As a newcomer to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I left the UDL-IRN 2016 preconference at Towson University simultaneously excited and overwhelmed by the content we covered. “Optimizing choice,” “design thinking,” “prototyping,” “feedback cycles,” “accessibility,” and “identifying barriers” rattled around in my brain. I walked away with a basic understanding of design thinking and its relation to UDL, as well as a notion of how the UDL Guidelines were organized and could improve student experiences; I was hooked and wanted to know more.

Fortunately, Bryan Dean, one of the conference presenters, was willing to take the time to have a phone conversation to help clarify and further explore questions I had around UDL and unit planning

The following are highlights of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity. See the full transcript below or listen to the audio!

1. What is UDL? How is it different from differentiation?

That’s a great question, and it’s a very deep question. It’s deceptively deep I’d say. The goal of UDL is to be very proactive. One of the major questions that UDL pushes against is, “What if we didn’t identify students as the only thing that could be disabled in a system of education?” UDL is not about just finding what works for one student and giving it to that student. Instead, we seek supports that work, we make them available to all students, and then we give students a choice on whether they want to use this, that, or take another direction all together.

One of the biggest differences between the two is that differentiation is a strong targeted intervention system for individual students. It is a way to react to individual issues with the learning environment that serve as barriers to learning and prescribe solutions to a single student.

UDL, in contrast, intentionally designs the learning environment upfront to account for the anticipated variation and needs of our students. By considering these barriers upfront, we make the environment more accessible for all students. UDL proactively plans around barriers and variabilities we know exist to create tiers of intervention that coincide with tiers of instruction and learning: “How do I deliberately design not only my lesson but my environment for students so that I can meet the largest number of variables first, and then we can differentiate from that?”

2. How do schools and teachers start to implement UDL?

3. How do we begin to look for and collect evidence of UDL in our classroom?

That’s a difficult question to answer succinctly because when you just look at student products, UDL can look very similar to many other approaches, such as station learning, project-based learning, the maker movement, etc. The first thing we have to do is look at student product. Do the choices we give students truly represent different ways to interpret what you’ve learned to build a product, or are we asking them to create one of a few versions of essentially the same thing?

We also need to go all the way back to, “What did the instructor, the educator, what did they intentionally design? How did they consciously examine and deliberately design for the known facets that are going to come up, whether it be resource, curricular, technological, accessibility, or language issues?”

When we take those two things together, student product and intentional design, that’s when we see real UDL. I oftentimes describe understanding UDL like trying to catch water in your hand. It is very hard to find all the physical evidence of it, but you know that your hands are wet, and you know that you have something.

4. How can units and lesson templates be used to capture elements of UDL?

Some people are going to work very linearly, and so they are going to need the template that gives them the pacing guide and clearly spells it out step by step. Others are going to need a concept map or something else entirely. The ultimate UDL lesson plan is actually this huge piece because it’s identifying variables and saying, “Okay, so where are our students at?” It is taking in the data that we’ve had from previous lessons. It’s identifying the tangible and intangible barriers. If you were to put that all into a template, you wouldn’t just spend your Sunday night planning or your week before planning; you’d be spending months and months ahead of time planning for one lesson. So I don’t know that there is a template that sums it all up.

UDL templates ask reflective guided questions around, “Who are my students, how do I know them, what am I bringing as contextual evidence and contextual bias to what I do, and then what are those variables and how am I checking that we are busting those barriers and capturing the learning?” They put those types of questions and those types of check marks within your lesson plan template and lead you to find a way to represent that in multiple ways. Through written language, through recordings if you need to, through concept mapping, through doodles, whatever it may be. That really gets at the essence of UDL. And once you start doing that, this meta experience happens and you say, “Wait, why can’t I let my students decide?”

While we say retrofitting is not a good idea in UDL, at some point we have to retrofit what we do. So going back to our lesson plans and saying, “What barriers can I see? Now that I’ve put those down, what can I do about them?” That might be a place to start. Or saying, “Does this make sense to me? If this doesn’t make sense to me, what way does this make sense to me?” There’s a lot of experimentation that has to happen in UDL.

In fact, and this isn’t solely because you called me, Atlas Rubicon is a great place for us to do that. I helped create some units here in Michigan, the MAISA units. We linked in the UDL frameworks right there within the front page so that as you open it up as a teacher, it’s one of the first things that is there. Really what we’ve done is we’ve put in some questions to ask yourself because UDL at its core is also understanding there is a designer within the context of the design, and in teaching the designer is so very embedded within their own design concepts. We have to make mention of that and we have to remember that, so we put in some guiding philosophical questions. Then we put in some resources that people could go to for lesson plans and templates and just ideas for barrier identification. To make it this meta experience, so we are doing UDL while understanding and working with UDL, we put in so many other documents, concept maps, and infographics right in  so people could understand it on so many different levels.

