Access to the Right Tools for the Trade

An astronaut in space.
The right tools for the job, and the right support to use those tools, support access to learning. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay.

In March 2019, another historic moment for space travel and exploration was scheduled – the first all-women spacewalk, due to take place at the International Space Station. However, days before the scheduled departure, it was discovered that a properly fitting spacesuit was not available for one of the astronauts. Without this essential tool, a tool that prevents astronauts from excessive fatigue and from potential harm being caused to their body, one of the women could not participate in the space operation. This illustrates the UDL principle of optimising access to tools and technology. 

According to a report in National Geographic, the spacesuit debacle was more complicated than just sexism: it raised a very real issue for women in all fields traditionally dominated by men. The tools weren’t initially designed with access to all potential astronauts in mind. A lack of access to the right tools served as a barrier to access for the astronaut, Anne McClain.

Originally spacesuits were designed as one-offs for each individual astronaut. Eventually, NASA required reusable suits. At first, these were based on a modular design in which the different parts, including the arms, legs, and torso, could be swapped out. It was around the same time, in the late 1970s, that the first American women were accepted into the astronaut training program. And it is also when the fit of spacesuits became especially challenging—and the differences between men’s and women’s bodies became an important factor. However, despite this becoming apparent more than four decades earlier, the barrier that Anne McClain faced was still not overcome.

In the last couple of years, redesigns of spacesuits include components that will support both men’s and women’s body sizes offering more comfort to what is an uncomfortable physical experience and allow for the broadest range of motion.

This illustrates that despite having the knowledge and understanding required to participate in a task, without access to the right tools, or the right support when tools are supplied, unnecessary barriers are created. This relates to UDL Checkpoint 4.2.

UDL Checkpoint 4.2: Optimise Access to Tools & Assistive Technologies

CAST explains that providing a learner with a tool is often not enough. We need to provide the support to use the tool effectively. Many learners need help navigating through their environment (both in terms of physical space and the curriculum), and all learners should be given the opportunity to use tools that might help them meet the goal of full participation in the classroom. However, significant numbers of learners with disabilities have to use assistive technologies for navigation, interaction, and composition on a regular basis.

It is critical that instructional technologies and curricula do not impose inadvertent barriers to the use of these assistive technologies. An important design consideration, for example, is to ensure that there are keyboard commands for any mouse action so that learners can use common assistive technologies that depend upon those commands. It is also important, however, to ensure that making a lesson physically accessible does not inadvertently remove its challenge to learning.

Practical Strategies

    • Provide concrete materials/manipulatives for tasks
    • Use scaffolding as tools to guide tasks
    • Provide options to use educational apps and websites
    • Offer Screen reading services
    • Provide access to alternative keyboards
    • Customize overlays for touch screens and keyboards

See more in this latest collection of posts, where illustrations of universal design (the design for ease and accessibility in the community) are shared. The goal to connect these to ways we can consider the design of teaching strategies to ensure access to learning for all students.

‘Quiet Hour’ – Varying Sensory Stimulation

A supermarket trolley and stocked shelves.
Vary sensory stimulation to make learning accessible to all students. Image: Tumisu on Pixabay.

In 2018, Coles Supermarkets expanded a trial of their Quiet Hour. Quiet Hour provides a low-sensory shopping experience by making changes in store, such as reducing noise and distractions. These changes are designed to help make a difference to customers who find it challenging to shop in a heightened-sensory environment. We can relate this to Universal Design for Learning. 

Coles partnered with Aspect to develop the program. The aim is to support customers who are, or have family members, on the autism spectrum. During Quiet Hour, the supermarkets’:

      • Store lighting is reduced
      • Coles Radio is turned down
      • Register and scanner volumes are reduced to the lowest level
      • No trolley collections
      • Roll cages are removed from the shop floor
      • No PA announcements are made except in the case of emergencies
      • Additional team members are available to support customers

This is UDL checkpoint 7.3: Minimise Threats and Distractions

CAST, the home of UDL, explain that one of the most important things an educator can do is to create a safe space for learners. To do this, teachers need to reduce potential threats and distractions in the learning environment. When learners have to focus their attention on having basic needs met or avoiding a negative experience they cannot concentrate on the learning process.

The physical safety of a learning environment is of course necessary. But subtler types of threats and distractions must be attended to as well. What is threatening or potentially distracting depends on learners’ individual needs and background. For example, an English Language Learner might find language experimentation threatening, while some learners might find too much sensory stimulation distracting.

The optimal instructional environment has options to reduce threats and negative distractions. It’s about creating a safe space for everyone in which learning can occur.

