The “HOW” Perspective:  Corporate Agenda Versus Child Centered; Consider UDL!

There are two different Latin roots of the English word “education”: “Educare,” which means to train or to mold, and “educere“, meaning to lead out [from within].  Though the two appear to lead to a similar outcome, they are diametrically opposed at the core. The current educational system, guided by standards, testing, and common core curriculum, leans toward the former, educare; molding each student as if each is an empty vessel, leading toward career and college aspirations.  Whereas, the latter, stems from a deeper understanding of the school experience: “To bring forth”, for each child presents a gift, a promise within, needing to unfold and be discovered.  This aligns with what Abraham Maslow stated:  “What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.”  

As the traditional education system continues down an endless stream of reforms and new initiatives, which has evolved into “normal” over the past thirty plus years, I take the position that it’s time for a new old approach toward instruction and learning; one which highlights “educere”: A child-centered perspective:

There’s a wealth of talent that lies in all of us. All of us, including those who work in schools, must nurture creativity systematically and not kill it unwittingly. The answer is not to standardize education, but to personalize and customize it to the needs of each child and community. There is no alternative. There never was.”                                                                                                                       Sir Ken Robinson

According to historical references, prior to the development of parochial schools in America beginning in the eighteenth century, most children learned through social play and trial & error; whatever they learned, it was an extension of their home.  As our country took roots during the American Revolution, with the development of church based schools, the fundamental influence upon children and learning was found upon principle lessons such as: Obedience, suppression of their own will, and the show of reverence toward lords, masters, and [God].   In the late nineteenth century, the educational system started to shift toward a government based model as Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school laws in 1852; and New York followed the next year. By 1918, all American children were required to attend at least elementary school.  So in light of public education, we are still at the early stages of development. 

Once public schools took over, the primary theme behind the development of schooling has been guided by politics and business with an emphasis on labor and employment. Whether it be preparation for jobs as our country shifted from an agriculture economy to a factories in the late 19th century, assembly lines in the early twentieth century, and most currently, preparing our children for science and technology based employment; the purpose of our educational system has been and continues to be founded in employment, guided by corporate agendas and business models.  As stated in the current Common Core literature: “The standards have made careful use of a large and growing body of evidence. The evidence base includes scholarly research, surveys on what skills are required of students entering college and workforce training programs, assessment data identifying college‐ and career‐ready performance, and comparisons to standards from high‐performing states and nations.” 

However, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union and, until this point, an ally of the Common Core / standards movement, said that the rollout of the standards has been “completely botched.” https://www.politico.com/story/2014/02/national-education-association-common-core-103690

And most of us know this as truth.

So I am strongly suggesting that we consider shifting our educational emphasis to the definition of educere; “to lead out”.  Imagine if we developed our schools from the understanding that each child represents promise, an innate sense of purpose, and requires a nurturing learning environment founded upon the emerging gifts within?  When I first started teaching in 1980, this was once referred to as “child-centered”.   But we got lost along the way and have focused on “meeting standards”; putting an emphasis on testing and a standardized curriculum.  Again, those of us who have been around a long time, we know this as truth.

Fortunately, there is a beacon of light: And it’s called Universal Design for Learning [UDL].  Simply, it’s all about building upon the strengths and meeting the needs of each child:

To understand what Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is, it helps to understand what it’s not. The word universal may throw you off. It may sound like UDL is about finding one way to teach all kids. But UDL actually takes the opposite approach.

The goal of UDL is to use a variety of teaching methods to remove any barriers to learning and give all students equal opportunities to succeed. It’s about building in flexibility that can be adjusted for every student’s strengths and needs. That’s why UDL benefits all kids.

This approach to teaching doesn’t specifically target kids who learn and think differently. But it can be especially helpful for the 1 in 5 kids with these issues — including those who have not been formally diagnosed. It can also be very helpful for English language learners.”  https://www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/treatments-approaches/educational-strategies/universal-design-for-learning-what-it-is-and-how-it-works

Basically, it’s about accommodating on three levels: 

  • Access through varied representation of key concepts and learning,
  • Interaction and output through a menu of activities, and
  • Foundationally, creating meaning and relevancy at all times.

Representation: UDL recommends offering information in more than one format. For example, textbooks are primarily visual. But providing text, audio, video and hands-on learning gives all kids a chance to access the material in whichever way is best suited to their learning strengths and social – cultural perspective.

Action and expression: UDL suggests giving kids more than one way to interact with the material and to show what they’ve learned. For example, students might get to choose between taking a pencil-and-paper test, giving an oral presentation or doing a group project; simply, expanding the expression of learning toward one’s interest, talent, or skill set.

Engagement: UDL encourages teachers to look for multiple ways to motivate students. Letting kids make choices and giving them assignments that feel relevant to their lives are some examples of how teachers can sustain students’ interest. Other common strategies include making skill building feel like a game and creating opportunities for students to get up and move around the classroom.  This is so critical post-Covid for we will need to capture the students’ interest to fully engage their potential.

Again, imagine a classroom where each child has the opportunity to optimize engagement designed to fully embrace their interests, skills, and talents.  Rather than continuing with a system which sees each child as an empty vessel, UDL projects belief and understanding that every student represents an extraordinary capacity to learn and fulfill their personal promise within.  The notion of welcoming each Kindergartner from this lens inspires the program to capture each one’s potential rather than deficit.

