Friday, July 3, 2015

Where are all the Expert Learners?

Guest post by Bill McGrath, Instructional Specialist, Montgomery County Public Schools, MD 

I work on a district-level team called HIAT (High Incident Accessible Technology) where we advocate the use of Universal Design for Learning as a critical framework to respond to the great diversity in our county. It has been a consistent and deliberate patchwork of seeding and growing UDL implementation projects with teachers, schools, and curriculum offices, never been a top-down district initiative. 

Why is UDL important for teaching and learning for all learners?

When you see the various levels of UDL implemented in the classroom, right away you can see the benefits to learners. Impressive changes happen with levels of student engagement. Student on-task behavior improves. Students with more persistent and complicated learning barriers can have greater and more routine access to rigorous academic content. Teachers seem happier and better resourced to respond to diversity. UDL can look like a magic bullet.  

As you walk into a classroom designed more along the UDL principles, almost every observer notes a change in control. Students are driving more of the decisions in how learning takes place. There are varied pathways to instructional goals. These new routes are intended to be more efficient and avoid barriers to success. Our best teachers try to anticipate learners’ preferences and needs, watch the varied learning that is taking place, and measure success towards learning goals in innovative ways. They adjust their subsequent learning designs based on new insights on the interaction of their learners with the more flexible design of learning.

By itself, giving students greater control to drive on roads that we think will be more engaging and accessible is not UDL. Students need hints on which routes may work for them and instruction to understand the road signs. Students may need to watch how we drive and hear us talk about our own driving so that they can understand effective thinking and problem solving on the road. Students need time to share their experiences on the road with their peers and teachers to get fresh perspectives on new routes that may work better. Setting a goal that students learn to drive through active planning, reflection and feedback is essential.   

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After a decade of watching UDL go from theory to practice in hundreds of classrooms, I have very little confidence that this learning to drive takes place in what we may describe as “UDL classrooms”.  We can get trapped in excitement by watching all the new driving by students. I worry that we are settling for just getting students behind the wheel. We need to ask ourselves if students are being taught to navigate independently and efficiently. We can lose sight of the goal for UDL: that each and every student becomes an expert learner. 

The UDL framework gives us guidelines and a vision to build expert learners:
  • Learners who can navigate flexible learning opportunities with great skill.  
  • Learners who do not just navigate but are active partners and innovators in the design of future learning.  
UDL tells us how to do this so it can work for each and every learner.  

So if the UDL framework gives us a vision and path towards the development 
 of expert learners, how can our implementation efforts be changed to ensure this happens?

My perception from watching UDL implementation unfold is that we have figured out much of the complicated work of implementing UDL. With a lot of effort, persistence and thoughtful planning, we can get the adults to give up some control over the learning process. We can change their perception of students’ diversity not as problems but as opportunities to create deeper and more varied learning for everyone.  

So what do we need to do differently to reach the goal of expert learning by all of our students?  

Reaching the goal of expert learners requires sharper intention and greater clarity of vision throughout the implementation process.  I have ten suggestions that I think may be helpful.

Teachers can:

1.   Make their intentions clear.  Tell students you expect them to be expert learners.  Explain what that means.  Talk to teachers, parents and district leaders of what this will look like.  Set a clear expectation.  Tell them to hold the UDL implementation process accountable for getting there.

2.   Be more curious than diagnostic with students.  Stop trying to figure out your students.  Not forever but at least for a bit.  Expect to be surprised at how your students learn best. Remember that this can vary significantly across environments and tasks. Know that the job of UDL implementation is not for you to figure out your students. It is for the students to figure out themselves and act on that new self knowledge effectively.

3.   Teach the language of expert learners.  Your students don’t know the language of being an expert learner, so teach it explicitly. Recognize that this is a language that can be adjusted for each learner at every age. It should include speech, writing, symbols and non-verbal means of communication.

4.   Model metacognition constantly. Expect teachers to routinely make their thinking behind UDL design transparent. Give them sentence starters to help them, such as framing choices with phrases like, “so for me as a learner, I would…”.

5.   Use UDL to teach UDL. Your design for helping students become expert learners by modeling, active learning, reflection and feedback is like all other learning design.  It includes each and every learner.  No one is left out.

Implementation leaders can...

6.   Make it easy.  Facilitating the growth of expert learners and metacognition can seem overwhelming and more than a little mysterious to teachers.  It doesn’t need to be that way. If there are simple ways to have students reflect on how they learn best in a UDL classroom, just give teachers examples from day one of implementation. If a simple exit ticket works for students to reflect on how they learn best after a lesson, give it to the teachers and tell them to use it at least once week. Simply have students start talking about how they best learn. This can be an area ripe for implementation paralysis by analysis.  Don’t over-think it.

7.   Ensure that students have a “voice” in implementation. Use the student self-reflection data from exit tickets, surveys, group discussions, interviews or other means to monitor that real UDL implementation is happening and to document the impact. Make sure teachers are using this student voice data to adjust their learning designs.

8.   Tell stories of more than engagement, access and academic achievement. Use videos, audio, quotes and other ways of storytelling to craft a narrative of wonderfully diverse expert learners effectively navigating through a world of learning that is flexible and accessible.

9.   Be patient.  Help teachers create systems to make this learning part of daily routines. Let it get a little messy. Recognize that since they are designing for greater flexibility and access there is going to be more engagement, access and learning than before even as this expert learner piece is given some space to develop.

10. Relentlessly ask: Where are the expert learners?  Everyone who cares about UDL should find opportunities to walk into schools, observe teaching and learning, and ask this question. Students should be told to ask it of their teachers.  Parents and other community stakeholders need be be asking this at the school and district levels. Researchers need to be asking this as they continue to explore ways to document that UDL is being implemented and why it matters. Everyone who asks this question should be deeply dissatisfied with the answer right now.  This dissatisfaction should drive our communities of teaching and learning to seek solutions to this problem. 

So where are all the expert learners?     

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UDL is a critical element of how we can respond with confidence and clarity. This needs to be a big part of our work right now and into the coming decade if we want to see the true potential of Universal Design for Learning.  

“UDL is just how we need to do the business of teaching and learning.”    

Both photos located on


Bill McGrath, MS, OTR/L

Instructional Specialist

Bill works supporting assistive technology consideration, school and district level UDL implementation, and school-based therapy services in a large school district in Maryland adjacent to Washington, DC.  Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has over 200 schools, 150,000 students, and 10,000 teachers and professional staff.  Over 15,000 students receive special education services and 20,000 do not speak English as their first language.  

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