5. What are your favorite resources?

I’ve been pouring over this question, you sent me the email that said here are some basic questions and I was like, “That’s not basic at all!”

As far as resources go, we’re starting to find there are more and more. But obviously you have to go with the big hitters first. The CAST website is a good resource. They have a lot of great webinars and free materials on there that people can go to.

Another group that I’m involved with, UDL-IRN, we are putting more and more resources on our website (http://udl-irn.org/). You can go there, we have a page up now where we are curating and building these resources that come from everybody.

The HIAT group out in Montgomery Country, they are a great resource and they have a great website to go to.

Bartholomew Consolidated Schools, they have some great, tangible things that you can work with.

There are more and more books that are being published out there. Two come to mind. Loui Lord Nelson published a great book through Brookes Publishing called Design and Deliver. One of my favorite books. She is super accessible as a person, her book is a great UDL resource. Then there’s another one from Katie Novak, who is an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. She has two books now. One just was published, and that one is called UDL in the Cloud, and it is about personal learning and where we are going with it and how personalized learning has a lot of the aspects of UDL built into it. The other book is UDL Now, and it is a Monday list and it is very, very practical. It talks about, “This is what we do with Common Core. This is what we do with summative assessments. This is how we build formative assessments.” It is very, very accessible for all educators. And then once you get to higher ed, there’s some great websites out there like UDL on Campus which talks about, “How do we build accessible environments in higher education and teacher prep?” There’s a wealth of them out there.

Here’s the other thing that I want to say. When it comes to resources, what I love about the UDL movement is that everybody is so accessible. Like you can go to a conference and you will have people who are big thinkers, David Rose, Grace Meo, Jamie Basham, Denise DeCoste, and Loui Lord Nelson, right there at the conference and they will sit and have dinner with you. They’ll talk about it and be like, “Wow, I’d love to come out and see what you’re doing.” And you can do that as a first year person. You can do that as a person who has been doing it for years and just didn’t know the name. Whatever it is. This community of UDL is just so very accessible in so many ways. And I don’t find that with everything else.

We have a great twitter chat #UDLChat. We’re going strong every first and third Wednesday. That’s people like Mindy Johnson from CAST and all these other great UDL thinkers, and we’re just asking questions and we’re just putting them out there and people are answering them.  So, there are my shameless plugs.BRIAN ERICKSON: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me today. I know there’s a lot of questions always in the office about UDL and then with a lot of the schools that we’re working with some of them feel really comfortable and are just trying to figure out ways to connect it with the other curriculum work they’re doing and then others are really just hearing about it. So, based on

BRYAN DEAN: That’s what we’re trying to do. There’s, you know they try to identify it by four phases but those phases are ambiguous so everybody interprets those phases differently.

BRIAN ERICKSON: Maybe start out just tell us a little bit of background, who are you, why should we be listening to you about UDL, what’s your experience?

BRYAN DEAN: Ok, well I don’t know how to answer that part about why you should be listening to me, but I hope that you do. I am a former special education teacher. I was a special education teacher for what we call in Michigan the emotionally impaired, it is also known as behaviorally disturbed or emotionally disturbed. There’s lots of different terminology around the country for it. I started my career working as a high school teacher in adjudication facilities and residential facilities, so I worked with really extreme behaviors and I worked with students who had been adjudicated in some way for . That kinda set the stage for what I would do with UDL, which I’ll talk about in a moment, but from there I was principal for a little while. That really wasn’t something that really fulfilled me in the same way. From there, I moved to another high school, which was not a residential high school, and I worked with our general population and our 99% population for special education. So you’re dealing with behavior and a lot of that, I started becoming very interested in engagement and what that meant and all the different forms that can take with students. Then I became a UDL coordinator for the local district that I was a part of, and then shortly after that I moved to an intermediate school district which is a larger school district that encompasses smaller districts. Currently my job is to be an educational consultant and instructional designer for 28 school districts ranging in size from 5,000 students to about 50,000 students. There’s 28 of those districts all together. From there I also do national work, I’m on the board of directors for UDL-IRN, the IRN stands for Implementation Research Network, and I’m also a member of the CAST Peer Cadre and help out in the summers with the UDL Institute at Harvard School of Education.

