Everyone has their ideas about what will fix education. One way to categorize these ideas is through the dichotomy of progressivism and traditionalism. Progressive approaches emphasize setting the conditions to allow students to find their own way to subjects, and traditional approaches emphasize the importance of an expert bringing subjects that are of value for society to the student. It’s obviously a bit more complicated than this, as we discussed in 10 episodes of the podcast, Progressively Incorrect.
Another way to categorize the various solutions in education is whether they place an emphasis on the individual or the collective. On the one hand, we cannot deny that our classes are filled with 30 individuals who differ in significant ways. Everyone, apart from twins, is born with a unique genetic makeup and raised in separate environments from each other. Here in the U.S., where individual freedom is held sacred, the education system seems particularly eager to impose reforms that hyper-individualize the curriculum based on difference. Learning styles and preferences, personalized learning, student voice and choice, and now UDL, are based on individualistic assumptions.
On the other hand, as most teachers don’t deal with single students but with groups of 30, it makes sense to focus on what students have in common. We can be confident, for example, that the limitations of working memory, the importance of practice, and the need to distribute that practice over time will hold true for all students. The fact that there are common properties of students’ minds means it’s possible to identify practices and principles for “what works”. Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction is an example of an inventory of such core practices and principles. In the event that our formative assessments tell us that a student did not learn from the most effective methods we know of – modeling, guided practice, repetition, feedback, and so on – we can use frameworks such as RTI to design and carry out interventions. We might look for ways to address the learning gap through small group instruction, or we might decide to make an accommodation or modification to the curriculum in accordance with the student’s IEP. This systematic approach to teaching and learning is how the best teachers, in my view, transform groups of seemingly dissimilar students into competent, self-efficacious classroom communities.
The New Kid on the Block
I recently attended a webinar on Universal Design for Learning (UDL), the latest take on the old idea that individuality, not commonality, should steer teachers’ decision-making. If we were an evidence-informed profession, we would dismiss UDL on the grounds that randomized controlled trials and meta-analyses have yet to demonstrate its effectiveness (Boysen, 2021). But we are not a profession that concerns itself with evidence, and UDL sounds promising because it proports to make learning accessible to everyone. I was hoping the webinar would deliver a compelling argument for how UDL improves upon the standard teach-assess-differentiate model that is the cornerstone of RTI and high quality instruction.
The presentation began with a slide displaying the pithy maxim that “variation is the rule, not the exception.” Fine. What does this mean for teaching phonics, 5 paragraph essays, or the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt? Sadly, the speaker basically refused to provide specific examples of practical classroom applications. Why? Because students are, apparently, so different from each other (they even change day to day, minute by minute) that it’s impossible to prescribe guidelines for teachers. We were also told to accept a number of terrible metaphors, including a pool party that forced attendees to wear a one-sized-fits-all bathing suit. If you wouldn’t plan a party like this, why would you teach like this? Again, there were no specific accommodations, modifications, or logistical considerations of a UDL-based system that could be shared. Are we permitted to allow partygoers to bring their own bathing suits, but forbid skinny dipping? Or is that not kosher in UDL?
Clearly, education would benefit from fewer of these nebulous presentations, and greater attention towards implementing the strategies that research in instructional design and cognitive science tell us will have the highest impact on learning. Modeling and worked examples help embed information initially, before guided practice and questioning take center stage. Scaffolds ought to be gradually removed to allow students to practice independently. Formative assessment and feedback allow teachers to respond in real time to student misunderstandings. Providing students with opportunities to review in spaced out intervals helps students to further cement these new understandings.
The most interesting moment of the presentation, for me, was when one of the speakers cited the cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham, as an important influence on his work. He even recommended we check out Willingham’s excellent book, Why Don’t Students Like School?. I wonder if the speaker has ever read what Willingham has to say on his presentation’s topic:
Of course, students will differ with regard to how they respond to and benefit from any single instructional strategy in a given lesson. There is no doubt that students have individual differences that are both situational and preferential. And there is no doubt that effective teachers address these differences using their own experience as a guide.
But when it comes to applying research to the classroom, it seems inadvisable to categorize students into more and more specialized groups on the basis of peripheral differences when education and cognitive sciences have made significant progress in describing the core competencies all students share. Teachers can make great strides in improving student achievement by leveraging this body of research and teaching to commonalities, not differences.
Willingham & Daniel, 2012
Boysen, G. A. (2021). Lessons (not) learned: The troubling similarities between learning styles and universal design for learning. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000280
Willingham, D., & Daniel, D. (2012). Teaching to what students have in common. In Educational Leadership (Vol. 69, pp. 16–21).