Leveraging the “D” in UDL: Creating Empathy to Inform Pedagogy

In my last blog post I wrote about how attending to relationships and the emotional cues therein are the cornerstone for implementing accessible project based learning. But, how can teachers systematically attend to relationships in ways that explicitly inform their practice? Is there a science to it? Are there relational practices teachers can use to intentionally work toward really “knowing” their students as learners and people?

Much of my work is focused on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework that provides guidance on how personalized learning environments can be imagined and created so that all students have opportunities to learn. UDL covers a wide range of best practices from the learning sciences. When people first come to UDL as a framework they often view the guidelines as a checklist, “if I check everything off the list then I have an inclusive UDL classroom.” And, yes – thinking reflectively about classroom goals, methods, materials and assessments with regard to the guidelines is key. By checking off those guidelines teachers bring flexible options into the classroom that can be leveraged to personalize learning. But, over the years I have come to think that UDL’s greatest potential is realized when the framework is used as a social and emotional practice, where teachers support students to better understand themselves and others in learning.

What does it mean to leverage UDL as a social and emotional practice? Accessibility provides an illustrative example. By the time students get to middle school they are expected to “read-to-learn,” having already “learned-to-read.” Unfortunately, many students don’t read well enough by middle school to use reading as a tool to learn in the content areas. For example, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress 92% of students with disabilities read only at or below the basic 8th grade reading level. Of course, students who are not fluent readers can leverage text in service of learning with the right supports. At first blush you might think, “Let’s get audio books – students who can’t read fluently can listen instead.” Box checked.

Audio books are a great tool but they aren’t the only option. And, audio books might not be the most appropriate option depending on the instructional goals and the student’s needs. For example, it is important to consider that not all students who struggle to read struggle with the same things. One student may need language support (lower level like vocabulary, or higher level like inferencing), another might need read aloud for only a few words per page. Still another may need the full text read aloud but finds human voices distracting because the emotional inflection is difficult for her/him to understand. It is also important to consider the fact that listening comprehension is an almost entirely different skill to reading comprehension, which may require instruction and support.

The UDL guidelines call for multiple means of representation – multiple options for how students access information in learning environments. Having an option-rich, flexible learning environment is critical, but as illustrated in the example above it can also be really confusing and overwhelming. How are students and teachers supposed to make sense of options so as to leverage flexibility to its greatest effect? Here’s where UDL as a social and emotional practice comes in to play.

Once the learning environment – goals, methods, materials and assessments – is prepared with flexible options informed by the UDL framework, we then work to determine student needs with regard to the materials and tools they will leverage and the support they will need to be successful. Critically, UDL frames the goal of education as one of self-development: to turn novice learners into expert learners—individuals who want to learn, who know how to learn strategically, and who, in their own highly individual and flexible ways, are well prepared for a lifetime of learning.

To achieve this teachers and students need to engage regularly and mindfully in classroom routines and practices that emphasize developing understanding of oneself and others in learning, and setting goals for improvement therein. As a social and emotional practice I think there are three potential lines of inquiry and activity: 1) activities that support understanding of oneself as a learner – strengths, challenges and preferences, 2) activities that support understanding of the learning environment, it’s affordances and challenges, and 3) activities that facilitate cross student collaboration where students leverage each other’s strengths and learn from each other.

What might a UDL social and emotional practice look like to this end? For brevity I’ll explore one example here. Design methodology offers many methods and tools that are useful in exploring one’s relationship to the designed environment. With regard to education, learning happens in the transaction between the student and the methods and materials in the learning environment. One easy design method for exploring such relationships is the “love letter/break up letter.” Instead of directly asking students to articulate their understanding of themselves as a learner we can use this method to garner insight through students’ thoughts and feelings about a prior learning experience.

We can start by explaining that through this activity we will be able to actively explore and then reflect on our prior learning experiences. The goal is to start to compose a picture of each of our learning strengths and challenges. In doing so we will be able to set goals for skills we want to develop, and strengths we want to share, extend or practice. The teacher provides an example of a love letter she wrote to her “best” learning experience – an experience where she was fully engaged, struggled productively and learned something useful for the long term. It need not be a learning experience in school.  Then, conversely, she provides an example of a break up letter – a letter where she describes a learning experience where she struggled without resolution, was not engaged and/or felt little relevance to her own life or goals. These letters can be multimedia or in one textual form, the only rule is that the experience described must be authentic and memorable, moments of significance in her life that deal with learning.

Students are then prompted to reflect and choose a learning experience to focus on. They then choose to write either a love letter or break up letter. This letter must not be to a person but rather descriptive of all of the detailed aspects of the learning experience. Once complete students share their letters in small groups. Letters will provide evidence (in students’ own words) descriptive of their perceptions – how a learning experience created feelings of exhilaration, productive struggle, frustration, active reflection.

After sharing students are prompted to work with their group to extract themes from each letter – connecting each student’s experience to the UDL principles and constructing a personal concept map titled – “Understanding Myself in Learning.” They consider: 1) representations – how knowledgeable and resourceful did they feel in this experience, what resources did they bring to bear, what was lacking either in themselves or in the learning environment, 2) expression and action – how strategic and goal directed was their experience, what skills did they bring to the experience, how did they monitor their own progress or not, did they have goals, were they achieved, why or why not, 3) engagement – how motivated did they feel, was the experience relevant and meaningful, did they have choice within the experience in a meaningful way, how did they exercise that choice, what role did emotion play, how did they feel, were they able to use those emotions in service of their goals?

This exercise, most suited to upper middle and early high school, can form the basis for ongoing mini conferences between students and teachers where students are supported to set goals for their self-development in learning, and teachers are able to draw information useful to sorting through all of those UDL “options” built into the environment. What materials and tools does this student need in order to grow? And, what supports will this student need to be successful with those materials and tools?

The “D” in UDL is all about designing the goals, methods, materials and assessments of education to be flexible and option rich – preparing the environment for all learners. But, design is also a set of tools to source new ways of thinking about problems in the world, a way to engage in the process of continuous improvement. And, as a first step design is always about creating empathy – understanding of oneself and others in relationship to the world. Design methods, especially participatory design methods provide a rich resource for creating empathy and developing relationships in our classrooms around learning – a social and emotional practice to support UDL and the development of expert learners.

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