So that’s kinda my background, but really what drew me to UDL is working with students. So, in residential programs and adjudication programs what ends up happening is you get students that kinda pop in at the middle of the year, they pop in at the end of the year, or the beginning of the year, and they may stay for 90 days, they may stay for 6 months, they may stay for 3 years. You really don’t know, and because they get bounced around so often there’s a lot of, I don’t want to say holes, but there’s a lot of discrepancy in knowledge and there’s a lot of discrepancy in what has been taught before and skills that students have honed or not honed. And I really needed a way to address that when I had 15 learners, it felt like I had a full class of 45 kids because there are just so many different gaps and things that could happen. Tackled with the idea that when you teach secondary in a residential facility you’re teaching kids that might be in eighth grade or might be seniors in high school. So you have to find a way to meld all those curriculums and find a way to fill those skill gaps. Universal Design for Learning was a great way to start sharing some of that auto-, you know, start giving students some of that autonomy, working towards autonomy, scaffolding executive functioning, but also to really start targeting what it is that’s engaging students and then how do we really identify these barriers that are environmental barriers, systemic barriers. How do we get at those?

BRIAN ERICKSON: Yeah, so I’m gonna, if I were to summarize it sounds like a long time of sort of teaching and work in classrooms with both residential facilities, adjudicated youth, some time with admin, back into teaching, and then your role now more of a consultant with several different schools and then some of your outside work with UDL-IRN, CAST and others.

BRYAN DEAN: Yeah, that would be, that’s a much more succinct way of saying it

BRIAN ERICKSON: I’m just trying to see if I heard you right. So we were talking about UDL as potentially being a way to address some of the challenges you were seeing when you had students coming in with very different skill sets or backgrounds, or different places throughout and spending different periods of time with you. For those that don’t know a whole, what is UDL, or universal design for learning, and how is it different than differentiation? Or is it different than differentiation and if so, how?

BRYAN DEAN: well you know, that’s a great question, and it’s a very deep question. Its deceptively deep I’d say. The goal of UDL is to be very proactive. And one of the major questions that UDL pushes against is, . What if we could really take a look at and say, how is the system disabled and then how does the way that a student works within an educational environment, how does that magnify the disabilities of both or how does that create new areas that are, where there is disability. So Universal Design for Learning without going into the whole history, it has been around for 30+ years, and really it takes itself from architecture when we see things like curb cuts and you see ramps and those sorts of things, ways of accessing environment or the challenges in architecture for all individuals, right? And so the people of CAST (http://www.cast.org/), who are kinda the founders or discoverers, think big thinkers around UDL initially, said “well what if we could create ramps for learning so everybody can use the ramp, whether you are needing some kind of assistance or you’re using your own locomotion?” You can use a ramp to get up. It doesn’t matter who uses it. It’s how they get in. To me that’s the huge take away of Universal Design is it’s not about necessarily just finding the one thing that works for Timmy and giving that to Timmy, right. Its saying well this thing works, and how do we get Timmy and Sarah and whoever on board with this piece, and then how do we give them choice about whether it’s this piece, piece A or piece B or piece C.

The difference to me and differentiation is, there’s several difference but, the biggest difference is, to me, seems to be that with differentiation we’re saying how does it work for one student, with UDL we’re saying how does it work for the entire environment? With differentiation we say, well how do we be reactive? We have a student that comes in and they have an issue with reading or they have an issue with setting goals or structuring or anything like that. They have an issue in the environment that becomes a barrier for their learning. How do we fix that one barrier for that one kid? Whereas UDL is an approach of the environment, it says “how do we intentionally plan for these variables that are going to happen?” We know that variability exists, and if there are things that we know, we can design for those things. And as we design for those things, whether it be variability or resources or whatever barriers may stand in our way, if we can design for those, then we can essentially change our environment. The changing of our environment and sharing that power with students on how to utilize the resources of the environment, that makes our job, it starts taking that job of the educator and starts really streamlining the workflow so that we can have a larger impact on bigger goals and bigger ideas. With differentiation if I’m doing something for you, Brian, and then I’m doing something for another student and another student and another student, I’m spending a lot of my time with this germane cognitive load. How do I get you the routines of what, remembering what Brian needs, student B needs, student C needs, as opposed to saying how do I just intentionally design an environment where all of these different students can come and get what they need. So in that sense, I think that differentiation, while we’ll always have a need for differentiation, because there are students that are going to have severe or, severe is the wrong word, more in depth sense of variability where they will need targeted intervention of some kind, what UDL does is it starts resetting it back and saying “how do I intentionally plan this at the beginning? How do I deliberately design not only my lessons but my environment for students so that I can meet the largest number of variables first, and then we can differentiate from that?” So I think they exist hand in hand, but I think that what UDL does is it says okay, differentiation is a strong targeting system, it is a . What if we had some interventions in place already so that we could start building our tiers of intervention much like we would build tiers of instruction?

BRIAN ERICKSON: yeah, that makes sense to me, just the idea that differentiation is much more targeted on “I know I have a student with this concern” or “I know I need to provide this support for my newest student coming into my class” as opposed to “I know that in general I can offer a couple of ways or choices to get to the same, demonstrating the same knowledge, I might as well build in those choices and options up front before I know who’s going to choose which.”

