This is Universal Design? Really? You can’t see me here because I was hiding in the corner. Cowering.

Universal Design? Really?

Designing Professional Learning FOR Learners Before Content

Universal design is a concept from architecture that has been taken up by education to mean not just how we design the physical space for learning, but how we plan learning — the resources, the strategies, the actions — so that all learners can learn. It may be designed for those with special needs but ultimately, all learners are meant to benefit. The example provided was the wheelchair access button to open doors. It was designed for those in wheelchairs or other mobility challenges and many of us benefit from it for other reasons — our hands our full, we don’t want to touch bathroom doors, we are pushing a stroller — you get the idea. In a recent learning opportunity I attended, the message of the day was universal design through multiple intelligences is effective instruction.

We do this as educators. We take time to design something for our students that considers multiple learning styles and intelligences. We try to incorporate movement and doing for the kinaesthetic learners, visual cues for the visual learners, talk time for interpersonal/social learners…you know the drill. The problem is, it becomes formulaic. We believe we have met the diverse needs of our learners by tapping into their intelligence base but what about their emotions? What is their state of mind? Do they feel included just because the instructions come with visual cues, verbal cues and perhaps diagrams? Is this really tapping into their intelligence? How far can we get into intelligence if social/emotional/mental/physical well-being isn’t in place? I know you know the answer…not far at all!

When it comes to professional learning, we need to model what we ask people to create in classrooms. We need to determine the mindset of our participants, tell them up front what to expect, invite them in early to the learning, and check with them before as to what they feel their most urgent learning need is and why they have signed up for the learning in the first place. This is one of the big reasons events don’t work. Without relationships of trust, learning is limited.

I was at a session for professional learning recently. I was invited to teach a course for this organization and I assumed, mistakenly, that the day would be an information session so I could become familiar with the tools, philosophy and practices expected in the course. I assumed this because I teach the same course for another organization and that is what they did when the called us downtown as a team of instructors throughout the province. We went through the course, reviewed some readings, discussed strategies and got to know the people in the room with whom we could network. This wasn’t the case at the most recent session.

I show up and sign in. We are given t-shirts. We have signed a media release form. This is going to be big…we will be tweeted out and we are encouraged to do the same. Video cameras are positioned in the room. We will be documented. A guest speaker comes up to tell us about her messages. She invites us to take part in a number of activities to determine what our strengths and weaknesses are based on Gardner’s multiple intelligences but before this can happen, this graphic is shared with us…

I know where this is going…but I don’t have my armour. Panic sets in…

She posts the infographic and immediately I go back to junior high when my principal tells me how important physical activity is. I was in her office — not a place I usually spent my time other than to help out but this time I was sent there…

I had been practicing for my 12 minute run with a classmate who was a great runner. I wanted to do well and when the day came, I was ready. My partner counted my laps. I ran as hard as I possibly could. When I was done, I did well — winded but proud. I submitted my results to my teacher and in front of everyone, she accused me of lying. “There is no way you ran that many laps. DO IT AGAIN!” I pleaded with her and told her that I had and that I had been practicing because I wanted to do well and she wouldn’t have any of it. I told her I couldn’t possibly do it again as I had just finished and was spent so she told me to come after school and do it again. I was so upset, humiliated, and defeated. So what does a well-behaved child do when she feels that way? I told my gym teacher to F@#$ off! That’s right! I did! And to be honest, I have no regrets. She sent me to the office.

It took me a while to get there because I was crying in the change room half out of my gym clothes desperately trying to catch my breath when my principal, Ms Joyce, walked in to see what was going on. I tried to tell her but I couldn’t get a word out because I was crying so hard. She told me to change and wash my face and then come to see her in the office. I did as I was told. I went to her office and told her what had happened and she listened — she listened with empathy, kindness, and patience but most of all, non-judgement. It is funny, as I write this, thirty-four years later, I still tear up thinking about her kindness. I told her I was dropping gym and I hated it. Even when I try hard, it is never enough. It is the only subject I repeatedly get Cs in. This is when Ms Joyce tells me how vital physical activity is to learning and thinking. I tell her that I walk to school and back every day 5 k and that should be enough but I need this credit to graduate high school so I take it. I finish the year and when I go into grade 10, physical education is the first course I drop.

Ok, so we are back at the professional learning session and I am agreeing with the infographic because although I dropped gym, I did start going to the gym on my own and it always helps me clear my head. I am feeling good and safe and seated.

Then the facilitator says the word that sends me into a panic — VOLLEYBALL. I once broke my glasses in a volleyball game. It wasn’t going to be good. We have to number off, 1 to 8, and get into groups. Then we walk down a flight of stairs to an open space on the first floor. It is just a beach ball so I figure I will be okay (or at least I won’t break my new glasses) except I am wearing the wrong clothes to be playing volleyball. I reach for the ball and miss. The whole team has a collective sigh. My hands are up. I am ready. I support the team and we get up to 27 before the ball hits the ground. I miss it again. The woman next to me pats my shoulder. I am grateful for the gesture.

Then the facilitator makes us sit on the floor. That is her idea of universal design. We have to reach from a seated position to get the ball over the net. I am aware of three women sitting it out, one with crutches and the other for a reason I couldn’t identify and one woman who never walked down the stairs to the open space to participate. She watches us from the second floor smiling at the group but I can’t help wondering if she is happy or perhaps feeling marginalized or at the very least uncomfortable. The game starts. I sit on the floor and I can feel that my underwear is showing at the back. I try to pull my shirt down to cover it and pull my pants higher without anyone noticing though it is challenging. I am certain I look less than graceful doing it. I am wearing boots and it is hard to cross my legs. I am trying to be comfortable but all I can think in my head is…when is this over when is this over when is this over…

The facilitator climbs on a chair to give us intructions. My principal hat goes on and I am now thinking…health and safety health and safety health and safety…She loses her balance but catches it before falling…I am thinking, quite inappropriately, “well, that’s one way to end this torment.”

We go back upstairs and I notice the woman who stayed on the second floor is at my table. She says, “I don’t do stairs” and then proceeds to tell us that she was upfront about her disability when registering for the course. They ensured she had access to appropriate parking and someone greeted her so she could find her way but once the “learning” part of the day started, there were no accommodations. She drove from another city to be here. She is a special education leader in her system and finds the entire day to be an exercise in hypocrisy.

The second time we were called out to the first floor, my friend and I stayed with her so she wouldn’t be alone. Also, if I am going to be completely honest, it is so I didn’t have to endure the exposure that the last activity made me feel.

The rest of the day was tolerable but it took me a while to recover. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. We do this to our learners every day — children and adults. Since becoming a principal, I design learning for adults far more than I do for children but I think the same principles apply.

When we design learning, we have to think about so many things. These are ten lines of questioning that I ask myself.

  1. What is the purpose?
  2. What is the content?
  3. What is the process? Do you offer alternative formats?
  4. Is your plan shared with the intended audience prior to the session?
  5. Who is this for? How do we know who is really in front of us? How do you find out?
  6. How do learners interact with each other and learn from one another? Is it designed in a way that considers both introverts and extroverts? different skill sets? accessibility?
  7. Do you watch the group when you are facilitating? Do you recognize discomfort? Do you check with your learners to ensure learning is possible?
  8. How will you monitor impact before? during? after? long after?
  9. Does the impact match the purpose?
  10. What is your process for reflection? What do you do with that reflection? How does it influence your design?

At the very least, if you are focussing your theme in an area, be sure that you get it right. Calling something Universally Designed for Learning and then not even considering accessibility is a quick path to disengagement. Hoping to model effective professional learning and not knowing your learners — now that is an exercise in futility.

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