Good News A Coming: Universal Design and Differentiation Slowly Replacing Standards Based Instruction

We are in the midst of a new shift within our schools …

As in all things within education, there tends to be extreme swings between one initiative to another. For example, for the past twenty plus years, the movement toward a standards-based model, often referred as the “Common Core”, has taken us down an extended path with limited results.  Most recently, Daniel Koretz, an expert on testing and a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said recent test results showed that “it’s really time to rethink the entire drift of policy reform because it just isn’t working.”   Like many of us have discovered, you don’t have to have a fancy degree from Harvard to figure this out:  In addition to students’ achievement scores failing to meet the expectations associated with this initiative, student engagement, motivation, and overall interest toward their education has taken a nose-dive.  Rebecca Alber writes in an Edutopia article, “A recent New York Times’ article  indicated that critics of these new standards are beginning to emerge where there were once allies. In the article, a Long Island high school principal’s support of the new standards has significantly waned, and she had this to say as to why: “We see kids…they don’t want to go to school anymore.”

So what’s on the horizon?  Universal Design Learning [UDL].  UDL supports an education shift which has been known for decades: If we go back many years to a quote from President Kennedy, there lies an understanding of what’s to come: “All of us do not have equal talent, but all of us should have an equal opportunity to develop our talents.”  A number of inspirational ideas come from his insight:

  1. We are not all the same: Within the UDL model, we honor the notion that not all students are the same.  As a result, both the input (instructional methods) needs to differ based upon each student’s interest, skills, and long-range purpose.  Here we see the application of books, videos, hands on models, games, or other means to connect instruction with each student. Also, the output, (demonstration of learning), needs to reflect differentiation as well; often this is referred to as a “menu” of product – performance options.  Some students do like to take tests, others are best at a project-based approach, and others, may best display learning in a personalized format.
  2. We all deserve opportunity: In the 21st century school, we tend to shift this conversation from “equality” to the notion of “equity”; based upon the idea that not all students are the same, but all students are entitled to access opportunity through an equitable learning system.  In public education, we tend to focus on “accommodations” (which are typically environmental “bridges” toward learning so students can access opportunity: extended time. different seating arrangements, use of technology like Speech to Text or Text to Speech, or other ways to create easier access points.  We also address equity through “modifications” which are strategic changes in curriculum, grading, or instructional models.  These adjustments lend itself to deeper access points for a smaller number of student for example: Providing less tasks, assignments, or exam questions, creating a personalized grading system outside of the standard assessments, or exploring differentiated assessment criteria such as use of projects instead of typical exams.
  3. We all have talents to develop: Finally, this statement presents a major shift in the current course of instruction:  During the Common Core era, our education philosophy was grounded in “College or Career … Competing in the Global Market”.  In contrast, UDL takes on a more open-ended approach to the learning process: Where talents unfold in their own time-frame for each path is unique; we really don’t know how each student will contribute to the greater social quilt / mosaic.  However, we want to encourage the discovery of this talent through an inclusive – equitable – meaningful education process.

Personally, I am encouraged by this new trend.  Specifically, here are a few highlights from the Inclusionary – Universal Design Learning approach which likely will create major changes in the years to come:

  1. Teachers will be more selective about the curriculum and standards driving their instructional decision making: In a recent presentation, Dr Richard Cash, a leading national expert on differentiation and curriculum, made the following claim: “If we taught every standard, at a minimum of 30 minutes each, the average student would need to attend school for an additional 6 years”.  Simply stating, as teachers modify and create more access points for students via UDL, we will need to be more selective and discreet when it comes to “what we teach” or more importantly, “what students need to learn”.  As a result, teachers will utilize more discretion in light of their instructional path in contrast to blindly going down the “standards” path alone and following text books page by page.
  2. Students will be able to experience learning through their interests, desires, and passions in contrast to a meaningless course of instruction based upon testing and standards alone.  Brain research and common sense highlight the need for “meaning” as the basis of learning and retention.  Within the context of UDL, Dr. Katie Novak, one of the foremost experts on  UDL calls this “The Why of Learning”; creating meaning-centered “affective networks” bridging instruction and learning with emotional connections.  This is exciting as well for the shift unfolding will help us return education to a place where the “love of learning” was once the foundation of our efforts: In contrast to the statement: “We see kids…they don’t want to go to school anymore.”
  3. Most notably, as we establish a new platform for instruction and learning, based upon teacher empowerment to determine their instructional program, as well as meet the needs of our students through meaning, we will see a shift in the culture of teaching toward inspiration and engagement.  Currently, stress is pronounced throughout the teaching profession in addition to high levels of teacher-burnout.  According to the NEA. “93 percent of elementary school teachers report that they are experiencing a high stress level.”  In a recent article in Psychology Today, the following was highlighted: “Finally, teachers feel they lack autonomy and control. Many complain that the required curriculum is narrow, doesn’t allow for flexibility, and requires a pace of teaching/learning that is unsustainable.”  Again, I am encouraged by the UDL movement for it is grounded in teacher decision making, and student motivation, in addition to equitable access.  These are all good things.  It’s time for a change.

As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.  (B. Dylan)

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