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Firm Goals, Flexible Means, and what UDL “looks like”

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is all about helping people be their best without asking them to do it in exactly the same way. It’s a means of honoring the uniqueness of every person while maintaining high expectations for all. It stands to reason that accounting for variability means avoiding singular approaches, but people new to this way of thinking still need some anchor points; otherwise the possibilities and challenges of supporting individuals at scale can be overwhelming. So, let’s talk about what my friend Katie Novak calls the million-dollar question about UDL: “What does this look like?”

The answer comes in two complicated parts. First, what this looks like is variable, dependent on the same factors that influence the learning profiles of your audience: content, context, and plasticity. This variability in application creates an ambiguity that I like to call the Land of “It Depends.” To narrow that ambiguity, let’s look at the very core of how to design a learning experience – a training, meeting, presentation, e-learning module, you name it – that keeps the people, and their variability, at the center of the process.

  1. Set FirmGoals. What is the change you hope people will make as a result of this experience? Set goals that address all three sides of the learning triangle

  2. Why is the emotional connection you seek to foster? How should people feel about both the new knowledge and skills as well as their experience in acquiring it? How should they feel about putting that learning into action?

  3. What is the new knowledge and skills – the capacity for new behavior – that you want learners to gain as a result of engaging in the experience. It’s the intellectual connection to the learning and the subject of most traditional learning objectives.

  4. How is the expectation for sharing and applying their new knowledge and skills. We need a way of measuring the extent to which people have acquired new knowledge and skills, and we want to support their ability to put that new found capacity to meaningful use. So, what might we ask people to do?

  5. Anticipate Barriers: What might get in the way of your learners’ way as they pursue these firm goals you’ve set for them. Think about the variability of your people – will they all come to the learning readily perceiving the value, and with a firm commitment to putting forth their best effort? If not, then what’s getting in their way? That variability extends to what and how – will they all readily perceive, process, retain, communicate, and/or apply the target knowledge and skills? Again, if the answer is no, then what might the challenges be?

  6. Flexible Means. With firm goals in place, but potential barriers popping up for some of our learners, we are faced with the reality that we can’t choose a singular path for every single learner to follow to meet the goals. People will need options and supports depending on the particular barriers they encounter in connecting to why, what, and how. So, our job is to think about what countermeasures we might introduce into the learning experience that our learners can then leverage as needed to meet the goal.

With these basic steps laid out, you can see how this approach can look different depending on content, context, delivery model, etc. As such, rather than asking “What does this look like?”, you get to decide, based on your goals, anticipated barriers, and available countermeasures, what UDL “could look like.” For instance, people vary in their levels of introversion/extroversion based on context, personality, etc. A more introverted person may experience barriers to engagement in an in-person workshop (mixing with strangers, sharing thoughts and ideas with a group, etc.). In that case, options might include offering an asynchronous course instead. If the workshop is the only viable delivery model, consider options for how ideas might be shared anonymously, or in select pairs rather than in large groups. Also, you might consider if discussion or collaboration is essential to meeting the goals – if not, make them optional rather than compulsory.

So, instead of asking “What does UDL look like?”, you get to ask:

What could UDL look like . . .

…for this goal?

…with these learners?

…in this context?

…with these constraints?

…within our current capacity?

James McKenna

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Headshot for James McKenna

I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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