Tuesday, May 22, 2007

More From My Universal Design for Learning Paper

...However, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer article previously mentioned, the philosophical tenets of UDL are now being combined with Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences with promising results. Additionally: the UDL/multiple intelligences juggernaut is positively affecting not just atypical learners, but general education children, as well.

"Students who put their heads down on their desks in the past got up and participated," asserted a principal in an elementary school that used UDL in all of its classrooms (Kleinerman, 2006).

This is because, just as architectural universal design promoted better physical accessibility for all to public structures, UDL provides intellectual accessibility to content for a broader range of the population. Student assessment is not limited simply to book reports and multiple-choice exams, as has occurred in the past. In UDL, authentic assessments—graphs, pictures, plays, songs, oral reports, and power point presentations (to name but a few of the many possibilities)--offer students the opportunity to show that they have internalized content. What is more, by allowing students flexibility in how they present acquired knowledge, they are encouraged to manipulate the information in their preferred modality (artistic, kinesthetic, visual, scientific, verbal, analytical, etc.) where they are going to be more comfortable stretching with the material and even, possibly, going farther with a lesson than their teacher could have predicted.

"I see higher levels of thinking emerging, not just rote facts," one teacher proponent in the Cleveland School District stated. Development of these “higher order thinking skills” (those that appear in the second half of Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy: analysis, synthesis, evaluation) is highly sought in today’s schools and from today’s parents, administrators, and politicians. Unfortunately, the recommended avenue for development of these skills currently focuses only on tweaking or revamping punitive, written-language-based, “high-stakes” standardized tests that critics claim do not provide an accurate assessment of student capabilities and actually stifle any other classroom activity beyond “teaching to the test.”

According to Margo Izzo, a strong proponent for UDL and a professor at Ohio State University, approximately thirty percent of learners excel with auditory presentations while just over seventy percent prefer visual. Yet many teachers still depend heavily on lectures as their main form of transmitting content to students while standardized tests rely completely on a language-based model of assessment (Kleinerman, 2006).

In light of Professor Izzo’s research, shouldn’t educators be searching for methods of content transmission and assessment that work with students’ preferred modalities of learning? Otherwise, don’t our public schools then become, as John Goodlad has asserted, nothing more than “sorting mechanisms” that filter out a minority group of students and label them “successful” while leaving the majority of students—including most special education students—with the belief that they are somehow inferior? If our goal as educators is not to “sort,” but in fact to create a population of life-long learners, shouldn’t the act of learning be intentionally designed to be a rewarding experience for as broad a cross-section of the student populace as is possible (Goodlad, 1994, p. 72)?

Additionally, literacy specialists and those that work with English Language Learners have long asserted (and empirically proven) that true written and oral fluency in a second language cannot be achieved until they are first firmly established in the primary language (Rief, 1996, p. 182). Would it not, then, be logical to also conclude that students might not comfortably manipulate content in their weaker learning modalities and reach for those higher-order thinking skills before their preferred learning modalities are fully up and running? What is more, if this is true, then wouldn’t the demand that teachers and students spend more and more of their class time preparing for more and more high-stakes tests--tests that will only accurately reflect the abilities and preferred learning modality of (according to Professor Izzo’s research) thirty percent of the student population--be an exercise in futility, and, in fact, result in boring and alienating the majority of our students instead of educating them?

A caveat: rewarding should not be interpreted as meaning the same thing as easy. Certainly students should be encouraged to stretch in all of the learning modalities, and as the verbal intelligence, in particular, is so valued in our culture and is associated with many of the most desirable careers, it should certainly be fostered and emphasized in any public school curriculum. However, the methods we are currently using to hone these verbal skills may possibly be counterproductive in that they may currently be doing more emotional harm than intellectual good.

A final point: A recent clinical research paper from the American Pediatrics Association emphasized just this point. Empirical evidence performed by the APA indicated that physical activities such as walking and running stimulated activity in the hippocampus of the brain, which in turn actually improved students’ abilities to read, write, retain content, and pay attention—all while simultaneously lowering anxiety levels. Furthermore, the rate of physical activity was directly proportional to the rate of task improvement (Ginsberg, 2006).

Unfortunately, in education’s efforts to boost standardized test scores, many school physical education programs have actually been cut or down-sized in the last decade—are often seen as the most expendable programs in our schools--to allow for more “time on task” in reading and math. Ironically, the noble goal of improving the quality of education our children receive may have actually resulted, instead, in providing them with less opportunity for constructivist connections and personal growth. This narrowly defined use of learning modalities within the classroom stands in direct contrast to the diverse content transmission and assessment opportunities advocated by both multiple intelligence and universal design for learning advocates.

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