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It’s not uncommon for educators to be asked every few years to take on a new initiative or approach to teaching. Often, these initiatives focus on change at a surface level without substantially addressing the underlying assumptions that have created and sustained the existing educational system.
But if we focus only on what’s happening at the surface, we may miss the far stronger undercurrents that ultimately shape the direction of our practice. For change to be lasting, we have to go below the surface and re-examine not just what we do, but how we see ourselves and our learners.
The ISTE Standards for Educators are a valuable tool for undertaking the difficult and sometimes messy work of redefining classroom roles. The Educator Standards ask us to move beyond the familiar role of the teacher as an expert, a role that has now outlived its usefulness. With the advent of mobile technology, widespread connectivity and 24/7 access to information, students are no longer dependent only on the teacher (or the textbook) for their learning.
Teacher as co-learner
This trend has hastened the need to shift the role of the teacher from expert to that of co-learner who models learning as a collaborative, connected and shared experience. This significantly changes the purpose (and perhaps identity) of many educators.
This change can be threatening not only because we are so used to our familiar roles, but also because students may not be prepared for it, and the result of going too fast is often frustration and a desire to return to the comfort of what we’ve done before. This is where the UDL Guidelines from CAST come in. The guidelines are a valuable tool for creating the conditions for student-centered learning to flourish.
Often the problem with student-centered learning environments is that they ignore the need to gradually transfer the responsibility for learning to students who have been empowered to take on that challenge. The UDL Guidelines do that by focusing on the development of learners’ expertise at learning itself.
The gradual release is represented in a revised version of the UDL Guidelines that divides the process into three stages:
An external access layer focuses on the initial changes educators can make to reduce barriers to learning in their classrooms.
A build layer focuses on the skills (communication and collaboration) learners need in order to function effectively within a community of learning.
An internalize layer focuses on the skills and the self-knowledge learners need to have to function independently as expert learners.
Here are five steps you can take as you explore the transfer of ownership and responsibility for learning to your students:
Be willing to be vulnerable and reveal your own learning to your students. This can be as simple as saying, “Class, for this unit we are going to try something different. I would like to get your feedback when we’re done to see how we can make it better next time.” This communicates that your classroom is a safe environment for risk-taking and exploration of new ideas and approaches.
Promote a growth mindset, but be careful to focus your feedback on the use of effective strategies over just pure effort or encouragement. As Carol Dweck has stated, praising learners for their effort only has a short term boost, not the long term impact on learning we are after. Feedback that focuses on students’ successful use of strategies will over time allow them to build up a well-rounded repertoire of tools and strategies for future learning in many different contexts. Rather than saying “Great effort! Way to try hard!” you might instead say, “Let’s talk about what you tried. What strategies could you use next time? What resources or people could help you?”
Involve students in unpacking the standards and objectives of each lesson and rewording them in more student-friendly language. This not only promotes buy-in, it also provides opportunities for learners to relate the topic to their own experiences and interests in order to make learning more relevant and authentic.
Let students set and pursue their own personal goals that extend beyond a single lesson or unit to the entire school year. These goals may be related to personal qualities, specific skills or passions students want to pursue. To benefit the rest of the class, students should share what they are learning and ask for support from peers who have similar interests.
Actively involve students in the development of classroom norms. Once established, these norms should be revisited and revised throughout the year as classroom events warrant.
These simple steps show students that you aren’t just paying lip service to your beliefs about student-centered learning. You are actually put your evolving ideas about learning into practice as you redefine classroom roles. Shifting the responsibility for learning to your students will help them develop their self-regulation, metacognition and self-efficacy, some of the qualities that define an expert learner under UDL.
Luis Pérez is a senior technical assistance specialist for the National Accessible Educational Materials for Learning Center at CAST. He holds a doctorate in special education and a master’s in instructional technology from the University of South Florida.
Kendra Grant has been a teacher, library media specialist, special ed coordinator, co-founder of a professional learning company, online course creator and large-scale technology implementation consultant. She holds a masters of educational technology from the University of British Columbia.
Ready to explore more about Universal Design for learning? Check the new book by Luis Pérez and Kendra Grant, Dive Into UDL.