BRYAN DEAN: yeah and even in that statement that you just made, there’s a big difference between differentiation and UDL. UDL is a lot about choice, it is about structured choice sometimes and it is about scaffolding that choice but differentiation is not. It is very prescribed. We know that so and so is going to need a speaker board or a slant board, or they’re going to need this, and when that student leaves, they take that piece of resource with them, and but they haven’t had much choice in choosing that either. We prescribed that to them. And UDL says well if a student needs an audio book, there might be other students who would need an audio book so we keep that in the environment so all students can access that. And we know that some days students are independent readers and some days they may say, “you know what? I need the audio book today. This is a hard concept for me to get through to understand it. I need to hear it over and over. And when I’m reading it in my head I’m not getting it.” So we’re not depriving them

BRYAN ERICKSON: Right the idea that our needs change

BRYAN DEAN: Yeah exactly, exactly.

BRIAN ERICKSON: Thank you. I think that that is probably, as folks are just hearing about UDL, I feel like that’s one of those questions that comes up a lot. It’s just, how does this compare to what I already know or what I think I already know? And, in all reality, is this a new name for the same thing, or is this something truly different?

BRYAN DEAN: Well and that’s a huge piece too. Whenever I try to run something around UDL or I try to talk to people about UDL, usually I say, there are parts that we do that we instinctively do and that we inherently do as educators and designers. That we want to do. So we create those things. However, and we need to recognize those things that we already do, but there’s purposeful planning that happens here. And that’s one of the big pieces to the UDL puzzle. So it’s okay to say, “well there’s certain things that I’m already doing,” and I think that’s good. We all want to have some kind of level of comfort. And so being able to say “I’m already doing this thing,” I think that’s totally valid to do, when we talk about UDL. But it’s then, how do we then add structure to it, or how do we build onto it becomes the next piece of learning.

BRIAN ERICKSON: Right. Um, so maybe shifting focus a tiny bit here, say we have a school or we’re in a school or we just went through and we went to the UDL conference, um was it 3 weeks ago now?

BRYAN DEAN: Yeah it seems like just yesterday

BRIAN ERICKSON: Oh  man, say that we’re totally fired up about UDL, we want to make it happen, what does it look like for a school to begin, or a teacher to begin to shift to becoming more of a UDL school or to putting UDL into action. How do you, I guess there’s two questions there: how do you start to make a transition or start to try to implement this, and then also what sorts of pieces of evidence are you looking for to say, yeah we’re making progress, or here’s where I look to see if we’re meeting some of the UDL principles? 

BRYAN DEAN: So, you know that becomes a, that’s a great question and it’s a hard one, again, to talk about very succinctly. Because here’s the thing, when we look and go into a UDL classroom, and we take a look at a classroom and we have students that are making multiple projects and they’re doing lots of different things and they’re doing station learning, well it’s very easy for us to say well that’s UDL. And at a superficial level it may be, but it’s also very easy for us to say that’s station learning, or that’s project or problem based learning, that’s inquiry based learning, that’s the maker movement, all of these different ideas, which when we’re just looking at student products it is hard to determine what makes it UDL. Beyond the superficial level of is this accessible for all students? Really if we want to see evidence of UDL in action, we have to do a couple of things. The first thing is we have to, we absolutely have to pay attention to the product that is being produced. When you give choice to students and you say, you can make a multimedia presentation, and that presentation can be a PowerPoint or it can be a Prezi or it can be a puppet show, that’s not necessarily UDL. That’s just three different projects of the same type. So when we say well students can make an info graphic or they can compose a song or they can do a multimedia presentation or they can give a written report, those are all, we’ve added a different dimension. So we’ve said take this and interpret this the way that you need to interpret this to build your product. So that’s one facet of UDL. And then we have to go all the way back to what did the instructor, the educator, the teacher, what did they intentionally design? When they took a look at the classroom they said, “what are the variables of my class? What is the environment of my class, and how am I looking at with conscious choice and designing, deliberately designing, for the known facets that I know are going to come up, whether it be resources or there are curricular issues or technological issues or there are issues of accessibility or there are language issues? Whatever they may be, how am I taking those into account in my planning and my designing of this trajectory of learning?” That’s the other facet. So when we take those two things and we put them together, that’s when we see real UDL evidence. So it’s not just merely looking at a classroom and saying this classroom’s been gamified, or this classroom has been, you know they’re doing a lot of projects in this, this is a project based classroom, this must be UDL. It can’t all lie in student product, although some of it has to lie in student product. So there’s this almost ambiguous, oftentimes I describe understanding UDL is like trying to catch water in your hand. It is very hard to find all the physical evidence of it, but you know that your hands are wet. And you know that you have something. And while that is a definite piece of it, we are starting now to discover that there are these other facets that we start building them together and we’re building a better picture, we’re building a mosaic picture, from the beginning of lesson design all the way to what students produce, to what students retain and the rigor that’s involved in all of those pieces. That would be the best aspects of UDL in action.

