Jennifer Pusateri joined us on episode 033 Jennifer Shares Universal Design to discuss her work helping teachers implement UDL in their curriculum.
Michael Ralph: So for our 1st segment we’re joined by a guest, Jennifer Pusateri. Welcome Jennifer.
Jennifer Pusateri: Hi. Thanks for having me.
MR: We’re excited to have you on to chat with us. Jennifer Pusateri works at the University of Kentucky to infuse universal design for learning into college instruction. She believes all students benefit from the opportunity to learn and show what they know in a variety of ways. We’re so pleased to have you on, welcome.
JP: Hi. Thanks so much.
Laurence Woodruff: Our 1st paper that we’re discussing today is “Organizing Inclusive Schools,” written by Kinsella, Published in 2018 in the International Journal of inclusive education.
MR: And it is about universal design which is your area of expertise, so why don’t we ask you? What is universal design for learning or UDL?
JP: So UDL came out of the Universal Design movement, actually an architecture and product design, and so it’s things that we would know today that we see everywhere. Things like curb cutouts, the little ramp things that go from the sidewalk down to the road. Things like the automatic doors at the grocery store. Those kinds of things were put in place for people for who had specific needs, right? Physical needs to get from one place to another, to be able to exit or enter a store. All those things were put in place for that one particular group. What happens is the rest of us find really good uses for those things as well. So the curb cut outs, in the street, I use those all the time if I’m out, maybe I’m walking with a baby in a stroller, or maybe I’m someone who’s walking with a walker, If I’m older, or a cane, or any of those things. The pieces that were put in place to benefit people with physical disabilities are now useful for the rest of us. We translate that idea into education. The universe of design for learning suggests that instead of trying to change the learner with accommodations and things like that, to fit into the actual education system that we have, instead of doing that what we should do is we should start changing the system so that it can fit a variety of learning needs, and that’s really what we have in our classrooms, is a huge variety of learning needs, so our one size fits all way to address that is really not…, it’s not working real well.
LW: We’ve got issues of inclusion and we’ve got issues of universal design and so this paper was about inclusion, so what is inclusion and how is it better served through a systematic approach of universal design versus the current approach of special education practices?
JP: I guess at the beginning of what we think of as a special education, people were really just fighting for the right to actually have access to education period. That’s kind of how that started, and then when we started to get students in our classrooms that we didn’t know what to do with, we as teachers, we started to look for ways to both accommodate the students in some way and also to make our jobs a little bit more, I guess, less stressful, to make our jobs less stressful for us as teachers. It’s really hard to teach students that have special needs if you are doing that in a traditional way. We moved at some point to having students with special needs in traditional schools but they were in a separate area. Where I was growing up there was the special ed hallway. That was the hallway that all the students who had some kind of a special need, they were in that hallway, and they very rarely interacted with the rest of the students. Then we moved to another model, which is sort of where we’re still living in education and that’s looking at something called differentiation. And in differentiation, as I’m sure you all know, is really about trying to meet the needs of the diverse learners in your classroom by creating different forms of fill-in-the-blank, right? Different spelling lists aimed at different levels of learning. Some people will try to cater to learning styles, which is not a thing even. Learning styles is not a thing. That’s one way of differentiating. Differentiation sets the teacher up for failure, if you ask me, because it’s impossible to be able to teach each student in the way that they need to be taught at the same time. Like a short order cook situation. That’s not working real well either, and so teachers are sort of at this place where they don’t…., We don’t want to leave students out, but we don’t know how to take care of everyone’s learning needs at the same time when we have 27-35 students in our classroom. That’s the dilemma. That’s kind of where we are right now in education.
MR: If differentiation is, “I have to make a decision about what each of my 35 students in my classroom needs to be getting on this day for this moment,” it is not a leap to say that is not feasible. That is not a reasonable expectation for one person. So it begs the question I suppose, cause they are unique learners. They all have different background experiences. they all have different lived experiences. They all have different needs and different challenges in front of them, so they are necessarily going to need different things. Then it begs the question, “How can I change my approach to designing the system? How can I change my approach to designing my classroom paradigm so that I can be set up to maybe approach this in a way that doesn’t bottleneck at me as a teacher?” Is that a reasonable next question?