For more information about UDL, check out the following resources:

CAST [for resources and fundamental understanding] : https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl

NOVAK EDUCATION [for training]: https://www.novakeducation.com/;  Katie and her team of exemplary trainers serve districts all across the country in support of UDL.  I have told her many times, she is the “Brene Brown of Public Education”. Check her out!

The “WHAT IF ” PerspectiveThe Opening Up the Enrollment Process; Thru Transparency

As students enter the public school system, the registration process is similar all across the country:  Basically, parents are encouraged to access the school closest to their home as their one and only option.  As a result, the wide-range of alternatives and educational options are not well known by most parents. At the same time, there are a number of parents who enroll their children from the perspective of privilege, and select their homes based upon the specific school serving a preferred neighborhood.  This disparity develops as follows:

  • A parent who is highly engaged in the system (as an employee or board member) or …
  • Privileged through economic or social status or …
  • Forced into dire circumstances where alternative choices are readily made available since the neighborhood school doesn’t want the challenges of a “special needs” student: This may be due to special education programs, English Language programs, or disciplinary actions.

Nevertheless, most parents are in favor of school choice, though the system continues to present one size fits all options in almost all circumstances:

According to a survey of 2020 voters, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) found that 81% of voters — including 81% of Democratic primary voters and 89% of black Democratic primary voters — support expanding “access to more choices and options within the public school system, including magnet schools, career academies and public charter schools.” [USA Today, February 24, 2020] https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/02/24/voters-strongly-support-school-choice-educators-should-listen-column/4831964002/

In fact, since the COVID pandemic, parents all across the country are exploring their options including homeschooling, alternative education, online programs, and private school options; this is now emerging toward a “new normal”:

A recent poll by Echelon Insights for the National Parents Union found that 63% of public school parents—regardless of income, race, and political affiliation—believe that in response to COVID-19, schools “should be focused on rethinking how we educate students.” Twenty-one percent “plan to send [their] child to a different school or homeschool…next school year.” Add 19% who are “undecided” and it’s 40% of public-school parents who are looking at alternatives.” https://www.realcleareducation.com/articles/2020/08/14/covid_parents_seek_new_approaches_to_education_110452.html

Imagine if we opened up the school choice process beyond a one-size-fits-all formula and allowed the following question to guide the experience for all parents:  “What if parents were provided a menu of options which were aligned with their values or their children’s promise, interests, or aspirations from the beginning?  I am confident transparency at this level would create an authentic partnership between school and home and establish a new level of trust between stakeholders. 

Most noteworthy, the practice of the neighborhood school as the primary option is not relevant any more since there are so many more educational settings available today.

The following options are offered through publically funded programs coordinated by many districts all across the country; however, most parents do not know about the menu of programs which include:

  • Neighborhood Schools [Traditional K-12 programs; priority placement often provided to students who live within the school’s boundary]
  • Choice Transfer [Traditional K-12 programs; placement available to students who live outside of the district or the neighborhood school: Often on a provisional “waiver” basis]
  • Alternative Learning Experiences [Hybrid of Home Schooling with Certificated Teachers facilitating instruction provided by parents with books, materials, supplemental services, and field trip opportunities provided by the district; sometimes called “Home Link”]
  • Home School Programs [Specifically, parent guided instruction with resources provided by districts]
  • Online Learning [Remote Learning via online programs through computer based instruction]
  • Charter Schools [State funded programs providing academic instruction on site often guided by a central theme or philosophy; controlled by a site specific Board of Directors]
  • Non Public Agencies [Private school placement, most often due to Special Education instructional needs via the IEP Team process; funded by districts].

Picture the following: parents, as they engage with the school for the first time, are provided a Concierge like referral service, assisting them as they enter the school district.  The enrollment process would likely include: An in-take interview with the following components:

  • A review of district options and programs
  • An informal assessment of each child’s needs, strengths, and concerns [as well as their parent’s]
  • Recommendations for placement
  • Procedural action plan leading to:
  • General Education placement
  • Special Education services
  • Additional supports as needed

Going back to my original hypothesis highlighting disregard, disengagement, disconnect, and discouragement, all factors influencing many more students than imagined: If we implemented these two changes, a child-centered approach to learning via Universal Design for Learning, and opened up the enrollment process as a “concierge” like process, I am certain the results of the public school system would better serve our society through inclusivity and a meaning-centered approach to engagement.  As expressed by notable leaders, especially during major societal – cultural transitions: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

The “WHEN” Perspective:  Now …

Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”  Barack Obama

For today is all we have in front of us:  There is no past and there is no future.  If we truly believe in a better world, we need to look forward with a new vision and take action today rather than looking forward through the lens of yesterday; in desperate pursuit of “normal”.  Normal is simply an emotional response to complacency.  Yes, the Covid experience has proven to stretch our understanding of what education could look like; and in many circumstances, remote learning just did not work for so many of our kids.  However, as we look forward, we know we can do better rather than going back to “normal”.

As stated at the beginning of this piece, this is my vision of what education could look like beyond Covid.  From my perspective, two simple changes would make a world of difference for public schools:

  • Universal Design for Learning
  • A Transparent Enrollment Process

However, there are infinite possibilities which may unfold for we all are stakeholders leading to a vast number of visionary insights of what can be.  Honestly, I don’t believe my way of thinking works for everyone.  So I ask you the following: What’s your vision? 

Till then, I say, let’s take a serious look at Carol Dweck’s work, Mindset, and appreciate the possibilities found in the following: “In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome. If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.”

Best to you on your search.  And best to us all as we move forward together.

Larry Davis @ www.specialeducationadvocacy.org