BRIAN ERICKSON: Cool…

BRYAN DEAN: So just starting out, I’m sorry, there’s a second part to that question I don’t know if I answered that or not. But just starting out it becomes, you can get mired in that. So it is making small  changes in those guidelines. It is saying, “how am I starting to share goal setting with my students? How am I starting to, how am I building not just formative assessments or feedback, how am I building intentional formative assessments that allow students to have a lot of voice? How am I building a feedback loop where I’m asking for feed up, and I’m asking for feed forward, and I’m asking for feedback. How am I giving those three ideas, based on model, how am I doing those things and moving those things forward?” Those are the initial steps, and then how am I looking for the barriers that I know are going to exist, how do I find those?

BRIAN ERICKSON: It gets a lot to what we were talking about just regarding design thinking, intentionality, planning for some of the barriers and potential misunderstandings or resource, various resource needs, not just because we know that this student has an issue, but rather, because we know that, maybe explaining it in this way might be difficult so if we can provide multiple means of getting to that same idea. It’s not just about giving your students the choice of which product they create in the end.

Can you talk a little bit more, so… I’m thinking, now you’re mentioning this intentional planning, intentional designing, and we as teachers often capture a lot of our thinking, both in lesson plans as well as sort of unit plans and long terms plans. I know that you guys shared, you shared a couple different lesson planning templates and I’m sure there are far more resources probably on one or multiple websites. Can you talk a little bit about some of the common lesson templates that are often used for just capturing some design thinking, and does it ever expand up to a unit planning level or is that kinda not right, not the right location to capture a lot of UDL thinking?

BRYAN DEAN:  Well I think that we’re starting to see it more and more in large unit planning and large curriculum mapping. And in fact I, and this isn’t solely because you called me… you know Atlas Rubicon is a great place for us to do that. I helped create some units here in Michigan, the MAISA units, I did some of the quality check around them, and one of the things that we put in, we put in the UDL frameworks right there within the front page of Atlas Rubicon. You put it right in there so that the first thing as you open it up as a teacher, it’s one of the things that is there, and really what we’ve done is we’ve put in some questions to ask yourself. Because UDL at its core is also understanding there is a designer within the context of the design, and in teaching, in the field of teaching, whether it is higher ed. or its primary or pre-primary, the designer is so very embedded within their own design concepts. We have to make mention of that and we have to remember that, so we put in some guiding philosophical questions, and then we put in some resources that people could go to for lesson plans and templates and just ideas for barrier identification right within that. But then we also, in the sense to make it this meta experience so it is doing UDL while understanding UDL or working with UDL, we were able to put in so many other documents right in Rubicon that it was really helpful. Not only that, we were able to put in concept maps and infographics, so people could understand it on so many different levels. That really, that becomes the essential for the lesson plan template. Some people are going to work very linearly. And so they are going to need the template that gives them the pacing guide and says, don’t forget to go to this website, and spells it out in language. And some people are going to need the concept map so the ultimate UDL lesson plan is actually this huge piece because it’s identifying variables and saying okay so where are our students at? It is taking in the data that we’ve had from previous lessons. Its identifying barriers that we know exist and saying, what are tangible barriers, things that we can actually put our hands on that we know? Like, we know that all the desks are too close together or they’re too small for high school kids, or we know that there’s a problem with the state, with  . We know that there are other tangible barriers like what are the technological needs, are we meeting those needs, do we have the technology we need? But then there are intangibles. The intangibles are things like how do we understand the culture of our classroom? What type of culture are we building in our classroom? What is the social identity of our learner? Where are they coming from? What other cultural backgrounds are they bringing with them? All of those things. So if you were to put it all into a template, and this is the hardest part for me, as an educator, and for teachers I work with, if you were to put that all into a template you would spend, you wouldn’t just spend your Sunday night planning. Or your week before planning. You’d be spending months and months ahead of time planning for one lesson. So I don’t know that there is a template that sums it all up.

The templates that are asking reflective guided questions around who are my students, how do I know them, what am I bringing as contextual evidence and contextual bias to what I do, and then what are those variables and how am I checking that my students are, that we are busting those barriers, but they’re also capturing the learning. They are really feeling that they can, they’re not just choosing the thing that is simple but they’re choosing the thing that pushes them. Putting those types of questions and those types of check marks within your lesson plan template, whatever you may be using, and then finding a way to represent that in multiple ways. Through written language, through recordings if you need to, through concept mapping, through doodles, whatever it may be that’s really gets at the essence of UDL. And once you start doing that, this meta experience happens and you say, wait, why can’t I let my students decide?

