I have long been an advocate of seeking learner input in the design of learning environments and learning opportunities. In fact, when I’m coaching teachers, they often ask, “Should I do ________?” I always base my responses from the lens of the learner. In doing so, one of my most reliable pieces of advice for my teachers and facilitators is, “Ask your students.” If we have their input, we can create lessons, resources, spaces, and opportunities that are more meaningful and valuable to our learners than we might otherwise.
If you’re designing a learning environment through the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, a framework designed to optimize teaching and learning for all learners, you may have already realized that this sharing of power is intentionally built into UDL implementation.
Take a look at the newly designed Guidelines from CAST. By its nature, the “access” row (the top row) is the work of the designer (the instructor or facilitator). This makes the first row a great starting place for new practitioners and those who are experimenting with UDL for the first time. Why? This row is exclusively about the learning environment (the part that you’re fully in charge of).
As you graduate your design practices to the “build” row, you’ll notice that these are Guidelines and checkpoints that you’re partially in charge of. In order to build a truly empowering learning experience, this row insists that you engage your learners in the design as well.
The bottom row — the “internalize” row — of the UDL framework rests primarily in the hands of the learners and how they make choices and utilize the tools and resources provided to them. Much of the work described in these Guidelines and checkpoints isn’t as visible as others. You can’t always see things like comprehension, executive functions, and self regulation. In fact, at this depth of implementation, students are operating at some level of autonomy as expert learners, purposefully using tools and strategies that most appeal to their needs and preferences, connecting prior knowledge and transferring new learning, and setting goals and creating and revising strategies to reach them.
Designing with UDL ensures flexibility, accessibility, and high expectations for all learners. Engaging learners in the design of their own learning sends a clear message: what you think matters. This is precisely the message we want to resonate with all learners. All learners need to know that when they are absent from the learning environment — when we don’t have their insight and their input — the learning environment and the learning experiences are fundamentally different.
How do we send that message? Check out my favorite ways to get learner input and engage learners in the design process!
10 Ways to Engage Learners in Design
As you lay out flexible learning goals and objectives for your lessons, keep in mind that students also need opportunities to set personal learning goals. Set aside a place in the learning environment where their goals can be posted, tracked, revisited, revised, and celebrated.
Class expectations and agreements
Don’t ever begin a school year by handing out a list of rules. This is not the work of one; it is the work of those who share the learning environment. Ask learners to construct meanings and descriptors for basic words like Relationships, Respect, and Responsibility. If you’re a PBIS school, use those PBIS expectations to frame your expectations and agreements.
In addition to the agreements and expectations that serve as the general climate control in your environment, take time to ask learners to frame up expectations around specific work and activities in the classroom. For instance, if learners are going to spend 30 minutes rotating through revision stations for an essay they’ve been working on, take a few minutes and ask, “What will expert learning look like in these stations? What do you think purposeful will look like? What do you think resourceful will look like?” Put the language of the expert learner in their hands and ask them to help define it. Display their input on a board or overhead so that the expectations are visible and easily accessed as they work.
Ask learners regularly if the resources you’ve made available are working for them. Ask them what other resources they would like to see or could themselves add to the experience. Get their suggestions and input about resources regularly so that you can keep your resources fresh, accessible, and relevant to your learners.
Invite students to participate in a regular “show and tell” around their favorite tech tools, apps, and extensions. Allow them to show you (or the class or in small groups) what tech tools they love and then follow up with some brainstorming on how it connects to the work you’re doing together. You will inevitably find new options for expression and communication that will boost learner engagement.
Designing a rubric? Get your students’ input! Ask them, “What will excellent work look like for this? How should we evaluate this work?” Let them help you build the rubric indicators and descriptors. Co-creating rubrics with your learners increases the relevance and authenticity. Students will strive harder to rise to an expectation they helped create.
Let students help you create learning groups. I know what you’re going to say. They will all choose their friends and that will never work. Stay with me. If students understand their role within the group and the work is structured and well-defined, students can work with their friends and anyone else. Engage them in creating groups and give them some goals and parameters to work within. “I need five groups of no more than three, and I’d love for everyone to work with at least one person they didn’t work with last time.” (Partner this with #2 on the list, and you’re golden!)
I know teachers who arrange their seats to suit a variety of purposes: to keep certain students away from one another, to maximize their ability to monitor cell phone usage, to make it harder for students to talk while the teacher is talking, to make sure everyone can see the front of the room. The list goes on. Seating arrangements should be learner-centered and specific to the learning opportunity at hand. Does that mean you might be re-arranging your seating on the regular? Yes it does. It’s easy to engage learners in this work. Share the goal with them, the resources and strategies they will be choosing from, and then ask them, “Does this seating arrangement work for this? Would you like to move around or re-position yourselves? What works best for you?”
Use of Space
As you plan your learning environment, be intentional about reserving spaces for learner design. Invite them to help make decisions about using the space purposefully and how and where to display their own work. Allow learners to help decide when it’s time to change the space for new learning opportunities, resource centers, small group conversation areas, conference spaces, and makerspaces.
Deadlines and Work Time
As you are planning work time and deadlines for learners, ask for them what seems reasonable for them to do their best work. If the learning goals are important enough to strive for, then it’s important enough to be flexible and to consider their input as they navigate all of the various parts of their lives in meeting deadlines associated with learning goals. Show students how to use calendars and planners, how to budget their time, how to regroup and go with plan B so that they can hold themselves accountable for the deadlines they helped create.
When learners reach benchmarks and goals, they should be celebrated. Let them help decide how to celebrate their own goals and class goals. Give them a few structured choices, and allow them to add to those choices. This input can be gathered at the very beginning of the school year and added to several times throughout the year. What could be better than having a bank of learner-generated rewards and celebrations to pull from throughout the year?
Do you have a UDL-inspired idea you’d like to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and pitch your blog post!