JP: Let me use an example as an analogy that I have heard a couple people use, Katie Novak who is a UDL guru, author, speaker, etc. She’s actually also the assistant superintendent of the school district so I don’t know how she does all those things, but she does. One of the analogies that I’ve heard Katie use, and I’ve heard other people use as well is about thinking of teaching as throwing a dinner party. If I’m going to throw a dinner party in the traditional sense, I would decide that I’m going to have one thing, right? I’m going to use a Mexican Lasagna, as my example. That’s what I’m going to make. I found this great recipe, it’s delicious and everybody loves it, and so we’re going to have that at my party that I’m throwing, my imaginary party. That’s really the traditional model of teaching. I’m going to do this one way and I’m going to hope for the best. What happens then is if this is a dinner party situation, well maybe I send out an Evite and then I get a text back from one of my friends saying, “Oh Hey, did you remember that my husband is allergic to onions.” I’m like, Ok, well I mean there are onions in the recipe. Well Ok so I guess what I’ll do is I’ll create a version of this Mexican lasagna that’s just normal, like the regular version, and then I’ll just make a little small tiny version of that with no onions. Now I’m making the 2 things. Then I get another text from another friend let’s say and they said, “Hey, did you remember that I’m a vegetarian? I just want to check and see if there’s going to meat in this lasagna that you’re creating, this Mexican lasagna. Now, as the hostess, I want to make sure that all the needs are met of the people that I’m inviting to this party, so now I’m going to make my original Mexican lasagna, I’m also going to be making the version that doesn’t have any onions in it, and then I’m just going to create some, I don’t know beans and rice, I guess for people who maybe are vegetarian. Now I’m creating these different meals, right? One after the other, and making myself crazy as a host. So that’s really kind of what differentiation looks like. It looks like making one change at one time for one student. Universal design for learning would say, let’s just take a pause right there, and instead of doing that, what if we thought about this in a different way. You can still have a delightful dinner party, but instead why don’t you create a taco bar, and so for this taco bar, you put all the individual ingredients out like you would see at a Qudoba or something and people can go through the line and get whatever it is that they are able to eat. If we think about it from that way, in an educational setting, that’s really going to meet the needs of the learners around me. I’m incorporating student choice into that and letting them choose the something that will work for them and letting them choose if they need extra help or not and letting them choose something that’s going to motivate them and interest them as a learner. That’s really more of what universal design for learning is in that setting and I really like that analogy you like it makes it a little more clear. It’s kind of hard. It’s a hard thing to grasp if you are thinking about it from a traditional teaching mindset.
LW: The analogy feels good but a classroom is, you know, this complex set of behaviors, and response to stimuli, and constructed experiences presented and interacted with between teachers and students. What would a taco bar look like if someone, “Yeah I’m all in, let’s not make them lasagna. Let’s go taco bar.” What does that look like for a practitioner?
JP: Yeah. I think it’s hard for people to kind of grasp at 1st. Because, you know, as a teacher myself, my immediate thought is, “Well, yeah, but you have to teach some things.” You can’t just say, “Everybody picks what they get to do today and if you want to play video games online all day you can do that.” I mean that’s not reasonable of course, right? As a teacher, I’m trying to figure out how this kind of thing would work. The way that people think about this through a UDL lens is, the 1st thing you think about is your goal right? What is the goal of the lesson? This in most cases would be whatever the standards are, if you use the Common Core or something else in the state that you live in, so whatever your goal is, when you think about that goal, and instead of going straight to, “Ok. How am I going to teach this?” we want to think about what’s the goal, and then what are all the different ways that I can get students to that goal, because it doesn’t have to be reading a book and it doesn’t have to be writing a paper as an assessment. Even though those things are kind of our default in education, it doesn’t have to be like that. I can incorporate choices in some place in the lesson plan. Even if it’s a lesson, let’s say it’s a lesson on writing where you actually have to write. It’s a writing standard. I can still offer students choices depending on whatever it is that we are learning about. If we’re learning about how to construct a persuasive essay, then I don’t necessarily care as a teacher what their persuasive essay is about, I can put the choices and by allowing them to choose whatever it is they would like to persuade me about. That is really one way to think about UDL is, “How can I incorporate some kind of student choice? How can I get students to meet the goal that we’re supposed to be working on, but have a way for them to have some agency and some options in there as well.”