We live at a unique time now where things like sketchnoting and things like infographics and all of those things are really coming to the forefront. You have search engines that are dedicated to just finding icons for us to represent language. We have our phones, we have emoji’s, this really brilliant iconic way of communicating language, so we sit primed in the UDL world right now. And we are really recognizing that variability is the thing that we want more than anything. We don’t want this myth of average, this myth of the center, but the thing that we’re not doing, is we’re not designing our curriculum that way, but it is so very easy for us to start doing so. It hasn’t been this easy before. So really those templates, it is really like going back, and while we say retrofitting is not a good idea in UDL, we have to at some point retrofit what we do a little bit. So going back to our lesson plans and saying, am I starting with barriers, what barriers can I see? And then putting those down and saying “okay, now that I’ve put those down, what can I do about them?” That might be a place to start. Or saying does this make sense to me? If this doesn’t make sense to me, what way does this make sense to me? It makes sense to me in a concept map. Well, I’m not going to a website that has a bunch of concept maps, I’m going to draw my own, probably. So maybe I should start giving my students that choice, too, just to see what happens. There’s a lot of experimentation that has to happen in UDL.

BRIAN ERICKSON: Can you talk a little bit about, talking about experimentation and seeing what happens or seeing what works and then reflecting on it, can you talk a little bit about that design thinking concept of prototyping and you mentioned it a bit before about feedback and feedforward? That seems like a pretty important piece, and sort of conceptual piece to work in

BRYAN DEAN: Right so, what I love about talking about design thinking is that design thinking and UDL are so inextricably linked. They’re so intrinsically linked that it’s hard to separate them. But, when we talk about, we talk all the time in education about, well, we need to be reflective educators. It is such an ambiguous term that it is hard for us to define it, and to really put it into terms where we can say, “Well, what am I reflecting about? Am I reflecting about how the lesson went?” and then how do I reflect about that, like am I taking student notes, am I taking surveys, what am I doing? Am I just relying on what I think? Am I bringing in a peer to look at it and say, “Um, that doesn’t work?” All of those things become biased but really, if we start way back, if we go back to this idea of generative loop learning. If we go all the way back to the beginning, we know that in generative loop learning, things that happen are we form our assumptions, our assumptions form what we are going to work on, or the lesson piece, and then we give it to our students and we get results, and typically we take those results and we go back to our lesson. But, if we took those results and we moved all the way back to our assumptions around what is learning, who we are as learners, who our students are as learners, and who we are as designers, it changes a lot of what we look at. And then that becomes design thinking.

There are five big steps of design thinking. And in those five steps, they’re very very simple. Its: I recognized there is a problem; I’ve learned something about the problem so I’ve identified it; step three I start making a hypothesis around that and I start saying what could I do about it; four is I start enacting some of that change and measure for results; and then the fifth part is that reflective part, it seems very simple but it is very very complex. It is the idea of evolution. So it is the idea of taking this lesson and what’s going to change about it? Is there something that is going to change? Is it a small change, is it a big change? And you get a lot of that from that idea of a feedback loop. Of what, there are three major questions that we need to ask of our feedback, and there’s all kinds of, it’s one of the big topics right now. But those three questions are really about: what’s the big purpose, so that’s the feed up idea. What is the big purpose that we’re doing, why are students doing this, and asking students why do you think we’re doing this? And then there’s this idea of feeding forward, so not just saying well this is a good job, but saying this is really getting into this idea of constructive criticism, which is very hard for our students to understand, and it is very hard for us to understand. So there’s a lot of work that’s still being done around that, but really saying, so where does this fit into the larger scheme of what we’re attempting to do? So what are our big goals, instructional goals? Having students in on part of that. And saying, okay so this is why we’re doing this. Then, how do I make this better, both at a student level and an educator level? And then traditional feedback, or what we have thought of as feedback, how did I do? That’s key and very important. And as the eduspeak comes out and the philosophy emerges, of course we naturally tend to steer away from the idea of feedback and say “that’s not good,” but it is a critical and essential component to this feedback loop idea.

So it’s not just, “where am I going and how do I feel about this?”, and what’s the bigger picture? And how can I make it better? I need to have some hard facts that tell me either I’m progressing or not progressing. So what we consider standard feedback is still okay. In the UDL classroom it’s okay. In the experimental progressive classroom it’s okay. But it is what we add to it, that turns not only us as educators into being reflective, but it turns our students into being reflective too.

And as we look at the UDL guidelines, you know they’re setup in three layers. And those three layers match those three types of feedback very very well. The top layer is really how am I doing on this, it is that standard idea of feedback. That middle level is saying, “how am I increasing this, how am I making this better?” and “how am I as a teacher helping facilitate that with my students?” And then that final piece is moving students towards executive function, which is I mean, that’s a beautiful concept, but what does it really mean? Well it means students can say, “This is why this is important. This is why learning Algebra II is important. This is why it may not be important.” And really having something that backs up their criticism or their opinion of systems that they are involved in. And as teachers, that forces us as educators to take a look at it and say, is this is a valid argument? When I look at this, is this something I can say this isn’t a bad criticism, you’re right. I don’t know how this fits in and now I need to go back to figuring out how it fits in. So it builds, they both build this idea of “how do I help my student become reflective?” and by helping my students become reflective, I have to be reflective too because I have to answer those questions. I have a duty to answer those questions.

