BRIC: Equitable Education through UDL

Our group decided to read and discuss Equity by Design: Delivering on the Power and Promise of UDL by Mirko Chardin and Katie Novak because we were interested in equitable education through universal design learning. We have found that our students face structural barriers to the learning and wanted to explore ways that we could break down those inequitable barriers by consciously designing our curriculum with UDL as a framework. We met five times and discussed 1 or 2 chapters at each meeting.

At our first meeting, we discussed final outcomes for our project and agreed that two of the questions at the start of the book (Chardin and Novak 8) would be useful to focus on. They are:

  • What world, society, and/or time period are we preparing them [students] for?
  • What does it look, feel, and sound like when we are successful?

Throughout our inquiry circle meetings, we formulated several responses to these questions.

For the first question (What world, society, and/or time period are we preparing them [students] for?), we found the book’s emphasis on student-centered learning as the cornerstone of equitable UDL to be helpful in guiding our discussions. One thing we realized is that students don’t simply want information that they can retrieve from the internet; they want to learn transferrable skills. We could see that a shift in course design from a content-based focus to a skills-based focus could allow us to provide more flexible and equitable instruction. By letting go of rigid content, we can move away from a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum and instead promote student “choice and voice” (5). We also appreciated the authors’ explanation that a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum is based on an equality mindset while UDL is based on an equity mindset. As Chardin and Novak put it, “The UDL framework was designed to eliminate inequities, not perpetuate equality” (14).

To end our response to this first guiding question, we want to share a discussion we had in our last meeting. At this meeting, we discussed how the case studies we read in the book were interesting but not necessarily applicable to our own classes, so we decided to use our own classes as case studies. We all teach research in our classes and talked about the issue of students who want to take on a broad research topic that would be too large for them to complete with any depth within the parameters of the assignment (a Psychology research study or an English 102 research paper). But what about the student choice and voice that we agreed was so important in equitable education? To address this question, we turned to Chardin and Novak, who stress that “UDL is a goal-based framework with high expectations for all students” (73) with through a “buffet of methods, materials, and assessments to meet the intended goal” (71). In other words, we have a responsibility to teach our students the skill of narrowing down a research topic, and we also need to have multiple ways in how we teach that skill, what we use to teach it, and how we assess it. In other words—high standards with flexible means.

This final discussion brought us back to the three core principles of UDL that were referenced several times in the book. The source for these guidelines is CAST UDL Guidelines, 2018.

  1. Multiple means of engagement
  2. Multiple means of representation
  3. Multiple means of action and expression

The second guiding question (What does it look, feel, and sound like when we are successful?) was also helpful in focusing our discussions. We agreed that before we could evaluate whether we were successful in designing an equitable classroom, we needed to identify barriers to student success. This led us to share various ways we collect information about structural barriers to education from individual students and how to encourage them to share their experiences. All of us do some sort of student survey at the start of the quarter, and we shared the prompts we use in those surveys. One important thing we realized is that we need to be transparent about our own commitment to equitable education through a UDL framework. This led to discussions about how we assess our success, and we shared practices such as conducting periodic check-ins, surveys, course reflections, etc. for students to reflect on their classroom experiences and give us feedback. Through these means of assessment, students have shared with us that UDL policies such as flexible attendance and flexible assignment due dates have reduced significant accessibility barriers.

Based on our responses to the above guiding questions, we want to offer a final takeaway. We found it incredibly valuable to talk through the individual struggles and successes we had in implementing UDL practices within our BRIC group. The opportunity to collaborate with each other helped us envision ways that we could make our teaching more flexible and student-centered in ways that we might have struggled to do individually. To wrap up, we would like to give a heartfelt “thank you” to the district Faculty Development office for supporting our book read inquiry circle!

Submitted by Diana Ma (faculty lead), Faculty in English and Humanities, North Seattle College