 Practical Strategies

    • Creating an accepting and supportive classroom climate
    • Changing up the level of novelty or risk through
    • Including charts, calendars, schedules, visible timers, cues, etc. that can increase the predictability of daily activities and transitions
    • Creating predictability through class routines
    • Alerting and previewing so that learners can anticipate and prepare for changes in activities, schedules, and novel events
    • Providing options that can, in contrast to the above, maximize the unexpected, surprising, or novel in highly routine activities
    • Varying the level of sensory stimulation by providing variation in the presence of background noise or visual stimulation, noise buffers, number of features or items presented at a time
    • Options for the pace of work, length of work sessions, availability of breaks or time-outs, or timing or sequence of activities
    • Considering the social demands required for learning or performance, the perceived level of support and protection and the requirements for public display and evaluation
    • Involving all participants in whole-class discussions 

Connect to Your Practice

How could you enhance the sense of safety and support in your learning environment? Consider one or two ways that could reduce threat or discomfort for your learners. Small changes result in huge outcomes for learners in accessing their learning.

See more in this latest collection of posts, where illustrations of universal design (the design for ease and accessibility in the community) are shared. The goal is to connect these to ways we can design teaching strategies to ensure access to learning for all students.

Twist Taps are Not Tip-Top Taps

A lever mixer tap. Twist taps are not tip top taps.
Consider the tools needed for learning and how they can be accessed by all students. Image: Ron Porter, Pixabay.

In this latest collection of posts, I’m sharing illustrations of universal design. My aim is to connect these designs to ways we can consider the design of teaching strategies to ensure access to learning for all students. Twist taps are good design example.

Many of us in Australia take for granted free and quick access to water from a tap, but not everyone can do this due to the way taps are designed. My very precious granny had arthritis in her hands and she sometimes experienced weakness. So turning traditional twist taps was hard at the best of times and not possible at some times.

A small but significant change to the tool needed to do the job was all that was required. Adopting a lever style tap eliminated this access barrier for my granny. Consider then the tools that our students require to access their learning.

This connects to Checkpoint 4.1 of the UDL Framework: Vary Methods for Navigation

CAST explains that learners differ widely in their capacity to navigate their physical environment. Educators must reduce barriers to learning that might occur due to the motor demands of a task. This can be achieved by providing alternative means for our students to respond, choose, and compose.

Practical Strategies

Learners differ widely in their optimal means for navigating through information and activities. To provide equal opportunity for interaction with learning experiences, we, as teachers, must ensure that there are multiple ways for students to navigate and control their learning. Some recommendations from CAST include:

    • Providing alternatives in the lesson requirements. Cater for rate, timing, speed, and range of motor action required to interact with instructional materials, physical manipulatives, and technologies
    • Considering alternatives for physically responding or indicating selections (e.g., alternatives to marking with pen and pencil, alternatives to mouse control)
    •  Offering options for physically interacting with materials by hand, voice, single switch, joystick, keyboard, or adapted keyboard

Connect to Your Practice

Can you think of a student who may benefit from being able to select alternatives for accessing physical materials or technologies? Including options in your lesson design that caters for that student will likely provide better access for some of your other students, too.

Check out the other posts in Lizzie’s UDL File

One in a Thousand

Bankwest fees and charges in pictures.
Bankwest fees and charges

Have you ever signed an important document, skimming over the terms and conditions, not reading the fine print because it is not written in plain English? Or perhaps you fall into the one in a thousand who reads the terms and conditions of each contract you enter? 

A 2014 study revealed that only one in a thousand shoppers accessed license agreements. The researchers looked at the internet browsing behaviour of nearly 50,000 visitors to 90 online software retail companies in a month. They found that accessing it is one step, but of those who do, they read only a small portion.1 Reading and comprehending the fine print was the real barrier to being informed of contractual obligations. 

Pages and pages of difficult to comprehend text, written in a small font can be off-putting for many consumers. These factors are barriers to many for making sense of transactions they make. But small changes can minimise barriers. 

Small Changes Create Fewer Barriers

While adults may experience this in our daily lives, students may also face similar experiences. As CAST, the founders of UDL explain, classroom materials are often dominated by information in text. However, text can be an inferior format for presenting some concepts and for explicating most processes.

Also, text is a particularly weak form of presentation for learners who have text or language-related disabilities. Providing alternatives—especially illustrations, simulations, images or interactive graphics—can make the information in a text more comprehensible for any learner and accessible for some who would find it completely inaccessible in text.

