Creating Accessible Learning Environments for All—Questions That Can Guide Our Design
This week I would like to introduce guest blogger, Matt Brenner, District Technology Coach for Southwest Allen County Schools (SACS) and SACS AEMing for Achievement grant team member. Each year as part of the grant process, all the teams meet in January to share positive outcomes thus far and goals for the remainder of the year. As the representative for his team, Matt shared four guiding questions they are using to drive their team's and district's discussion on accessibility. Because many other teams were finding the use of these guiding questions to be insightful and inspiring during the meeting, I'm grateful and excited that he agreed to share the four questions in this blog just for you!
Educators have always believed that variability exists between learners, yet our instructional practices do not always address this belief. While this gap between our educational beliefs and our practices was already worthy of attention prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a renewed awareness of it because of the many struggles students, educators, and families experienced during the past two years. These common struggles have created an opportunity for us to re-examine our beliefs, continue to ask questions about our instructional practices, and work together to determine how to make learning more accessible to all students.
Making learning accessible for all is the goal of educators. While accessibility is a simple concept in theory, it can become more complicated as it is put into practice. We need to acknowledge its complexity by modeling the practice of asking questions to gain a better understanding and to frame our conversations about accessibility. This will lead to logical, purposeful, and well-intended discourse to occur and to better outcomes for all of our learners. Let’s explore what questions we can use to guide our conversations around accessibility.
Four Fundamental Questions About Accessibility
- To whom are our learning environments truly accessible? A learning environment includes more than just the physical space of a classroom. We need to expand our understanding of both where learning can take place and what needs to be available for learning to take place. A learning environment includes the physical location of the learning, the resources and curriculum available to the students, and the lesson design. Let’s quickly examine a typical curriculum or lesson materials. Most curriculum and educational materials are designed and developed to address the needs of the so-called ‘average student’ and the ‘average brain.’ Through modern educational neuroscience, we have learned that there is no average student, nor is there an average brain. But because the majority of our curriculum and instructional practices are implemented through this lens of designing for ‘the average,’ we unintentionally make learning inaccessible by placing barriers within our environments. This means that for many of our learners, much of their learning is not accessible because of a barrier that was inadvertently placed within the lesson design. For example, we may introduce a concept to a student and assume that they have the background knowledge necessary to become (and remain) engaged throughout the entire lesson. However, their lack of background knowledge to the topic is actually a barrier to them engaging in the lesson. To reduce that barrier, a teacher can activate or supply background knowledge through providing visuals, demonstrations, or models. By doing so, that barrier has been reduced and students are more likely to engage and persist in their learning. We need to acknowledge that the barriers to learning are not within the learner, but in how the learning environment is designed.
- Under what conditions are they truly accessible? Educational neuroscience has also made clear that learners do not have one global, or fixed, learning profile. Instead, they have jagged learning profiles that may shift depending on a variety of factors. Context truly makes a difference. Simply put, what may be accessible to one type of learner in one setting may be inaccessible to the same learner in a different setting. We need to be mindful of this reality as we consider the accessibility of our learning environments. We can design for variability within our learning environment by embracing flexibility in our design. Flexible resources and tools can be used in several different ways to express understanding over the same information. For example, flexible resources are used within a learning environment when a teacher allows students to use a resource in a way that is meaningful to the student rather than requiring the resource to be used in a specific, predetermined way. Based on its inherent flexibility, technology can also offer opportunities for students to make their learning more accessible, regardless of their context. As an educator, it is not as important to know why a particular student would need to experience this level of flexibility; it is more important to offer the flexibility to all your students based on our classroom’s variability and jagged learning profiles so that they can all have access to their learning.
- What if we saw accessibility as the ‘main course’ of our design decisions instead of the ‘leftovers?’ Accessibility is often discussed through the reactive response of special education versus the more proactive approach of general education. General education teachers may see it as “one more thing” to worry about or that “we do not have time to worry about making everything accessible.” These are natural responses given educators’ heavy workload and limited time. However, when taking a more proactive approach in our design, we usually discover that “What is essential for some, is useful for all.” If we did a little digging, we would find that there is an inherent, common, and yet incorrect assumption that “general education students” learn similarly to each other. Based on educational neuroscience, we know that is not true because of learner variability. Because of the variability that exists within the “general education” population, there are likely students that could benefit from greater accessibility. By increasing access for our specialized populations, we are actually increasing usability for everyone because so many hidden learning barriers exist in our student population. This subtle, yet profound shift in our design has tremendous implications in improving learning outcomes for all. Accessibility should not be viewed as “one more thing,” it should be viewed as “the thing.” It should be our SWAG…the stuff we all get.
- What if we viewed greater accessibility as an opportunity for us to raise the bar for all learners instead of lowering it? As educators, our goal is not simply to make information accessible to all learners, but to make learning more accessible. Accessibility is not about lowering expectations, in fact it is the opposite. When we make learning more accessible, that means we are providing learning materials, tools, and environments that make it possible for all students to be challenged to their fullest extent. This is accomplished by allowing students to choose flexible tools within their learning environment that are meaningful to them to express their understanding of the teacher’s learning goals. This will provide students with the opportunity to truly demonstrate what they know within a learning environment with fewer barriers in it. It is essential to know our students, their learning profiles, and our instructional goals so that we can determine when to provide support and when to challenge them. With this mindset, balance, and alignment, we can continue to raise the bar for all of our students by making their learning more accessible.
There is no doubt that every learner learns differently and has different needs. Educators will continue to search for instructional practices that will enhance their ability to reach all learners. As educators we can proactively address those needs by adopting a mindset focused on making our learning environments more accessible to all. If we do this, we will discover and unlock the potential of all our learners.
Nelson, Loui Lord. Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning. Brookes Publishing Co, 2021.
Ralabate, Patti. Your UDL Lesson Planner: The Step-by-Step Guide for Teaching All Learners. Brookes Publishing, 2016.
Rose, David H., et al. Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002.