In the process, I found some wonderful books edited by David H. Rose and Anne Meyer, including articles from experts, and published by Harvard Education Press, on the universally designed classroom. This first review of their work is of A Practical Reader in the Universal Design for Learning.
It's the Curricula, Not the StudentRose’s and Meyer’s take on the whole issue is that the variations in learning abilities is a matter of curricula, not student abilities or disabilities.
“What if barriers to learning exist in our curricula, not in individual learners?” they asked, and their studies found it to be true.
“The burden to adapt,” they say, “must be placed on the curriculum.”
The first step, according to Meyer and Rose, is to identify and remove barriers in the curriculum. This means starting with clear goals, understanding the real purpose of the learning, so you can plan how to include every student.
Kirsten Lee Howard begins each planning session with a few simple questions, “What is the basic idea the students need to learn?”
The next step is to determine multiple means of presenting information, options for engaging the student, and flexible methods of expressing what has been learned.
“Providing students with choices and flexibility in materials and assignments is essential,” writes a group of authors in Chapter One.
Howard asks herself, “What are different ways to learn this idea: demonstration? games? shared experience? If there is reading involved, do students have to read it by themselves, or can they use other tools and strategies to get the information?”
She thinks about assessment in the same way: “Is a test the best way to find out whether students learned the information? In what different ways can students demonstrate their understanding? Which will be meaningful for them?”
Consider what happened when teachers were asked during a training exercise to determine the best way to cook an Indian meal. Some wanted to experiment. Others wanted to follow recipe directions precisely. They varied greatly in their preferences. So, too, do students.
“Students report substantially more enthusiasm for and engagement in projects that provide choices of topic, presentation and expression,” write the authors.
The Role of Technology
Technology is one of the ways to expand on choices, and Thinking Reader is one type of technology endorsed by UDL. Thinking Reader, by Tom Snyder Productions and Scholastic, offers students digital books with scaffolding, strategies for reading comprehension, built in in the form of asking students to make predictions, ask questions, summarize, and clarify. Visualization, graphic organizers, self-monitoring, and evaluation are also integral.
Students have the option of having the book read to them while they read along. They can stop, highlight a word or phrase, and get a definition. The student’s interaction with the technology is saved for the teacher to review, providing an opportunity for regular feedback rather than waiting for a “test.”
The focus shifts from decoding while reading to comprehension. The authors found that for many students, reading a book the traditional way and taking a test on a piece of paper, also the traditional method of testing, did not demonstrate their ability to comprehend the material. All it demonstrated was their inability to decode. Given alternate methods, they could easily demonstrate their newfound knowledge and skills.
“Learning needs to be universally designed in the same way that universally designed buildings accommodate people with diverse physical abilities,” the authors write.
But access to technologies of any kind doesn’t automatically imply learning is taking place, they say. Effectiveness is the key. They suggest starting with UDL and adding technology, which can be expensive. They also advise teachers to ask for accessible versions of curriculum from publishers.
The future value of assessment technology, they say, is to embed it throughout the digital curriculum. That way, the curriculum also learns, becoming smarter, not outdated.
This book is definitely on the academic side. It's not easy reading, but its message is captivating, its research undeniable.