In May this year, Bankwest, a division of the Commonwealth Bank in Australia, released their Terms and Conditions in illustrated format. The bank partnered with the University of Western Australia to reinvent the way their fine print is presented. They claim it as a banking ‘first’ in Australia.

The goal was to eliminate confusing fine print and simplify the product schedule to make it easier for customers to understand what they need to know about certain account products and how they work.

Practical Strategies

This is a great example from everyday life that educators can take back to their learning spaces. CAST recommends:

    • Presenting key concepts in one form of symbolic representation. For example, an expository text or a math equation with an alternative form. For example, an illustration, dance/movement, diagram, table, model, video, comic strip, storyboard, photograph, animation, physical or virtual manipulative.
    • Making explicit links between information provided in texts and any accompanying representation of that information in illustrations, equations, charts, or diagrams.

For further posts on everyday examples illustrating lessons for educators in reducing barriers to learning see the latest posts here.

1Bakos, Y., Marotta-Wurgler, F., & Trossen, D. (2014). Does Anyone Read the Fine Print? Consumer Attention to Standard-Form Contracts. The Journal of Legal Studies, 43(1), 1-35. doi:10.1086/674424

One Billion Hours of Video

iPad showing a video with closed captions
Closed captions break barriers to accessing social media content.

Over one billion hours of video are watched daily, according to YouTube. Whether scrolling your socials or watching the television at the medical clinic, it’s hard to avoid the audiovisual onslaught. But what if you are hearing impaired? What if you are in public? What if your family or housemates don’t want to overhear the latest funny cats video?

Thanks to the wonder of captions, scrolling social media on public transport or in the company of others doesn’t have to be a shared event. Captions are written support for understanding audio and come in three formats: open, closed or real time. They are vital to providing broad access to television, cinema movies, online and other audiovisual content.

Types of Captions

The text of open captions are embedded in a video and can’t be switched on or off. Closed captions, denoted by the CC symbol on the video player, can be toggled on and off. The text is pre-written and saved as a file attached to the video file. Real-time captions transcribe audio of live events verbatim. The captions are created as it happens during a live event.

Benefits

Initially designed for hearing-impaired audiences, captioning offers access to content for a much broader audience than originally intended. For students with learning difficulties, captions may assist learning by reinforcing in writing what the user is watching and hearing on the video. Another way captions break barriers to accessing learning is by supporting learners who have English as a second language or dialect. Captions may be supplied in multiple languages. This means learners can access the text in their native language and hear it in English. Or they have the English text matching the spoken word.

Not only does captioning allow audio-free access to audiovisual content but some captioning systems allow for searching text. This feature provides deeper accessibility. The user, or in education, the student or teacher, has the power to search the caption text to locate a particular word or point in the video.

Link to the UDL Framework

Captioning relates to Checkpoint 1.2, Offer Alternatives for Auditory Information, in the Universal Design for Learning Framework. We can break barriers to learning by sharing everyday examples of UDL, which can occur in small and familiar ways.

Read our other article relating UDL to everyday life and pop-culture here.

Retrieval Practice to Support Memory

Retrieval Practice to Support MemoryA girl writing on a notepad
Regular retrieving learnt information supports memory retention. Image: Raphaël Jeanneret

Guideline 6 of the Universal Design for Learning checkpoints is concerned with Executive Function. In a previous post, strategies were introduced to support memory, with a promise to develop these suggestions further. Retrieval practice to support memory is the focus of this post.

Retrieval practice is a learning strategy where we focus on getting information out. It is the act of repeatedly recalling concepts and content taught without having the information in view. Through the act of retrieval, or calling information to mind, our memory for that information is strengthened, reducing the likelihood of forgetting the information. Retrieval practice is considered a powerful strategy for improving academic performance. It does not require specific technology or incur a cost. And, it does not consume significant additional class time.

You may wonder how a student with compromised executive function manages to recall information. For retrieval practice to be successful they need to participate successfully in recalling. Scaffolding is recommended to increase retrieval success. It should be made available to any student who requires it but is of special importance to students experiencing difficulty with executive functioning and/or recall.

