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.

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6 thoughts on “Universal Design for Learning

  1. I like how the MI idea points out students’ relative strengths but it bothers me when anyone puts too much emphasis on the results. Gardner’s work is not science based and there has been plenty of research that suggests that learning styles are overstated. It’s just a convenient way of illustrating our strengths.

  2. jgronneberg says:

    Good thinking about the trouble with labeling anyone as “smart” – it sounds like you might have read Carol Dweck’s work on persistence and mindset. If not, you might want to check it out and maybe share it in your PD session to stimulate more conversation. Here’s a link to a brief YouTube on Dweck’s work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTXrV0_3UjY

    Also, here’s another resource that I think does a good job addressing learning styles, and the trouble with learning styles, referencing the work of cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham: http://www.middleweb.com/9016/we-dont-need-learning-styles/

    Again, all good conversation! Thanks for the post.

  3. IfByYes says:

    I wholeheartedly agree, and I’m mildly disturbed that a new educational initiative would go against research so basic that you can find it in half the articles out there about child learning. Brains are like muscles – if you work them, they’ll get stronger. Sure, you should work to your strengths, but you should also exercise your weaknesses, so they get stronger too…

    We never tell Owl he’s smart. He’s a “hard worker”. And he says. “Yeah. I am. I AM a hard worker.” and that means that he’ll spend half an hour trying to knock down his little castle of wooden blocks with his toy angry birds and the catapault, instead of just knocking it over with his hand the way my friend’s four year old does…

  4. mmechiasson says:

    I had a great talk with my students about it. We got a little side-tracked, well, a lot side tracked, when I was explaining all the different “intelligences” when we got to Existential we got off on a huge side-bar about space and whether there is life on other planets and sending people to Mars and terraforming planets. It went on for almost half an hour. One student who is very quiet and almost never speaks in class put up his hand twice during this discussion. It was great. I can see this class has a lot of interest in these topics which is so wonderful 🙂

  5. Nina says:

    Thanks for this interesting read, and a nice blog otherwise too! UDL was a new approach for me, but looking under the hood reveals quite good ideologies: student-centered approach (or learning-centered), open ended questions and assignments, and the basic notion of learning happening in interactions (between the student and the teacher/content/activity).

    The growth mindset (by Carol Dweck) is really spot on here, as opposed to MI, which basically just categorizes students (and thus may be limiting their choices) – and at worst leads to stronger deficit-based view of learning (which, quite honestly, really irritates me in the U.S. – but I don’t like all the snow Finland gets 🙂 so I really prefer to live here).

    Students actually are awesome learners already when they arrive to school, and that is why I like to talk teaching really being just learning facilitation.
    ~Nina

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