Another year. Another buzzword. "UDL" Part 3. The sting in the tail for experienced teachers.

English Renaissance writer John Lyley wrote: “The bee that hath honey in her mouth hath a sting in her tail.”

In the past decade there have been many 'solutions' introduced to classroom education that promised much but, once implemented, created more problems than they solved. Every classroom teacher can tell you a story of their experience of implementing a mandated solution (usually conceived by someone not required to implement it) which actually produced a suite of never-before-seen problems for the teacher.

In my previous post on the topic of 'Universal Design for Learning' I looked at the pros for schools and teachers embracing UDL practice. In this post I look at the cons.

To recap... Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework incorporating a checklist of principles to ensure that curriculum, teaching programs, lessons and classroom resources are designed to cater for the broadest range of learning styles/needs of students. As I said in Part 2 of this series there is nothing magical about UDL. It simply spells out what good teachers already consider and do.

But beefore more schools begin to swarm over UDL they need to bee aware of what they're getting into. I strongly recommend that principals and instructional leaders read the attached study - 'Teachers Perceptions of Barriers to Universal Design for Learning' (2016) - before sending your staff on the UDL journey. This might help avoid some of the pitfalls that can come with implementation.

As is the case with most 'roll-outs' in school education teachers’ first-hand experiences at the coalface are rarely studied, which makes this study I'm referring to valuable.

I believe every new (or recycled) education initiative, policy, pedagogy, framework or program should be heavily scrutinised BEFORE in-school implementation - especially for its potential side-effects on teachers' work, time and wellbeing. (This is apart from considerations for outcomes on students' learning.)

This study highlights the problems that arise when teachers are obligated to explicitly apply the UDL approach across all of their teaching: re-write lesson plans and programs and show evidence that they are applying the model.

And what are some of the findings from this study? No surprises here...

1. Many teachers were, in a sense, already doing UDL. Meaning, they already had a grasp of UDL-type principles and incorporated them into their teaching practice.

"During interviews teachers identified ways to promote equitable and inclusive instruction by matching students’ learning style to resources, completing assignments in a way that ‘showcases’ the students’ strengths and abilities, aligning instruction to students’ abilities, and providing flexible instructional formats". (p 39)

2. Teachers were open to using UDL - but simply had no spare time to add another layer to their programming and teaching documents.

"There was consensus among participants that while the overall concept is good, writing lessons to fit the model is prohibitive" and, though teachers believed “principles of UDL should be applied to all classroom instruction",

they "expressed time as the [major] barrier to implementation in terms of needing more time to plan, implement strategies, collaborate with other teachers, and for professional development." (p 44)

3. Teachers stress levels went up.

"There was consensus among interview participants over the perceived high level of stress associated with implementation of UDL." (p 54)

The UDL initiative was generally perceived as "difficult to implement, very time consuming, and requiring more work above and beyond their usual responsibilities". (p 41)

4. Teachers felt that the investment of extra time required to formally embed explicit UDL practice was not worth the return.

"Not all participants in this study were convinced UDL implementation is worth their time and energy."

"Participants wanted to see evidence of student success as a direct result of UDL implementation." (p 39)

The implementation was abandoned after one year.

I believe there is nothing wrong with an implicit implementation of a UDL-type framework or principles. The problem is when it becomes yet another layer of write-it-down and type-it-up tasks to add to all the other paperwork and administrative jobs that teachers are burdened with. There lies the potential sting in the tail.

Sometimes the decision makers who make these calls to implement yet another 'bees knees' model are like drones in a bee colony. (Drones are the male bees that do no work, it's all left to the working bees.) Schools are already hives of activity, so teachers need to bee resistant to incognisant system-level leaders who make decisions but aren't required to implement them.

I believe that teachers who have proven for many years they can design effective inclusive learning for their students should be exempt. Leaders shouldn't patronise highly proficient educators by making them 'go back to the basics' of how to write a lesson plan, nor burden them further with more unnecessary time-consuming write-ups.

In a bee colony the worker bees sometimes grow tired of the drones and throw them out. Drones should get out of the way and let experienced teachers teach.

After looking at all the pros and cons of UDL I think it would be best utilised in three ways:

  1. As a tool for pre-service and provisional teachers to help them design learning that is inclusive and accessible for all students. (This is already being taught in many pre-service courses.)

  2. To assist curriculum writers to write new curricula in ways that offer more flexibility for teachers so they can better cater for diverse learners. (This is already happening for some syllabuses.)

  3. As a design brief for those who design classroom resources and teaching materials - so that teachers have available to them learning activities that are accessible and inclusive for their diverse range of learners.

Apart from that, let the worker bees get on with their job. They've had plenty of practice.


James Phelps

Click to read Teachers Perceptions of Barriers to Universal Design for Learning