Practical Strategies

Simple, easy-to-implement strategies to facilitate retrieval practice include the use of:

    • Flashcards: a series of cards, each containing a small amount of information to prompt a specific response.
    • Concept Maps: a summary of key ideas that are all related to a specific topic, showing the relationship between ideas. The map is usually presented in a diagram.
    • Quizzes: questions are asked to prompt recall of information.
    • Elaborative Interrogation: a strategy where the learner is exposed to (reads, watches, listens to) a key fact or concept and then generates an explanation for it, using how and why questions to support understanding of what the information means.
    • Direct verbal questioning
    • Self-questioning: a self-monitoring strategy students use to note their understanding of a text as they read or hear it. Simple questions students ask themselves may include:
        • What am I supposed to be learning about?
        • Does what I am reading or hearing make sense?
        • How does this connect to what I already know?
        • What is new about what I am learning here?
        • What makes perfect sense and what am I having difficulty with?
    • Making notes from memory: Students record notes (verbally or written) based on their memory, trying to record as much as they can remember about the information being recalled.

Many more practical, easy-to-implement strategies for supporting executive function and accessing the curriculum are suggested in previous UDL File posts. Or check out the CAST UDL framework.

There is more about Universal Design for Learning on this website.

Filling a Balloon with Water

A leaking water-filled balloon.
A leaky bag filled with water serves as an analogy for the pressure on the working memory. Image: 77 Fotos

The challenge of working memory. Imagine filling a balloon with water. Keeping the balloon open whilst pouring in the water is challenging. As capacity is reached, excess water spills over, even going in many directions. If the balloon is degraded by sunlight or has sustained a small hole, the water seeps out. This is like our working memory. Too much input, competing sources of information and limited capacity affect its ability to manage and manipulate complex information.

Working memory is a key element of executive function. It is crucial to learning, reasoning and making sense of the world. CAST explains that working memory is limited for every learner, but can be further limited in learning difficulties. So, what can we do to support learners?

Key Strategies to Support Memory

All of the following strategies are taken from Pooja K. Agarwal, PhD and Patrice M. Bain, EdS from Powerful Teaching.

Retrieval practice

“Retrieval practice” is a learning strategy where we focus on getting information out of our brains. Through the act of retrieval, or calling information to mind, our memory for that information is strengthened and forgetting is less likely to occur. Retrieval practice is a powerful strategy for improving academic performance. It requires no special technology, no cost and no significant additional class time.

Spaced Practice

Spaced practice involves taking a given amount of time devoted to learning and arranging that time into multiple sessions that are spread over time. In this way, the learning sessions are said to be “spaced” apart in time. Contrast this with cramming, where learning is conducted in a short, massed manner.

Interleaving

Interleaving supports learning by mixing related concepts, encouraging students to discriminate between approaches or similarities or differences. Often used in maths, practice problems are interleaved if the maths problems are arranged so that the same strategy cannot solve consecutive problems.

FEEDBACK- DRIVEN METACOGNITION

Feedback-driven metacognition develops students’ cognition of what they know, and what they don’t. It can be valuable in guiding students’ decision-making when learning, applying and transferring skills or strategies.

Future posts will explore practical strategies related to each of these concepts. They will be linked to this post once released.

Many more practical, easy-to-implement strategies for supporting executive function and accessing the curriculum are suggested in previous UDL File posts. Or check out the CAST UDL framework.

There is more about Universal Design for Learning on this website.

Strategy and Planning for the Win

A child's hand moving a chess piece.
Strategy and planning for the win. Image: Anna Ventura

A business-owner friend in a professional occupation recently shared lessons from the field. Laughing as she spoke, my friend commented that it was a good place to be, when now she could look back and laugh at the chaotic, out-of-control experiences from which she learnt. She regaled me with stories of staff members who consistently operated outside of best practice and far beyond the desired culture of her business.

‘But how did it get to that?’ I queried.

With honesty and courage, my friend acknowledged that her business culture was neither explicit, nor regularly referenced, nor was any staff member addressed when breaches were made. She knew what she wanted from her colleagues and business life, but had not developed a strategy to ensure this nor planned for its success.

This intelligent, dedicated, often inspiring friend felt frustration and defeat. The business was floundering.

Think, now, about learners. In a previous post, guidance for student goal-setting was highlighted. For effective learners, after setting their goals, they will formulate a plan or develop a strategy to achieve their goal. But what of students with compromised executive function? Or those who learn a completely new skill or in a new field? Or those who are yet to develop their executive function?

To avoid feelings of being defeated by the goals or floundering trying to work towards the goals, principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) help. By providing phased scaffolding, educators support the development of strategic planning.

