Universal Design for Learning strategies are taking root in the La Cañada Unified School District to help teachers use different strategies to improve student understanding and outcomes.
Last year, the Los Angeles County Office of Education received a grant to help districts engage in instruction about Universal Design for Learning. UDL is a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people. It is not a special education initiative; rather, it presumes learner variability such as student strengths, focuses on engagement and teaches all students how to be motivated, goal-directed learners.
Although UDL strategies have been used in classrooms nationwide for decades, Executive Director of Special Education and Psychological Services Derek Ihori, Technology Integrationist Lindsay Staley and Director of Communications and Outreach David Paszkiewicz have come on board as facilitators to expand the UDL framework in the district’s schools.
Staley presented the advantages of UDL to the board at its May 9 meeting and what it means for LCUSD.
“I think one of the awesome powers of UDL is that it invites teachers to think about their curriculum differently, so that you can reach all of your students better. But the reason why I got into it is because our students profess that they are more disengaged and more depressed than possibly any other students in the history of students that we have taught,” said Staley.
UDL differs from strategies used to teach students with special needs, such as differentiated instruction or IEP goals. However, there is overlap, in that teaching strategies for all learners focus on student strengths. The difference is that the curriculum is not modified and the strategies are not considered accommodations as they would be mandated with a student who has an IEP.
“Differentiated instruction might be considered trying to fix the student, while UDL might be considered trying to fix the curriculum as a whole. As a
teacher, I sometimes need to do both,” said Staley.
For example, a student who is an auditory learner might understand a story better by listening to an audiobook rather than by reading the text.
She emphasized that every single one of us is human and with that, have different learning styles and different ways we would like to take in information and be assessed for mastery of a subject.
Staley said that UDL is not another thing to do for teachers but just a different lens to look through.
“To date, [the trainings] have been extremely successful. Thirty-four teachers have participated in training and classroom visits. This week, an additional 10 teachers will be attending training by Lindsey Staley, and next year, all of our new inclusion teachers (who assist special ed students included in general education classrooms), will participate in trainings and they will be discussing UDL strategies,” said LCUSD Superintendent Wendy Sinnette.
Staley said she was engaged so quickly with UDL because it didn’t just focus on students who always need help, it was for everyone.
“This is not an initiative of any kind, special ed or otherwise. I am simply the champion of our teachers and for these strategies,” said Staley. “This might actually provide our teachers some good strategies for how to engage our students and help them take ownership back of their own learning, something that I think our teachers, especially at the 7-12 level, would tell you is lacking right now.”
The whole idea of UDL is to get students from the bottom to the top in providing various ways to help them get there and letting them choose which approach they take.
UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING CONCEPTS
Staley said that UDL consists of three concepts:
First, there are barriers in learning, but they may not be a deficit on the part of the learner.
“If we find out what those barriers are and take them away, might they then get to the curriculum and their learning better or faster?” said Staley.
Second, every person has varied ways of learning.
“Your goals stay the same, for all students … but you anticipate that everybody’s going to come at it … in a different way. And you design choices and options for all of them, and they choose what they need to get the job done,” said Staley.
Third, students can become expert learners but it’s on them.
“It’s not on us to give different curriculums and different assessments to 36 or 180 different students. We give them choices for how they want to get the material, how they want to study for the material and how they showcase their mastery of the material,” said Staley.
Once teachers have those three concepts, they then go down the road of how to design the same curriculum, but with different strategies.
She said that teachers have to be willing to admit that telling students how to meet that goal and how to get it done is not giving them agency to become expert learners. UDL assumes students are expert learners, and that they know how they learn best and what they need to do to get a task done.
THREE UDL STRATEGIES
UDL focuses on three key strategies to give choices to students:
First, engage the students to care about the teacher’s subject.
“Because if they don’t care, if it’s not relevant to their lives, if they don’t know why they need to learn it, they are not going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what it is that they need to know,” said Staley. For example, students can be allowed to do their work sitting down or standing up, whatever works for them.
Second, teachers need to represent information in various modes.
Representation includes different types of learners such as auditory, tactical and visual and presenting the information in that way. For example, giving vocabulary ahead of time to understand passages in the textbook.
Third, students need to choose an action to learn the subject and express their level of mastery.
“How am I going to ask students to express their mastery and showcase what they know? And that is up to them,” said Staley. For example, that can be turning their work in the form of a written paper rather than an oral presentation.
The starting point for UDL is engagement strategies, which is what teachers learn the most from UDL.
“If you can’t get students to buy in, nothing else is going to matter,” said Staley.
She talked about the progress of UDL in LCF and how the program is growing slowly but consistently.
“Trying to bring along this push-in program that’s good for all students [is] difficult work, especially because it’s new, and it’s never been done before at La Cañada. It’s requiring teachers to think about their teaching and what they do in a 52-minute period in a very different way,” said Staley.
Teachers join the UDL efforts in LCF by choice. Staley is sure they will come away with a strategy that will help them engage their students in a different way.
“I think we need more conversations and more teachers willing to watch each other and give each other feedback on how it’s going in their classroom,” said Staley, in order to continue the growth and awareness of UDL.
“What’s the long-term plan? How are you going to measure its success?” asked LCUSD board member Octavia Thuss.
“Right now, I don’t have any data to show you,” said Staley.
“Listening to you is a breath of fresh air. I don’t see how teachers wouldn’t want to learn from you or students. You are so engaging, and we are so lucky that you are doing this for us,” said LCUSD Board Clerk Caroline Anderson.
First published in the May 18 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.