MR: We’re both science teachers so I’m thinking about this from a science perspective and what I really appreciate you emphasizing is being thoughtful about, “What are my specific priorities?” and then pruning away all the prescription, all of the predefinition that I might include in that delivery that’s not specifically in service to my priority. There’s a lot of them, and especially when you take some time and really reflect on, “Why am I doing this the way I’m doing it?” I know that I’ve been surprised on more than one occasion by how many things I take for granted that once, especially now that I train teachers, they ask me, “Why does it have to be this way?” and I find, “Oh my gosh, I have no idea why it has to be this way.” There are all sorts of ways it could be. Something that comes out of your comments just now that I think might be worth commenting on for a moment is I think specifically about letting students choose how they might approach scientific inquiry, and so maybe I have 6 major inquiry investigations that I want to pursue in the course of a semester and so I could maybe imagine if I asked them you can dive into the scientific literature, or you can build a model, or you can do an experiment, so you let me know what you want to emphasize and what you want, what you think is important in tackling this inquiry this time, I can imagine, if for no other reason than through sheer chance, that some students might never choose to get into the scientific literature, and so how do you walk that line of the classroom teacher, how you walk that line between, I want to provide a lot of choice but there are times where maybe it’s not important me that I prescribe this particular skill right in this moment, but if I if I never prescribe it, it would be very easy to let things fall through the cracks. How do you navigate that tension as a teacher?
JP: Yeah. That’s a great question and it really comes down to barriers. What barriers are going to be put in place for students, and that’s a huge tenet of UDL, is thinking about what barriers might be in place for students and how can we remove those as instructors. In some of the trainings I’ve done I use this one slide and I want to describe because I think it helps with with what we’re talking about. So we’re talking about goals and how do we modify our goal so that we’re giving students some kind of choice or a way to think about using different options or whatever. I use this example of one particular “I can” statement. This might say I can successfully write a 3.8 paragraph, which apparently is some kind of paragraph, that compares and contrasts adjectives and adverbs. That might be a typical “I can” statement that a teacher would have on their on their board, right? We’re going to write this paragraph, and it’s going to tell us about how we can compare and contrast adjectives and adverbs. If that’s the goal, The goal really is not necessarily about writing a paragraph, the goal is about comparing and contrasting adjectives and adverbs. If I’m giving that assignment, in order to be successful at that assignment, the student has to do like a ton of things. They have to be able to do these, a whole bunch of things, so here are some of the examples. They need to be able to physically write or type. They need to be able to speak and write in English. They need to know what an essay is. They need to know what a sentence is. They need to know what a topic sentence is. Then you need to know how to use spelling, how to use grammar, how to code switch, how to use pre-planning and writing skills and revision skills. They need to be able to tune out distractions and stay on…, I mean this goes on and on and on. This list goes on and on. Of all of the things that are being expected of a student when I’m just asking them to write a paragraph that compares and contrasts additives in adverbs. Now am I saying that we shouldn’t do that? No. Absolutely not. But of all of the things that are on this list the only thing I really needed them to be able to do was to understand the content, for them to be able to somehow tell me the difference between adjectives and adverbs. If that’s my goal, then by not thinking about barriers, by just completely ignoring student variety in my classroom, I have now set students up for some failure, because of the barriers that are now in place. If I have a student my classroom who maybe is an English language learner. This is going to be a huge barrier, whereas if we just sat down and they were able to explain it to me or maybe they would do a Madlib, for example, and they could tell me that way what the difference is between adjectives and adverbs, that wouldn’t be a barrier, but the way I’ve set it up right now when there is no choice involved, and no attention paid to student variety, that’s where we really run into problems.
MR: One of the things that I appreciate the most in this description, when I think about differentiation, I like to shift to think about how can people self differentiate, how can I advocate for what I need, and that’s sort of how I think about that process. That’s really what you’re describing here and I think about one of the essences of UDL as I’m learning about it is spend the time to think about what are all of the different ways that a student might encounter a barrier, and trying to engage in the learning experience I’ve designed for them, this paper laid out really well that some folks, in the past, have been really focused on applying labels, but there are all sorts of reasons some of which are labelable, and some of which aren’t labeled, they’re just things that may come and go as each day passes, and all of them can be barriers. If we stop concerning ourselves about trying to apply labels to people and then it tries to, as a teacher, apply a solution through me to every single student, and start just saying, what can I make available to everyone, you can solve a lot of those problems, some of which are not predictable, some of them come and go just as each student’s needs come and go throughout the course of the day. I really appreciate that description of all of those barriers matter for learning and that’s why we’re there. Our job is to remove those barriers or give students the tools to overcome those barriers so they can get what they need in each of those moments.
LW: If you’ve got a teacher who is on the, “Yeah let’s do this universal design for learning. I’m all in. I’m gonna do everything I can,” there are still going to have, and it was mentioned in the paper, they’re still going to have relationships with other actors in that building. Those other actors are going to have expectations for what should be done by that teacher for students and what those students should be doing in relation to that teacher and other teachers in the building and they’re going to be expectations so when a teacher goes gungho, and they start doing things in a classroom that doesn’t look like what the building standards and practices and expectations have been, then the standard relationships get shaken, and so the paper started to take a look at this from a, “How do we change the system?” perspective. When these practices are so systematically inherited over time.
