Wednesday, 23 May 2012

UDL and Science and the LECTURE

There is interest in Universal Design for Learning in our district. Principals and district leaders are initiating conversations around Universal Design. This conversation is of particular interest to me as I consider that the most frequent method of delivery of information in the secondary science classroom is the lecture.

The term "universal design" was coined by the architect Ronald L. Mace to describe the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

According to the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST), “Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a research-based framework for designing curricula—that is, educational goals, methods, materials, and assessments—that enable all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. This is accomplished by simultaneously providing rich supports for learning and reducing barriers to the curriculum, while maintaining high achievement standards for all students.”

 So……back to the secondary science classroom.

Science teachers overwhelmingly agree that to successfully prepare students for the grade 12 Alberta diploma exam the only method that would seem to present itself as an option to finish the course is LECTURE. Finish the course….

 Let’s look at the course.

 In many Edmonton high schools, students are provided with the option to take the “regular” stream, or International Baccalaureate stream, or the Advanced Placement stream. Regardless of which stream they take, students have to be prepared for the Alberta Diploma exams based on the Alberta Program of Studies- So, if students are taking either of the additional programs, the amount of material required to learn is almost out of reach.

 I have worked with many creative, enthusiastic science teachers that have felt beaten down by the sheer volume of content. So how does UDL help with this?

To wrap my head around it, I began by thinking about the UDL phrase, “reducing the barriers.” What barriers are there in the secondary science class? Just off the top of my head, here are a few:

• Attendance
• Punctuality
• Completed homework
• Engagement
• Prior Knowledge
• Methods of acquiring understanding
• Demonstration of understanding
• Student readiness
• Teacher readiness
• Physical Layout of the Classroom
• Social structure

 UDL focuses on three main guidelines
1. Provide multiple means of representation
2. Provide multiple means of action and expression
3. Provide multiple means of engagement

The CAST website offers tutorials, supports and examples of these guidelines. It’s hard to argue with the philosophy.

I’ve had many discussions with secondary science teachers who also find it hard to argue with the philosophy but at the end of the day can’t see how make this work with the demands of our reality.

I’m going to offer a beginning solution. Start slow and remember that the guidelines are just guidelines meant to guide the teacher in planning for all students in an effort to reduce the number of students in the margins.

Now let’s consider the secondary science class. If the content in the lecture was included in a vodcast, rather than lecture during class, then the teacher would have time in class for multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement. The vodcast could be either watched at home or if students didn't have the time, then it could be watched first thing during the class. I know from experience that the amount of time it takes me to lecture is at least doubled when I lecture in class. There are distractions, announcements, punctuality issues, behavior issues etc. that reduces the amount of “usable” time for the lecture. So, to take the lecture out of the class, affords me time I thought I never had. I could use the class time for the engaging, creative ideas that have been storming in my head! I could get to know the students way faster so that during parent teacher conferences in November, I wouldn't have to struggle remembering what the name of the child was! (Consider that high school teachers in full year schools may have 200 students).

What is this magic?

It’s called the “Flipped Classroom”. Read my last post. I’m dying to try it.


  1. Sometimes the lecture works against us. When lecturing, it becomes very easy to deliver quantity rather than quality. With a burgeoning science curriculum, we are fooled into thinking this is a good thing, but students find it very difficult to pick out what really matters and then cannot build their learning on a solid foundation. Flipping will only solve this problem if we are very selective about what we choose to deliver to our students. Keeping vodcasts and online delivery of content short and sweet forces us to do that. We can then use the freed up class-time to help students actively build upon and make meaning out of that basic information.

  2. Very exciting idea. I've been trying for years to move away from a lecture based format for my AP Physics classes and the hold-up is always with the content. The last few years I've started working with the idea of a flipped classroom and my initial impressions are exceedingly positive. It takes the students a few classes to get comfortable with the different mode of delivery, but ultimately it makes it substantially simplier to interact with the students, do formative assessment and work closely with struggling students.

    1. I would love to see some of your screencasts. Do you have a link you could share?

  3. Hi Jane,

    I don't have any screencasts yet but I wrote a blog entry ( about a year ago about my initial impressions when I first started. Now that things have settled down a bit from the start of the school year I'll create a post that has more examples and specifics.