Universal design for teaching

I was listening to Brenna Clarke Gray’s terrific podcast You Got This Sunday night, in which she talks about the amount and kinds of labor which go into making accommodations for students’ individual situations, and the way this work can be front-loaded or dispensed with entirely through Universal Design for Learning.

And a whole bunch of things clicked – Brenna Clarke Gray talking about distribution of labor, Aimée Morrison and Lee Skallerup Bessette talking about work rules and norms on their podcast, Josh Eyler’s talk on grief and loss, and my colleague Alex’s question when he was just starting at Kenyon about who handled accommodations needed by faculty.

We talk about universal design for learning, when we’re thinking about the things we create for others. But what about the things we create for ourselves?

What would it mean to pursue universal design for teaching? Or let’s say universal design for educating (so we can include all the folks on campus who are engaged in education but don’t ourselves teach in classrooms)? How do we build schools where multiple pathways to doing the work well are equally accessible to all?

It’s a complicated question for lots of reasons, not least being the wide variety of jobs happening on campus and even the variety of tasks handled by individual people. In part, that’s why I think we need a new metaphor. We need to shift from policies which are essentially focused on the needs and desires of the institution, to a suite of options which focus on the needs of the individuals who do the work.

(I’d like to draw a parallel here with teacher-centered vs. student-centered pedagogy, but I can’t quite bring it home. I can even use “guide on the side” to describe the work relationship I want to get to but nothing rhymes with “Administration”. Leave your suggestions in the comments.)

Following some design thinking, I think it would mean really examining whether mission and values, policies, and practices are in alignment. Given that our institutional missions tend to be about the things we do for and with students, we might even need some new level between mission and policy. Shouldn’t there be a map connecting our goals for the environment we create for and with students, to our goals for the departmental environments in which we do the work?

Maybe we need to annotate our faculty handbook and employee handbook, like an annotated syllabus. OK, there are a lot of practical reasons that this is a terrible idea. But take it as a thought experiment – what would be a good way to reflect the community’s knowledge of its own practices? If we replace one-size-fits-all policies with menus of choices, how will we make it understandable? Are there reasonable ways to connect the policies as written to the stories of how they’re implemented?

Sharing stories gets us back to the big question of an inclusive community. Who gets heard and why? Who gets supported in making the best choices for their situation? Are there differences between material support (access to resources) and social support?

I never said this universal design for educating idea was going to be easy.

(Many thanks to Maha Bali, who nudged me to dust off the blog and write this instead of just talking about it.)

4 thoughts on “Universal design for teaching”

  1. I love the direction of this thinking and would love to be a part of exploring it more deeply.

    1. Thanks, Karen! That leads to an interesting question… how do we explore this more deeply?

      Are there local groups (unions, staff councils, discussion groups, department meetings) where we can do the work of finding out where the pain points are and devising better, more universal institutions?

      Would it be useful to have cross-institutional lists of good practices which help people have resilience in their work situations?

      Are there ways that more scholarship can help make change? Are these ideas which need to be theorized and peer-reviewed before they can gain traction in our institutions?

      Where do you think your work would make the most change?

      1. Hey Joe… those feel like the right questions.
        I wonder if the POD community might be interested in engaging.

        While I have been in higher ed for a while, I am early in my scholarship journey, so I cannot speak with authority on the areas where scholarship in organizational theory/development and academic success may lie.. but I am on the hunt for it. 🙂

        Maybe we can connect for a chat and concept map out some questions and directions. I am on LinkedIn.

        Karen Bellnier

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