JP: Now, I’ll tell you UDL tends to work best when you have some administrative support. That’s not to say that a UDL lone wolf teacher in a building can’t make some significant changes in the classroom, of course they can, but it definitely works best when they’ve got the support of the people around them. The way that I’ve worked with teachers that I think has been pretty effective is saying, you know, looking at, what is the problem? We can’t do all the things all at once, right? Maybe I just determine that generally my students in my classes are not turning homework in enough, right? Their completion rates for homework and in class work even, is not super great. They’re not doing great at that. Maybe I want to pick that one thing and work on that thing during the school year, and then after I’ve made the change that I think goes along with that using the UDL framework to figure out what I think the problem is and how I can solve that problem so once I’ve got back in place and I make a change, then I can hold that change in place for the next school year, and next school year I find something different to focus on. I continue to do whatever the changes I made for this year but I now add something. We call that plus one thinking in UDL. Make one change, make one addition, add one thing. A lot of times this comes up in, well, in higher ed at least, this comes up in the area of testing and assessments. If all you’ve ever done, for ever and ever is give a final exam, fine continue to give your final exam, but also maybe you want to offer that in a different option as well. Maybe next year you add, students can can do a presentation, or they can take a final exam, Great, so now students have got 2 choices. Then the next school year I maybe decide that I’m going to add something else, so now they can choose from taking a final exam, from giving a presentation, or they can create some kind of a model to represent something, or whatever. I’m adding one thing each year. To me, if I’m a teacher that is sort of on the fence about it, or a little anxious about making that many changes in my classroom at once, definitely start just with one thing. Find one thing and make that change and try it out to see how it goes. Think of it like an experiment. You know I’m going to see how this goes. If it goes great, fantastic, I’m going to keep that. if it doesn’t go great, we’ll try something different. I think it’s giving yourself the option and they talked about this little bit in the article, but people need the option to fail. They need to be allowed to fail sometimes. In the high stakes world that we’re in now in education, we don’t get that a lot. And I’ve really enjoyed some of the things I’ve seen from people who are implementing UDL at the school and district levels is that they feel like it’s Ok to fail every now and then, because it’s such a helpful learning experience.
LW: Of course it’s so very important because that’s just an intrinsic part of the learning process. Your students need to make mistakes and then learn how to rectify them and so in our practice we need to make mistakes and learn how to improve them and we have to try things that we’re not good at before we become good at them, so even if it is a great technique, if you try it you have to practice it before it becomes something that you can actually say that you’ve given it a shot. You try and fail several times.
MR: Yes so there were a lot of pieces in this paper that gave me something to think about. I particularly appreciated when they presented opposing viewpoints to describe the tension between those viewpoints or possible harmony between the perspectives, but as somebody who’s spent a lot of time developing expertise in UDL is there anything that you would like to prompt the authors to think more about.
JP: Yes. One section, well, one thing actually stood out to me throughout the paper. It mentioned, this wasn’t a part that we talked about a little bit earlier, but it mentioned something about through individual development of every person in the organization and etc. etc., it goes on to say basically that this is one of the ways that you can make lasting change within your organization, is by soliciting the opinions and the ideas of everyone in the organization. But the paper and the article in the study itself really only looked at 3 groups. They looked at students, they looked at teachers, and they looked at principals. To me that’s not the whole school community. I mean there are para-educators, or teacher assistants. There are other forms of administrators like school counselors. Here in Kentucky we have family resource centers or student resource centers. There are the people that work in the cafeteria. There are the bus drivers. There are the families. I feel like there were some groups and some consistencies that were left out. I feel like that’s a big part of the school.
MR: Jennifer, we really appreciate you taking the time to share your expertise with us and help us think a bit more about making our classrooms inclusive. If any of our listeners are interested in learning more about who you are or the work that you do, or maybe some of the resources that are available for implementing a UDL framework in their instructional environments, where can they find things that you do.
JP: I am on Twitter. Love Twitter, and if you are a teacher and you are not on Twitter let me just say right now that I highly recommend it because there are a lot of teachers that have online chats and they occur any time throughout the week and you can get online and talk about things that you’re super passionate about like universal design for learning, or there’s tons of them. There’s some for librarians, and there’s some for technology. I mean there’s all kinds of these great chats that you can interact with instructors and other teachers from not just in America but all around the world. So anyway I’m on Twitter and I love it. My Twitter handle is @Jen That’s j e n underscore pusateri, P as in Paul, USA, T as in tango e r i.