Universal Design for Learning

Our province has recently adopted a new teaching philosophy called “Universal Design for Learning” or UDL for short. In general, I agree with the idea of this philosophy. It’s all about teaching students in a variety of ways, getting them engaged and allowing them some choice in how they show their learning. It’s not a new philosophy, especially not to elementary teachers, but it’s good to acknowledge that this is best practice and there are some great supports and ideas coming out of the professional development we’ve been getting on it.

Last week we had a professional development day at school all focused of UDL. One thing that we looked at was using multiple intelligence tests with our class and have a few lessons about what multiple intelligences are and how everyone has strengths. I like MI tests in general. I had already done one with my class and was excited about this idea of helping the students to understand what their results mean a little more.

But something was bothering me about this whole thing. It started when the woman on the video we were watching who was explaining the lesson put the word “Smart” in the center of a brainstorming web and talked about asking students to come up with ideas about what “smart” meant. The way she framed it made it sound like people are naturally talented in some areas while others are talented in other areas. The soft fuzzy side of this statement is great. We can all be pleased at what our strengths are and go along our merry ways as happy people. Except I don’t believe that they are natural talents. I don’t believe that some people are just “smart” in some ways while others are not. I believe that people develop an interest, sometimes a passion for certain areas and then they practice and work hard and become good at something. I don’t want my students to believe that because they have a 2 in Math/Logic that they’re never going to be good at math so why try? I don’t want someone to see they have a 10 in Musical and think that they are just naturally good at music and never need to work at it, and if it does get hard, believe that they’ve somehow lost that ability.

There has been a lot of research done about the difference between telling someone that they achieved something because they’re “smart” versus telling them they achieved something because they “worked hard”. Studies show that students who are told they are smart don’t do so well when faced with something more difficult than they’re used to. Whereas if they see that they worked hard, they’re more likely to try to work hard again. I think it’s a passive/active thing. Being smart is a state of being; it’s passive. There’s no movement or sense of accomplishment to it.

So will I do the lesson with my students about multiple intelligences? Yes, I’m still going to do one, but mine will look different than hers. Rather than “smart” I’m going to put the word “intelligence” up there and talk about interests and passions rather than strengths and weaknesses. All my students are smart. I want to show them that what’s more important is practice and drive.