Access for All: Using a Universal Design for Learning Approach to Implement a Rock-Solid Instructional Core

Often our instincts are to scaffold pretty heavily so students don’t experience too much difficulty or to ignore students’ learning needs for the sake of rigor and grit. We want them to feel comfortable in class and stay as motivated as possible. But all too frequently, complex texts and challenging maths have been systematically removed from the hands of our struggling students who are overwhelmingly people of color. This is systemic racism by design in action. The consequences are stark. Many students have become very dependent learners and not provided dynamic structures and routines to build the intellectual muscle necessary to excel at the table of scholarship. Developing relevant intellectual curiosity with efficacy is core to our humanity and this intentional stymying of students’ information processing limits life opportunities.

The current response to the ongoing systemic under-educating of students of color is to purchase intervention programs that move students away from the instructional core with hopes that sprinkling them with decontextualized skill builders will transfer even though they will be further behind having missed core instruction. The instructional core includes three interdependent components: teachers’ knowledge and skill, students’ engagement in their own learning, and academically challenging and culturally relevant content (Elmore, 2002).  Instead of sorting and selecting students away from the instructional core, how about we make the instructional core really really solid! Ideally the instructional core tackles the dependency cycle by ensuring that students experience complex texts and tasks that require critical thinking and deep levels of engagement. We need to do things differently. Really differently.

Universal Design for Learning, based on concepts of providing equal access to persons with disabilities, has a great potential to guide us as we implement a rockstar instructional core. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) asks us to accommodate learning differences by planning in advance and making instruction available for more students, at lower costs, and reduce the need for after-the-fact steps such as intensive interventions and referrals to special education.  While intervention is still important, it is often too late. UDL is meant to proactively evaluate instructional and environmental needs prior to learning. The principles of UDL require making curricula, materials, and environments accessible and usable for all students in the building in all their full essence. As educators, we need to craft new ways to make education more convenient for time-pressed students, less harmful for people from diverse backgrounds, and more flexible for persons with different learning styles. If we make students’ core learning experience robust and we pay close attention to the learning, there is less need to catch kids up. Intervention support then can be based on fine-grained data and provided quickly in the moment.

So what does this look like? Highly collaborative and responsive. One way to look at this is through the lens of professional inquiry. If we have systems in place where we know students well through data, and regularly collaborate about how to address what we learn from data and have access to materials that support our plans for ALL kids ALL of the time, we can be better positioned to engage students in the kind of work that sparks the accelerated learning that UDL promises. Some students may need to hear a text aloud; some students may need extra language support, while some students may need a graphic to help them learn. All students need to learn how to organize content so they can learn content. Along with implementing UDL, an intentional commitment to every adult developing cultural competence creates a more responsive system that capitalizes on students’ identities to help motivate and sustain them in relevant scholarship. Classrooms can be designed to be noisier with more co-construction of knowledge with students. Designing spaces and learning throughways in anticipation of the humans we aim to serve goes a long way to inviting all students to the table of scholarship and keeping them there

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