This week’s blog post is dedicated to the assumptions we make when we are planning our courses and designing our activities. A pivotal feature of Universal Design for Learning is ANTICIPATING VARIABILITY. We try to anticipate variability so that we can design for the margins (the folks who would otherwise struggle to access learning opportunities). We know that by teaching to the average means not only that we exclude many learners but also that we miss rich teaching and learning opportunities that grow out of diversity. As UDL initiatives expand we witness the ways that diversity is our strength; we see how valuable variation is and that is wonderful.
So how can we anticipate variability?
I’m here to say that if we want to anticipate variability, we can start by identifying and questioning our assumptions.
Let me be honest here and say that in my teaching career, through academic support of children with learning disabilities through to teaching graduate classes, I’ve had the privilege of being confronted with my assumptions. Oh, at first it’s horrifying; the child hides under the table, the teenager refuses to talk, the class stares at me (and keeps staring at me), the grad students protesting that they never learned this or worse, that the information isn’t relevant. Even writing this I feel the embarrassment creep up the back of my neck. The worst was when a student resentfully and miserably grumbled to me, “You should have known it would take longer to learn about phonemic awareness.” She was right, there were reasons etc. etc. Assumptions.
OK so that happened and has stuck with me for years and now I am coming out of my cave and writing it here so that we can all benefit from what comes next: how to track and scrub your assumptions. Interestingly, tracking and scrubbing assumptions has been warmly welcomed in my UDL work at KPU so below I will share with you five ways assumptions of teaching, learning, and learner life can tangle us up.
ONE Learners may have less or different background knowledge than you expect.
Coming to a subject area with less or different background knowledge can happen for a number of reasons. Students may arrive from other countries, they may have been homeschooled, they may have taken different electives in high school than you would think, they may have different lower-level undergrad courses than you expect (this is what was behind my phonemic awareness debacle, incidentally). It is worthwhile doing some formative assessment to know not just WHETHER students have the knowledge and skills your course content will rest upon but HOW those underlying concepts are held. In later blog posts, I’ll be talking about scaffolding instruction to expand upon this.
TWO Learners may like to talk about ideas but not like THAT.
One of the assumptions that we are asked to scrub a lot is that students like talking to share ideas. In my own teaching and at KPU, I hear lots of reports that students do like to engage by talking. However, they may not like talking about ideas in structured groups, in English, or with your topic targets. Offering students the chance to write AND talk, to translate vocabulary terms between languages, to talk through concept maps that can be layered through the course, to discuss through Moodle and in person, or to have “this is what I’m trying to say/mean/learn” conversations, are some starting points. This is what it means to provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression.
THREE Learners dislike lectures (but they do like hearing you talk).
I’m cheating a little bit and wearing my Student Services hat to tell you what I hear from students about their instructors. Students may find long lectures tiring, but they do like hearing you talk, especially when you’re passionate about your subject areas. Stories, anecdotes, rants, thoughts, concerns, positions can all translate a dry lecture into a really fascinating discussion with an expert. Research on developing expertise and mentorship shows the same: as a knowledgeable, experienced instructor, you are the key to deep and meaningful learning experiences that students are likely to carry forward.
FOUR Learners are self-directed.
Thanks to post-war psychology and instrumentalism, we have developed comprehensive frameworks around adulthood, self-regulation, and self-direction. It may surprise you when students seem lost, disorganized, requiring repetition and everybody’s worst nightmare, MAY NOT HAVE READ THE COURSE PRESENTATION. Should they not have learned at least a modicum of self-direction in high school? Or in the early years of post-secondary? Maybe. Probably. But meeting students where they are (another way of anticipating variability) means acknowledging that self-direction grows slowly through time and through teaching experiences that continue through post-secondary and beyond. It may have little to do with age and more to do with opportunities to structure course experiences, be accountable for their activities and interactions, and respond to frequent feedback on their performance. Again, later work on scaffolding learning can flesh out the self-direction issue in greater depth.
FIVE Learners will take any opportunity to disengage.
It seems as instructors we hold two perspectives on engagement. On one hand, we talk about education as an opportunity to learn and succeed and grow. On the other hand, we mark attendance, hand out participation marks, and try to incentivize learning. Student disengagement is one of the chief concerns of Faculty and with good reason – teaching to the disengaged is discouraging and frustrating. Through my UDL work, I have put forward a bunch of ideas to address engagement, and there are instructors at KPU who are doing some truly unique things to address the engagement problem. Here, since we’re scrubbing assumptions, I’d like to take a step back and offer that we take the disposition that students desire to engage (I have never met a student who is themself happy with their disengagement), seek to understand and learn, and in that motivational landscape, try different strategies and approaches to stay in the game. Take a regular engagement pulse, teaching how to check for understanding, how to connect knowledge, and work on meaningful activities with relevant outcomes.
As always, think about assumptions and reflect on what throws you for a curve. The power of better teaching lies in those curves. They push us forward and force us to reconcile our expectations and our outcomes. Scrubbing assumptions work is tough work for this very reason, and help is always available. If you decide to do some assumption work and shift things around, please let me know. In the land of the curve, we are all pilgrims.