Are students ready for this unit?

UDL, or Universal Design for Learning, flips that question and asks: is this unit ready for the students?

The premise is that while students have their own strengths and limitations, often there are barriers to learning inherent in the unit and lesson design itself. The UDL guidelines and training invite educators to consider what those barriers might be and how to remove or mitigate them.

The first step on my UDL journey took place in the first few months of my sabbatical, so I haven’t yet had a chance to take it to the classroom. I did, however, incorporate the three pillars of UDL on the template of my cover letter by providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and action/expression.

Fullan highlights the importance of student voice and choice in Chapter 3 of “A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning“. At Nanjing International School, Student Voice and Choice is actually one of the Big Hairy Audacious Goals: NIS wants every student, in every grade level, to design their own learning plans. You can see the NoTosh perspective here and the NIS Mission and Strategy details here.

My job for the 4 years was, in part, to support the whole school community in an iterative, incremental process of getting closer to this goal. Not coincidentally, student voice and choice quickly began to take a central role in all my classes.

Planning a unit and assessment with students

There really isn’t a time in one’s life where your knowledge is tested in exam conditions. That’s different from saying you can just Google things whenever you need them. A surgeon has to recall her years of medical school to answer a pre-op patient’s questions*. A lawyer has to recall his thousands of hours of studying to argue precedence or object to opposing council’s arguments. But schools still want to ‘test’. So here’s how I began to flip that on its head.

Pace and space

The challenge with long-term projects, for me, is the accountability for each stage while honouring the fact that students will work at a different pace. While I can access student work digitally to check progress and offer feedback, I was looking for something more visual that would allow students to see each other’s progress as well.

Technology to transform student classroom support

If you were to walk into my classroom, it would take you a few seconds to find me. I’m unlikely to be in front of the class, and the students are unlikely to be sitting down looking at the front of the class. There’s usually a movement, people standing, working independently, working in groups…

While that’s a more engaging form of learning than a more traditional approach, it can be disorienting for students as well. Proximity can be an issue (the teacher is on the other side of the room); attention might be another (the teacher is busy talking to another group). ClassroomQ creates a virtual queue which provides an elegant solution to this problem.

Using new knowledge

I like Fullan’s idea that students should “create and use new knowledge”. The IB’s philosophy for action and service adds the “caring” element: students must learn, then care, then do something about it (a “brain-heart-hands” model). Not everything you learn will lead to action, so placing learning in authentic contexts creates the bridge between the classroom and the real world — it is then up to the student if they want to cross it.


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