BRIAN ERICKSON: Hmm, you’ve given both myself and others lots and lots to think about. All sorts of things are flashing right now.
BRYAN DEAN: Well I hope so, that’s good.

BRIAN ERICKSON: I’m wondering, I had another colleague ask me, can UDL work in small schools or districts, or those situations where either you have one teacher per grade level, or you have a really high turnover in the adults in your building, or is there some sort of inherent consistency needed to make this work?

BRYAN DEAN: You know, so the obvious answer is yes. I’m sure you’d be shocked if I said no, I’m sorry, it’s only for large urban school districts that are struggling that are trying to close the achievement gap. The answer is yes it can. The answer is that it is not easy, though. It is extremely hard to be the voice of one. Especially when we talk about UDL, when we talk about it at a superficial level, yes, it is very easy in any school district, any classroom to say “am I creating environments of access?” Check mark, check mark, check mark. Do I have this, do I have this, or saying I don’t have that. But when we’re talking about the deeper philosophical change that is happening, both to student culture, classroom culture, environment, myself as a contextual designer, all of those pieces, well having large groups that will help you with your cause makes it very very easy, or makes it much easier.

I shouldn’t say makes it very very easy because I don’t know any place that it is very easy. Just the bureaucratic nature of schools makes it very hard for kind of change to take hold, but in smaller schools it’s about, and I’ve worked in schools where the high school is 33 teachers. That’s it. So everybody is the, the person that teaches algebra II is the only person that teaches Algebra II. The person who teaches English for 9th grade only teaches English for 9th grade. And they can do it, they can do this concept of UDL, and I tell them to start at the superficial level. What changes are we making that are allowing access to curriculum? So now let’s start talking about what is going to change for you. And they may, and the problem is they may not move it to a school level, until they get their voice heard. So everybody starts.

The beauty of having a small school is that it is like a small town, everybody kinda knows what everybody is doing. Whether they want to or not, they know. So when they start seeing these big changes, they’re like, “well what’s going on in that classroom?” And they come in and they take a look and they say, “well, ok, so they’re teaching Romeo and Juliet and every once in a while the teacher runs a project where they have ‘duels’, and those duels have to do with actual evidence. And okay I get it, it’s this kinda cutesy way. Until that teacher says, this is why I intentionally planned it this way. I knew that we would have students that would have a hard time decoding the language, so by having these duels, it puts this other pressure on. And this other pressure helps them decode it, and they go to their peers asking for help decoding it. So they can do the best they can in that duel.” There is intentional planning that is happening there. It’s not until we give voice to it, whether its small system or large system, that UDL is this effective piece. Other than that, it can be masked as so many other ways, as I have said before, so many other different things, or just as points of engagement, the beginning of a lesson type. But it is not. And so when we add our voice to it, and we really talk openly and transparently about our practice and what we’ve learned from it, what mistakes we’ve made, and why we’ve designed it that way, that’s when we start, that’s when UDL starts coming to the forefront. When you talk about more than just a way to design for those “special ed. kids” or “my struggling students”, because you find out very quickly that there are lots of ways that curriculum is disabled. There are lots of ways environment disables and there are lots of ways that curriculum is struggling and all of our students are struggling.

So does it work in both those settings? Absolutely it does. Is it easier when you have a team of six people that came to the same thing you came to? Absolutely. Or your entire English team decides that they’ll take it up, or your entire first grade team decides to take it up? Absolutely it is. But it doesn’t mean that the work that is put in is any different. It just means that you have more people in the choir that can give voices to it.

BRIAN ERICKSON: Right, that makes sense. It also seems like if you have more people sort of giving it a consistent try that it is also that your students are having a more consistent experience. So having one teacher that designs things completely differently or who approaches the building of the classroom than maybe a traditional classroom, that’s an oddity for the students. But if there is more of a consistency either across grades or within the subject or something like that, it seems like it would also be easier for them to catch on to how things are different for that whole group of experiences.