Practical Strategies

    • ‘Think alouds’, where the teacher explicitly talks through the strategy they are using, models strategic thinking.
    • A ‘traffic light’ prompt, embedded throughout different phases of the learning process guides students as to the pace of their work. Red means stop-and-think. Explain that the students need to plan a strategy to achieve the goal. In this scenario, the orange light signifies action towards the goal that is reviewed regularly to ensure the strategy is appropriate. The green light signifies the plan is moving the students effectively towards their goals, encouraging the student to continue with the plan.
    • Scaffolds, templates and checklists support the development of a plan at each stage of the process. Scaffold support for determining the goal or problem. Scaffold support for setting priorities and determining milestones. And, scaffold support for determining each step of the task, the resources required and ways to identify achievement of the step.

As for my friend – with support, she developed a culture and staff strategy and now her business hums – staff who share her vision, clients who benefit from clear and rigorous best practice procedures, and a business owner who feels immense job satisfaction, and who is an effective and inspiring leader. Strategy and planning for the win!

Many more practical, easy-to-implement strategies for supporting executive function and accessing the curriculum are suggested in previous posts from Lizzie’s UDL File. Or check out the CAST UDL framework.

There is more about Universal Design for Learning on this website.

Teach a Child to Fish

Goal setting flowchart
Scaffold the goal-setting process to support learners’ executive function. Image: Gerd Altman.

Give a child a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach a child to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime. Adapted from Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie’s novel Mrs Dymond, this adage rings true when developing students’ goal-setting skills.

It’s possible there’s not an educator in the country who hasn’t asked students to set goals or who sets goals for students in some capacity – a lesson intention or an Individual Education Plan (IEP) goal, for example. There lies an intrinsic understanding that goal-setting supports achievement. However, when a teacher creates a goal for a student, it is akin to giving a student a fish. It denies the student the opportunity to develop goal-setting skills and strategies that they can develop and use throughout their lives. But for many students, articulating meaningful goals that lead to achievement is very challenging, especially when the student has difficulties with their executive function. So, how do educators develop goal-setting skills in students?

CAST’s Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework recommends processes for students to set personal goals that are simultaneously challenging and achievable.

Teach a Child to Fish – Scaffold it, model it, guide it and mirror it!

Scaffold the goal-defining process. The well-known SMART goal acronym serves as a simple scaffold to plan goals. In addition to the goal itself, guide students to estimate the effort inherent in achieving the goal.  Consider the resources required and the accessibility of these resources. Additionally, encourage students to assess the difficulty of the goal – is it challenging enough to move them forward and gain a sense of fulfilment from its achievement? Is it attainable, given appropriate effort and resourcing?

Throughout the goal creation process, model writing or otherwise documenting task-focused goals. These are goals that have an intrinsic focus on learning and improving, as opposed to rating performance or competing against others. Provide concrete examples of not only the product of achieving the goal but also the goal-setting process.

Support students with organisation tools, such as guides and checklists for tracking not only the construction of their goals but also to schedule and monitor progress.

Highlight the goals. Make them obvious and valued. Post the goals and goal-tracking schedules around the learning space. Reference them regularly and provide explicit feedback on the process of goal attainment.

Many more practical, easy-to-implement strategies for supporting executive function and accessing the curriculum are suggested in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website or in the CAST UDL framework.

See previous posts from Lizzie’s UDL File.

UDL to Support Executive Function

Illustration of brain filled with small images of objects.
UDL-informed scaffolds support executive function. Image: John Hain.

Engaging the working memory, using self-control, managing time and thinking flexibly are some of the mental capabilities described by the term ‘executive function’. Every day, these capabilities are drawn upon to engage productively with learning or working and to succeed in everyday life. Being intrinsically linked to success in the every day, difficulties with executive function make it challenging to focus and remain on task, to follow directions, and to manage emotions.

How can we support students’ executive functioning and what has it got to do with UDL?

Many educators are familiar with the notion of cognitive load. When teaching reading, for example, the goal is for the reader to comprehend the text. However, if a student is unable to accurately and fluently read the text, comprehending it is all the more difficult. As such, teaching reading with a strongly scaffolded systematic and explicit approach, that combines foundational and supporting skills is essential. Once decoding automaticity is gained, the brain can expend its energy on understanding.

The same is true for supporting a student’s executive function. When a student’s energy is expended on accomplishing low-level, low-impact tasks, the working memory is not available to focus on higher-order functioning skills.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) plays its role in a number of ways.  One way is through scaffolding lower-level skills, in order to remove the executive processing ‘brain drain’ of such skills. Many of the practical, easy-to-implement strategies for such scaffolding are suggested in the Universal Design for Learning section of this website or in the CAST UDL framework.

The other rung of support is through scaffolding strategies to support higher-level executive skills in order for them to develop more effectively. Upcoming posts will explore UDL-informed strategies to support goal-setting, planning, managing resources and self-monitoring.