A Scene Shifter: Personalization Under UDL

By Katie Novak/School Administrator, November 2015

Imagine this scene in a 3rd-grade classroom: Students are sitting quietly on the floor as a teacher reads Charlotte’s Web aloud. When the teacher completes Chapter 2, each student quietly writes a paragraph about Fern’s point of view and how she feels about Wilbur the pig.
Katie Novak (right), shown modeling training on persistence for teachers, says students have choices to make about their own learning options in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Groton, Mass. (Photo by Luke Callahan, Groton-Dunstable Regional School District)

In a high school U.S. history class, students are given a document-based question on John Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). They respond to the prompt on Chromebooks as the teacher conferences with individual students.

In both scenarios, students are immersed in rigorous text, the lesson is aligned to standards, and the class is well managed. The problem? The learning experience is not personalized and thus will not meet the needs of all students.

Multiple Channels

Personalized learning requires educators to provide options throughout the design and delivery of instruction so students can customize their learning experience. Universal design for learning, or UDL, offers a framework of strategies to support educators in building curriculum and instruction that encourage students to make choices that empower their learning, increase their engagement and improve their outcomes. By applying UDL, educators give students multiple means to learn content and skills, express their knowledge and engage in authentic, relevant learning experiences throughout the process.

This intentional design allows students of all variabilities to access rigorous, authentic learning experiences in an inclusive classroom. It differs from differentiated instruction in that the focus of UDL is engaging and empowering all students to self-regulate and personalize their learning. In differentiated instruction, groups of students have different learning experiences, but this is regulated by the teacher and often based on the perceived ability of the group.

So what does this look like? Applying UDL to those same classrooms, we would see students absorbed in activities of their choosing.

In the 3rd-grade class, some sprawl on beanbag chairs, silently reading from well-worn copies of Charlotte’s Web. Three students nestle on a couch, listening to the novel on an audiobook using a multi-headphone splitter. In another corner, two students take turns softly reading the book aloud to a group of peers. A graphic is projected on the whiteboard, pairing vocabulary words from the chapter with corresponding photos: apple blossom, woodshed, brook.

After students finish reading or hearing the chapter, the teacher shares options for expressing their understanding of Fern’s feelings for Wilbur. Students set a goal for their work, gathering appropriate graphic organizers and rubrics if they decide they need the support. Some students select stationery to write a letter from Fern to Wilbur. Others use purple gel pens to craft a poem or song about Fern’s feelings. Still others choose to collaborate, so they retreat to the back of the room to create a skit.

The teacher, meanwhile, provides mastery-oriented feedback and Tier II support to all students as appropriate. (Tier II support is the first layer of additional support when assessments indicate students need remediation of skills to become proficient, independent learners.) At the end of the lesson, students reflect on their learning and write, type or dictate a holistic self-assessment before sharing their unique products with their classmates.

In the U.S. history class, a cluster of teenagers participate in a Socratic seminar in a corner of the room, using a provided template as they explore whether citizens have a right to dissolve their government.

Others design John Locke’s Facebook page and interpret the Two Treatises of Civil Government through a series of status updates in today’s vernacular. Others choose to join the teacher in reviewing the strategies for closely reading primary source documents and responding to a document-based question on the AP exam.

Personally Empowered

In both UDL scenarios, students are still interacting with rigorous text, lessons are still aligned to college- and career-ready standards, and classes are still well-managed. This time, however, every student is empowered to assess himself or herself as a learner, experience autonomy and self-regulate while pursuing personalized learning.

Transitioning to personalized learning requires professional development in the implementation of UDL, but the shift is well worth the effort. The variability of our students is significant, our standards are rigorous and the need for students to be autonomous, self-regulated learners is imperative.

The groundwork has been laid and the value of UDL has been demonstrated. It is time for us to undertake this important work on a large scale.

Katie Novak is an assistant superintendent in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Groton, Mass., and author of UDL Now (CAST). E-mail: novak414@gmail.com. Twitter: @KatieNovakUDL