BRYAN DEAN: Sure, and then those students become a large voice. They say, this is a tough class. It is that idea of serious play and hard fun. When you go to something as an educator and you walk away like, “man I am exhausted. I’m emotionally exhausted from this conference. I’m mentally exhausted. But I wouldn’t change any of it because I learned so much.” We think that that only happens in andragogy, we think that that only happens with adults. But the fact of the matter is that we can have that happen with students, and when it happens with students it is this really exhilarating thing that happens. And students know that it is something different, and they can talk about it and say “this is probably the hardest class that I’m in.” “Well would you switch out?” “No, I would never switch out.” Because they feel that we are doing something. I’m working hard but I’m seeing such great results. And that’s, and I think that’s the key to it is finding all of those voices and giving those voices room at the table to talk about it. And to champion it. That becomes the piece.

BRIAN ERICKSON: So maybe, one quick answer question and then one final, wrap up question. One that seems like it might be quick but actually could be difficult to answer is: what’s your favorite UDL resource or place to look for UDL resources?

BRYAN DEAN: Oh, you know what Brian, I gotta be honest man. I’ve been pouring over this question, you sent me the email that said here are some basic questions and I was like, “brother, that’s not basic at all!”

BRIAN ERICKSON: I know, that’s like the hardest question in the whole bunch, right?

BRIAN DEAN: Exactly, the others ones I’m like, I can talk about that for a while. As far as resources go, we’re starting to find there are more and more. But obviously you gotta go with the big hitters first, so CAST website, http://www.cast.org/, it is a good resource. They have a lot of great webinars and free materials on there that people can go to.

Obviously the group that I’m involved with, UDL-IRN, or the other group that I’m involved with UDL-IRN, we are putting more and more resources on our website, which we are going to revamp our website and do some other interesting things to it, and that’s http://udl-irn.org/. You can go there, we have a page up now where we are curating and building these resources that come from everybody.

The HIAT group out in Montgomery Country, they have a great resource (http://montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/hiat-tech/). And they are a great website to go to.

Bartholomew Consolidated Schools, http://www.bcsc.k12.in.us/Domain/1, they have some great, tangible things that you can work with.

There are more and more books that are being published out there. So if I were to say there is one book to go after, actually two come to mind. Loui Lord Nelson published a great book through Brookes Publishing called Design and Deliver. One of my favorite books. She is super super accessible as a person, her book is called Design and Deliver. It is a great UDL resource.

And then there’s another one from Katie Novak, who is an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, and I don’t want to misquote where she’s from, so I won’t say where she’s from, but her book, she has two books now. The other one just was published, and that one is called UDL in the Cloud, and it is kinda about personal learning and where we are going with it and how personalized learning has a lot of the aspects of UDL built into it. But the other book is UDL Now, and it is a Monday list and it is very, very practical. And it talks about “This is what we do with common core. This is what we do with summative assessments. This is how we build formative assessments.” It is very, very accessible for all educators. And then once you get to higher ed. there’s some great websites out there like UDL on Campus, http://udloncampus.cast.org/, which talks about “how do we build accessible environments in higher ed. and teacher prep?” There’s a wealth of them out there.

BRIAN ERICKSON: Very cool. Thank you I bet that anyone that starts to explore any one of those will suddenly go down a very good rabbit hole.

BRYAN DEAN: Well, and here’s the other thing that I want to say, Brian. When it comes to resources, UDL, what I love about the UDL movement is that everybody is so accessible. Like you can go to a conference and you will have David Rose, Grace Meo, Jamie Basham, and Denise DeCoste, people who are big thinkers, Loui Lord Nelson, right there at the conference and they will sit and have dinner with you. And they’ll talk about it and be like, wow I’d love to come out and see what you’re doing. And you can do that as a first year person. You can do that as a person who has been doing it for years and just didn’t know the name. Whatever it is. This community of UDL is just so very accessible in so many ways. And I don’t find that with everything else. When you look through education and big movements that are happening, it is very hard to get Perkins out from Project Zero, it is very hard to get John Hattie to just come and sit in your classroom. But these people will Skype in while you’re reading their book and having a book study and say, “you know when I was writing this piece this is kinda what I was thinking.” So, there’s this really great stuff. We have a great twitter chat #UDLChat (https://twitter.com/hashtag/udlchat), we’re going strong every first and third Wednesday, and that’s people like Mindy Johnson from CAST and all these other people, Jon Mundorf, all these great UDL thinkers, and we’re just asking questions and we’re just putting them out there and people are answering them.  So, beginners and novices  to people who have been doing it for a long time and still consider themselves beginners and novices. So there are my shameless plugs.

BRIAN ERICKSON: No, that is good. That is kinda what I was, I like, teed that up for you and was hoping you’d do exactly that.

BRYAN DEAN: Alright, good deal.

BRIAN ERICKSON: I actually think that is a good place to wrap it up, with that idea of this larger UDL community. That there are a ton of resources but that probably one of the greatest resources is just the other people that you can talk to and reach out to. So thank you, Bryan, I really appreciate you taking the time to share with me and everyone else that has a chance to look in on this conversation we had.

BRYAN DEAN: Oh no problem, it was my pleasure.

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