redo the whole classroom at once, let’s just start with one thing’,” he says.

“Part of this is empowering teachers to be designers of learning environments,” he adds.

“We want everybody who may have traditionally been excluded by the traditional curriculum delivery to be included, but we all benefit from a more inclusively designed space.”

For a guide to UDL, visit the Ministry’s inclusive education site.(external link)

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:35 am, 19 August 2019

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