Sunday, November 13, 2011

UDL: The curb cut's cognitive cousin

At a session at AASL—which was, ostensibly, about creating resiliency in students—the presenter said the following:

“There’s very little we can do that supports students at risk that doesn’t take away from other students.”

I was already, at that point, pretty annoyed by almost everything in the session (Someone else in the session had said that a good way to teach positive classroom behavior was to threaten students to hold them in for recess, and the presenter agreed that this was an excellent way to teach positive behavior, which almost made me lose my mind. Here’s a classroom management tip: if you, as an adult, would find such treatment insulting, chances are it’s not going to have the desired impact with students. How does that teach anything? How does it address the root of the problem? If a student is genuinely struggling in the classroom due to a hidden or undiagnosed learning disability—or for any number of other reasons—and that struggle is manifesting as misbehavior, how does holding a child in for recess address the issue? And if you hold the entire class for the misbehavior of one, you’re further ostracizing that child. It’s just awful, all around. /overly-long parenthetical rant) and had been trying to make my escape (it was sparsely attended and we kept having to talk to our neighbor, which made it a little awkward).

I’m almost glad, however, that I did stay to hear that, as sometimes I forget what an unfortunately pervasive attitude that is. So many teachers believe that you can’t help the at-risk students in your classroom without somehow taking away time/attention/focus/etc. from the other students in your classroom.

(When I mentioned my frustration with that session/presenter, another colleague pointed out that, yes, if you put an at-risk student in a class of 37 (a number based, sadly, on the reality of a friend of hers), it is going to take away from the amount of attention you’re able to give the other students. Which is likely true, but if you already have 37 students in a room you likely already have high needs students, and it’s also likely that there are many students not getting the attention that they need. There is only so much good pedagogy and instructional design can address.)

Anyway, this all is a perhaps overly-wordy way to introduce the Learning Commons session I presented at AASL (and since, apparently, this blog post is all about the parenthetical aside, I'm going to use this one to give a HUGE thank you to Buffy Hamilton for all her work creating an amazing learning space).

Universal Design for Learning is built on the idea that the students in our schools vary widely in their abilities, and we need to design our curriculum in order to meet the needs of those learners. It is up to us to fit the curriculum to our students, not the students to fit themselves to our curriculum. Curricula that are designed from the outset to meet the needs of a variety of learners will meet the needs of far more students than one designed for the mythical "average" student.

I think of UDL as the curb cut's cognitive cousin. The curb cuts that are in all sidewalks were originally put there in order to make them accessible for people in wheelchairs, but those curb cuts are also useful for those of us pushing strollers or dragging wheeled suitcases. Sometimes--and I think this is especially true in the library--we don't know the individual learning profiles of our students. But if we design our curricula to meet the needs of a variety of learners from the outset, we don't need to worry about retrofitting to individuals.

I am, by no means, a UDL expert, and I don't think my library curriculum is perfect in that regard. But they are principles I strive to implement as I design instruction and select material.

Aimee Mullins, who I refer to in my slide deck, has an amazing TED talk about the views of dis/ability, and how much perspective matters:

Our perspective on students, and what they're able to accomplish, is what sets the tone in our libraries and in our classrooms and in our schools. By designing our schools to meet all learners where they are, we make them places of possibility.

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