Monday, November 26, 2012

Universal Design for Learning

How do I reach all students? Students in our heterogeneous classrooms bring many distinct challenges to learning.

One very important way to address the challenges is to consider them from the planning phase of the lesson. Rather than only relying on differentiating instruction as a response to student understanding of lessons. Universal Design for Learning is just such a process. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Guidelines 2.0 is an interactive assistant for thinking about and planning for individual student needs as we develop our lessons.The goal is the success of all students in an engaging and motivating learning climate.

In fact, the Model Curriculum Unit Project has used UDL as a lesson-planning component. Since the standards in math and ELA do not address the specifics of instruction for special populations, UDL has provided that support.

Access the guidelines document at The guidelines were developed by the Center for Applied Technology (CAST). You may wish to check out the very informative CAST site at In the meantime, the districts involved in our Southeast DSAC Leadership Network will be invited to use the tools as they plan units and lessons and to support one another through the Network as they work toward providing the means for development of resourceful and knowledgeable learners who are strategically goal-directed and purposefully motivated.

Researchers (like Nonie Lesaux of Harvard) and practitioners (like consultant, Regie Routman) are realizing and talking about how language and literacy development are connected to the development of self-regulation and executive function. UDL makes it a point to bring these two critical areas together. The Guidelines document is an indispensable reference when planning successful lessons with learners of all ages.

Questions: Engagement, Inquiry, and Standards

Questions are job 1! ELA and Literacy Standard 1 for reading is essentially read closely and cite evidence. It begins in the earliest grades with learning to ask questions proficiently.

Everyone - students, teachers, administrators, and those who prepare future teachers need to learn to ask questions proficiently. Not every question is worthy of being asked or considered. However, questions are at the heart of all important discoveries.

In a recent ASCD SmartBrief (which by the way you may wish to subcribe to these pithy and timely short reports at, John Barell recounts the story of 1944 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Isidore I. Rabi, who claimed his mother made him a scientist without actually meaning to do so. "Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn asked her child after school, 'So, did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She asked a different question, 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions - made me become a scientist!"

John Barell thinks, "...that difference could transform education worldwide without costing a dime." And I agree.

Educators ask many questions. Without changing a thing, try to record the number of questions you ask in your day. Then ask yourself are those questions productive?

Notice, I refer to proficient questions above, not good ones because the goal of all the standards is independence and proficiency at the grade level (and I suggest at the work level, as well). Proficient questions - those chosen from among all that are asked or available, are what move the inquiry cycle from wonder to action as research, are what make the difference between the status quo and great discoveries, are what change our directions in History and in the present with historical results (think Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Begin with close, but entirely objective observation - what do you notice?  All observations are recorded. Observations may be of an artifact, a visual representation (photo, painting/drawing, film), an audio representation (music, speech, audio program), or a written text. From those observations, what do you wonder? From the wondering, which are the questions that will lead to as yet undiscovered knowledge or understanding.

How will you decide from among the questions available in school texts? Think fewer and more productive. Productive questions must be linked to inference that can be supported by citing the text, or to synthesis of ideas from several texts rather than to obvious statements or unsupported opinions. Choose the questions that make everyone think at the highest levels. Students will need to know that the questions are designed to engender thinking rather than to identify the "right answer". Even in the math standards, the emphasis is on thinking, not identifying the obvious answer.

How will you teach students to develop proficient questions and eventually to do so independently? These are the questions that experienced learners like us ask ourselves all the time. Throughout the grade levels standard 1 in reading is about asking questions - How do you know that (cite evidence)? What did the author mean by...? Which propositions are linked and how do they link with what we studied previously?

Harvard Education Press has published, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana (check    In this book, the authors argue that teaching students to develop questions is the most essential skill for learning. This seems to me to have been a skill that has been neglected, not only by our K-12 educators but by their teachers as well. Are the schools of education focused on teaching the art of formulating and following through on proficient questions, as well as the art of teaching the development of productive, independent questions?

Over the years, a number of researchers and authors have taken up this topic. However, the sexier topics always seem to win out - teaching young writers, appreciating Shakespeare, engagement and motivation. In my opinion, the classroom that only asks  thought-provoking questions, that helps students develop questions worth pursuing with research and inquiry, and that promotes academic discourse that proceeds from generative questions, is enthusiastically engaging and motivating.

Here are your challenges:
  1. Examine your own questions and questioning. Challenge yourself to only ask questions that demand higher order thinking - lead to research, inquiry, synthesis, or inference.
  2. Teach your students how to develop productive questions and to gradually make it an independent and proficient habit.
Let me know how it goes. It is a good way to get even better acquainted with the 2011 ELA and Literacy Standards.