“Universal Design for Learning : Debating to Shakespeare, Study Skills to Financial Literacy” the fourth in the series of submissions received for the Futures Of Education (FoE), a UNESCO initiative in partnership with Kidskintha.
When we started off designing lesson plans for content like debating and study skills, our experience as teachers in mainstream and special needs classrooms came in handy. We knew techniques that worked, what didn’t work and had many ideas on how we would improve on past methods. The framework we use to effect this difference is Universal Design for Learning (UDL): a powerful way of looking at learning in a classroom where every child thrives.
UDL came from architecture, where they found that inclusion helps in ways they didn’t realize it would. A button to open an electronic door helps a person in a wheelchair as much as the pregnant woman carrying groceries. Like much of innovation, UDL started off in the special education space to become the foundation for good pedagogy.
UDL reverses responsibility for inclusion. For eons, it has been all about looking at a child and seeing what prevents them from surviving in an environment that rarely changes. When children are ‘not able’, we would suggest assessment and set up a plan, one that required a lot of parents and the child to put into place, very often fighting systems that had unreasonable requirements.
There was very little customization for individual student needs and when it did exist, it happened outside of the classroom or because of individual teachers. Rarely did a system consistently do what children needed, whatever that need was inside the classroom, along with all students. The result of this approach of pinning responsibility on the student for factors out of their control has also led to the stigma associated with different brain wiring.
UDL sees inclusion as the responsibility of the curriculum.
This means that our lesson plans have to include as many students as possible (the Universal part) and provide further options for those who don’t fit, on BOTH sides of the curve. A gifted child as well as one with different learning needs is given support to reach learning objectives. This takes the concept of differentiation further than just worksheets and graphic organizers to zoom out and look at the various ways in which students learn and to cater to as many of those needs as possible.
3 Pillars of Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
The three pillars of UDL are representation, action and expression and engagement. It helps students access information, engage actively with it and express their learning in a diverse set of ways. UDL has streamlined the design of lesson plans in such a way that it is no longer a huge task to ensure that everyone is included with both their needs being considered and some customization for those needs.
As a group of teachers with Montessori/special education backgrounds, we know that more is possible in a diverse classroom: more in terms of customized learning. In the pre-Covid19 world four years ago, we started with content we felt passionate about. We knew that when children were exposed to the world of Shakespeare in engaging ways, they would take it further on their own. Students who were explicitly taught skills in fun ways would use the practices independently. Thus was born The Teachers Collective and we started with areas that we had proven professionally and personally, areas with a strong skills component that was ageless: a school student inducted early would benefit all through life.
Every lesson in debating would have a minimum of 3 ways of representing the material: videos, activities to anchor the learning, role plays, discussions and socratic questioning, to name a few.
Students would get to access the material in more than one way, gone is the ‘listen to me and write what you hear’ approach.
A study skills session would involve short lectures, using graphics and gifs to show concepts, group work and hands-on use of these skills taught with immediate feedback on what worked and what could be refined. Group work helps students learn at their pace and learn from their cohort – advantageous both in terms of peer learning and acceptance of these newly introduced skills.
Participants also get to express their learning in a variety of ways. A visual note making class is rife with examples of children taking up the skill and applying it in ways that suit them. A session to learn to mind map could result in a pen-and-paper mind map as easily as one animated with technology. They might come up with a comic strip to represent SQ3R, a method to read, comprehend and retain vast amounts of textual information.
Expressing themselves in debating ranges from short role plays, one-minute speeches, group work and discussions on worksheets to identify argument-reason-evidence, skits and advertisement through which they demonstrated learning.
Engagement: Debating sessions.
Moving away from a system that ‘accommodates’ a person to one that sees inclusion as a right has had a huge impact on student motivation. Our classes have become the ‘fun’ class. A 12- session debating program that fit into the English curriculum started off with students not preparing for class because there was no grading and no consequence for not doing the work. Program design meant that those who were unprepared would not be able to do what the class required – stand up and speak or complete an activity.
Without any hectoring or punitive disciplining, students began to prepare. Initially, it was solely to keep pace with their classmates. Engaging with the material and trying to do what it took became fun: the more they engaged, the further they went. In classes where they hadn’t put in the effort, they were dissatisfied with their own results. The locus for learning had shifted seamlessly to the student and we started to hear language like “my preparation on that area could have been deeper” or “that example I had worked on fit into another point, unexpectedly”. Students who started off asking “is this activity graded, Ma’am?” worked to experience the high of achievement.
Over the duration of the program, this progress is easier to see. Students who had never stood in front of their own classrooms and speak were addressing grade-wide audiences. Those who enjoyed it went further – signing up for debates, elocution contests and model UN experiences. Currently, a set of students are in the process of organizing a Model UN session for their peers, juniors and seniors in school. This confidence has its roots in how they engaged and enjoyed debating classes. Those who weren’t as into debating negotiated better every day, standing up for themselves, backing up their arguments with evidence, attempting to speak up more in all classes and taking feedback better. Parents reported a lessening of conflict over a period of time: a significant and happy shift in the teenager segment.
In the UDL classroom, diagnosed learning difficulties almost disappear. A student who started out reluctantly because of issues with writing is able to participate because the demands on writing are removed through the use of aids like graphic organizers. Increased engagement with the material gets him excited enough that writing (in the true sense of the word, unrelated to handwriting) happens through typing, film making and storytelling. All it took was for us to send him the graphic organizers ahead of time: observing the issue was possible because we were facilitating and observing and not only focusing on imparting content.
A student came to learn study skills with academic distress in her background. Some practice had her parent being called into school, for positive reasons this time, to ask what they had done to effect this fantastic change. All it took was the explicit teaching of structured study skills in safe and engaging way.
The same student got complacent and didn’t use the methods, after the first time. Shocking test results got her back to practicing the skills and she saw results right away (below).
Our teaching-learning methods have changed forever, thanks to UDL. We are spoiled for choice with the many ways we can get content to our participants, helping them engage with the material in hands-on ways in the sessions and see the various ways in which they show that the material is anchored. Visual means, kinesthetic ways, student awareness on what kind of learning works best for them, student autonomy in making choices related to learning from schedule and planning to skills used to learn: these are some of the many advantages of using UDL in our sessions.
That we are now facilitators versus the only fount of learning in the session is an added bonus.
Read our other FoE write-ups: