Becoming Self-Directed Learners


trying out UDL

I popped into a third grade classroom a few days ago during a math lesson. I was only going to stay for a few minutes, but ended up staying for almost half an hour by the teacher’s invitation. As I got up to leave, he said, “You can’t leave now! We’re getting to the good part!” And boy, was I glad that he encouraged me to stay. I was excited to see that he was trying out some practices based upon universal design for learning (UDL), which is a set of principles for curriculum development that gives all individuals equal opportunities to learn.

Rather than the more traditional approach of designing a lesson and then planning how that lesson can be differentiated based upon the needs of the students, UDL “provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone-not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs.”

The teacher had divided the working portion of the math lesson into three parts. First, students decided if they were ready to independently practice the day’s math concept that had been introduced to the whole group. If they felt they weren’t quite ready, they could join the teacher in a small group for additional support before moving on to the independent work. Once the independent work was completed and checked by the teacher or instructional assistant, students moved to an online program to practice a previously-learned concept. Finally, students decided if they wanted to practice subtraction, multiplication, division, story problems, or challenge themselves using a different online program. (Our third graders have one-to-one iPads for their online work.)

As I watched the students, I was intrigued by how quickly and easily some of them made their decisions regarding independent practice. Approximately half of them joined the teacher for additional learning around the day’s concept while the others got to work at their desks. Among those at their desks, many were able to jump right into the work, but a few were struggling. One girl in particular was quite obviously struggling and not sure what to do. When I asked her what she might to do to move forward, she seemed unsure and she was hesitant to join the small group facilitated by the teacher. After a bit of gentle persuading, I was able to encourage her to join the group.

Afterward I chatted with the teacher and learned that this is a new way of thinking for his students. He (and his wife who teaches another grade) have been discussing how to implement more student voice and choice into their classrooms, and they felt that UDL might be one way to do that. One important point he shared is that he realizes that his students are on a journey. As they become more comfortable with this approach and with making choices based upon what they think they need, students who struggle will feel more empowered to ask for help, and when ready will ask for more challenge.

We often talk about how we want our students to be risk-takers in their learning. How wonderful it is when teachers are also risk-takers! I admire how this third grade teacher is creating an environment that encourages his students to become self-directed learners as he learns along with them.


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