Our calling as educators is to meet the needs of all students. The reality is that, despite our best efforts, we are still not meeting the needs of many learners.
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is endorsed as a means to eliminate the barriers that prevent some students from learning. UDL can help principals overcome significant inequalities in their school systems and improve student outcomes. But implementation takes commitment, patience, persistence, and involvement from all stakeholders.
UDL is an educational framework built upon decades of brain research that shifts the focus of teaching knowledge to teaching learning. It aims to create “expert learners” in students with diverse backgrounds and learning needs by promoting voice and choice. With UDL, we can both challenge and support all students in the same classroom, while meeting rigorous state-based standards.
Providing voice and choice—essentially handing over the reins to students—can be intimidating. Like parents, school leaders worry about students making the right decisions when given a choice in what they learn, how they learn it, and how they express what they know or can do. “It can be quite challenging for faculty and staff to understand and accept a new practice if they have not both seen and experienced it,” notes Mirko Chardin, head of school at Putnam Avenue Upper School in Cambridge, MA. However, principals must take these steps to be culturally responsive and to empower students to self-assess, self-regulate, and self-direct.
Shared Responsibility Means Training All Stakeholders
While the successful implementation of UDL takes strong leadership, professional development, strategic planning, and commitment, it also requires an often-overlooked component: shared responsibility for student success.
Teachers are critically important in increasing the outcomes of students, but they cannot do it alone. There are countless individuals in a school community who impact the outcomes of learners, including the students themselves, administrators, parents, and classified staff.
“The school is not made up of individual groups that work in isolation. We all have different responsibilities, but we are all in it for the same thing—our students,” says Michael Woodlock, principal of Groton-Dunstable Regional High School in Groton, MA—a school that has focused on UDL implementation for the past five years. “UDL is more than just pedagogy. It is also culture. We need all staff to believe in the abilities of all students and recognize that we are all unique, with different needs and talents. When all staff members are on board, inclusivity extends out of the classroom and becomes the culture of your building. That’s when amazing things begin to happen.”
Districts should commit to training all stakeholders in UDL so there is a quilt of support that provides students with motivation, clear expectations, and options to personalize their learning journey in ways that are culturally sustaining and linguistically appropriate. “UDL is about enhancing the life experience for all of our young scholars by ensuring that they have voice, choice, and access to incredible learning opportunities. Classrooms are not the only place that learning happens,” Chardin says. “If we want our students to truly benefit from the power of UDL, then they should see it in action everywhere. That can only happen if all members of the school community are versed in and committed to using UDL.”
Administrative assistants and custodians can heighten the salience of goals and objectives and teach students about respect and kindness. Bus drivers and paraeducators can teach students about responsibility. A school culture that meets the needs of all learners is one that ensures that every adult is a part of a student’s educational experience in a meaningful way.
Another important step in implementing UDL is promoting a community of open and honest feedback. Get real.
“If you want [your staff] to see the power of UDL, apply the framework as you plan staff meetings and professional development sessions. Be transparent about your practice, and let your team know that you’re using UDL to design meetings and PD because you want to make sure that they are able to fully connect and be present without any barriers,” Chardin suggests.
Principals should also involve students and their families in a conscious way, providing them not only with the content and skills they need from the curriculum but also with the learning skills that will eventually make them autonomous, expert learners.
Recently, we had the opportunity to give a universally designed introductory UDL training to classified personnel in a small school district in California. We were excited from the beginning. We felt like pioneers! Then, in the middle of the session, a wonderful parallelism emerged. Classified staff not only saw the importance of UDL as they designed their own environments to serve students, but they saw how the framework could eliminate the barriers that prevent them from interacting with student families and their colleagues. They began to discuss their own learning journeys and to appreciate that “one size fits all” may fit no one.
If we believe in the power of teaching and learning, we must believe in the power of every staff member. Let’s involve our school teams in UDL trainings, help them to eliminate barriers that prevent students from learning, and support them in creating meaningful relationships that empower our students.
Katie Novak, EdD, is president of Novak Educational Consulting and assistant superintendent of Groton-Dunstable School District in Groton, MA.
Juan Gallardo, MEd, is the magnet coordinator at César Chávez High School in Houston.
Sidebar: Making It Work
To implement UDL at your school:
- Empower teachers and staff to have a voice in how they will learn this new framework. Give them the chance to help design professional development opportunities. Offer group sessions, online courses, virtual training opportunities, instructional coaching, book groups, etc. Set aside the necessary resources (funding/scheduling) to give your educators and staff the opportunity to succeed.
- Foster a community of open and honest feedback among educators, administrators, staff members, students, and families. Set up a message board, host open forums, send regular communications, and be transparent about the change.
- Get gritty. The implementation of a new initiative takes patience and persistence. There will be bumps in the road and failures. Take those as an opportunity to learn and grow. Figure out what worked and what didn’t, and move on—you will get there!