Removing the Barriers

In June 2010 Alberta Education released the document Action on Inclusion.  This was a metamorphosis of ‘Setting the Direction’ which was taking a look at special needs education in the province.  What the department found was that good teaching practice is good teaching practice.  If there is a modification, technology, or assistance that can be given to one student, can that not be best practice for all students?

The document identifies that some students will need long term support, but also that some students may only need short term support.  To help us through understanding Action on Inclusion, Kathy Howery from the University of Alberta came and gave a presentation to both the Elementary and Junior High AISI cohorts.   She is an inspiring person and is passionate about Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Kathy said that many of the technologies we use today, were born out of assistive technologies.  Think about predictive text on our mobile devices.  Predictive text was initially born as an assistive technology and has become common place.  What about sidewalk ramps?  They were initially created as an access for wheel chairs but have gone much further.  People with baby carriages, wagons, small children on bikes, etc use them.  Think about closed-captioning on television.  Initially created for the hearing impaired, closed captioning has become used at gyms, and probably has saved many marriages with televisions in the bedroom.  Spell check is again something that was created for the margins, but has been adopted by the mainstream.  She also makes the argument that some of these tools have become so commonplace, that to remove them would seem unnatural like removing someone’s eyeglasses.

UDL is based on research ( and is based on three principles.

1)   The ‘What’ of Learning – Present information in different ways – Multiple means of representation

2)   The ‘How’ of Learning – Differentiate the ways students express what they know

3)   The ‘Why’ of Learning – Provide multiple means of engagement.

In her presentation Kathy used an example of a novel study for high school English.  I believe the novel was Huckleberry Finn.

So we have the traditional model of Teacher Assigns Novel –> Students Read Novel –>Students synthesize Novel (Formal Assessment).

UDL would take a different spin on this.  Depending on the individual’s need, ‘reading’ the novel could be: listening to an audio book on an iPod, using a ‘coles notes’ version, watching the movie, reading a synopsis on Wikipedia, or using 60secondrecap just to name a few.  Then students may choose a different way to show their work. They could do a voicethread, make a video,  a dramatization,  a photostory, a concept map, a dance, a traditional report or even a blog!

What UDL recognizes is that we as teachers need to take a proactive and inclusive approach to the diverse student population that is before us.  We cannot continue to teach to that elusive ‘middle ground’ one-size-fits all student, because they do not exist.  We need to create pathways and remove barriers to student learning.  Students need choice, options and flexibility in their schooling.

A real obstacle facing UDL (and Action on Inclusion) is curriculum, more specifically the current Program of Studies.  The current POS has a narrow focus and constructs barriers.  As a result of Action on Inclusion, the province of Alberta has embarked on the next phase, Action on Curriculum.  AOC is seeking to completely re-think curriculum and its delivery in Alberta.   Action on Curriculum has the power to completely transform our current model and what we think about ‘school’.  Click this link and watch the short video.  I found it inspiring and forward thinking – we may just do what’s best for kids yet!


2 thoughts on “Removing the Barriers

  1. Thanks, Jeff. Nice to see this kind of discussion and deliberate initiative. If we worship at the alter of prescribed curriculum and standardized measures of outcome, and we reward kids, teachers, schools, and divisions based on performance, we do a disservice to a lot of people — including the people who perform at a high level.

    My son has Down syndrome. Now, at the age of 37, he has a full life. A big part of that life is that he can read and write, and I’ve often said (not facetiously) that in his heart he is the most intellectual of our three kids.

    But his intellectual life, and his enjoyment of much of the rest of his life, is due in large part to the courageous and dedicated work of some teachers along the way. They believed in Jim. They believed he was worth their time. They saw him as just another kid in the classroom. They didn’t treat him as “special” and he flourished in his own way in those settings. And Jim, in turn, no doubt helped a lot of his classmates grow up to be people who were tolerant, understanding, and who didn’t see people with disabilities as different.

    But he wouldn’t have performed well on standardized tests. He would have dragged down the school’s performance rating. He would have been a problem rather than just another kid finding his way in the schools he was in. But thanks to some great teachers and administrators (and friends) and a system that wasn’t draconian, Jim is a proud and productive citizen who has a job, friends, and a full life.

    Thanks to teachers who see all kids, even those with disabilities, as part of the natural fabric of their classrooms.

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