Start the Wave: Deeper Learning and Student Ownership Through UDL

pool waterfall

I am sitting by water right now and listening to a bit of it cascade into the pool. I can’t help but notice how this little waterfall affects the larger body of water. Ripples extend to the farthest reaches.  As teachers, we should no longer be focused on supplying the water, but the waves.

In their book, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, authors Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine share qualities of classrooms that foster concepts of mastery, identity, and creativity. They explain that “Identity is becoming more invested in thinking of yourself as someone who does that kind of work, moving from a conception of oneself as ‘I’m someone who swims,’ to ‘I’m a swimmer.’ 

According to Mehta and Fine, one of three key tenants to promote deeper learning in classrooms is to “give up some control.” In an April 2019 interview they relate the following, “Rarely does deeper learning happen when a teacher spends the entire classroom lecturing from the front of the room, Fine and Mehta found. By allowing students some choice in the topics they explore and the methods they use, teachers can let students see the purpose in their learning and be more engaged.”

The UDL framework, first defined by David Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) calls for creating curriculum from the outset that provides multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn.

I want to focus this blog on the connections between choice and ownership and to explore a bit how UDL can help provide strategies for fostering self-directed options in our learning environments. 

Guideline 7 of the UDL framework is to provide options for recruiting interest. There are a set of checkpoints within this guideline. Checkpoint 7.1 is about optimizing individual choice and autonomy. This means that we offer our learners choices. According to the guidelines, by doing this, students develop self-determination, pride in accomplishment, and increase the degree to which they feel connected to their learning.  It is appropriate to offer choices in how [an] objective can be reached, in the context for achieving the objective, [and]  in the tools or supports available. For example, we can allow learners to participate in the design of classroom activities and academic tasks.

Below is a window into what that looks like within a progression of practice. When first starting with UDL, the teacher still owns much of the learning. As the progression of practice occurs, you can see how students start to own their own learning. 

  • Emerging:  Offer choices in what students learn (e.g., “choose a country to study” rather than “study France”), how students learn (e.g., use books, videos, and/or teacher instruction to build understanding), and how they express what they know (e.g., “you can create poster or write paragraph”).
  • Proficient: Encourage students to choose from multiple options to determine what they learn (guided by standards), how they learn, and how they express what they know. Encourage students to suggest additional options if they can still meet the standard.
  • Moving Toward Expert Practice: Empower students to make choices or suggest alternatives for what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will express what they know in authentic ways. Free them to self-monitor and reflect on their choices with teacher facilitation and feedback but not explicit direction.

A lot of colleagues ask me what this “looks like” in a classroom setting. The teaching channel has a great video that depicts a high school classroom that has been built around student choice. If you watch the video through the first 3.5 minutes, you will see overt ways in which this teacher provides multiple and varied options for student expression and communication (and content of study) while aligning to state standards. You see students who engage in learning through a variety of approaches and a classroom that is rich with connections to student experiences and interests.

I welcome you to start the wave. Be brave and use UDL to help hand over ownership to your students to foster deeper learning.

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