FREDERIC FOVET: A reflective lens on learning

UPEI to host key Canadian conference on practical design approaches to creating inclusive learning environments

Published on May 24, 2017

Over the last two decades, all Canadian provinces have implemented inclusive policies in schools. The reasons for embracing inclusion have been diverse and powerful. Few people argue against the intentions, and yet many educators and parents in 2017 are frustrated and overwhelmed.  

In the field, attempting to make inclusion happen can seem like an arduous task. Schools and educators often appear to be trying to achieve these new goals while relying on methods that have not changed. The classroom experience and teaching methods remain devised for the ‘mainstream’, and accommodations have to be put in place for learners at either end on the spectrum of diversity.
Adapting lessons plans and objectives for a percentage of learners on the margin that is growing rapidly can be an exhaustive task. The more you rely on a mythical notion of the ‘average’ learner when planning lessons and assessment, the more you will depend on adaptations and modifications.
There are other ways to tackle diversity in the classroom. The second Pan-Canadian Conference on Universal Design for Learning, held at UPEI from May 31 to June 2, will showcase a model that is increasingly proving effective in addressing learner diversity in a sustainable way.
What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? It is basically a lens that encourages teachers to reflect on the way they design the learning experience rather than over-focus on the diagnostic exceptionality of learners. Instead of creating lessons plans and assessments that target the ‘average’ student, teachers are progressively led to rethink the blue print of their teaching and to target the entire class from the start.
Universal Design is not new. The concept is originally an architectural approach, which led designers in the 70s to rethink priorities when working on the blue print of buildings. It eventually saw architects push back from an obsession with aesthetics, in order to consider the needs of the user.
In the 1980s, David Rose at Harvard imported the concept into education and coined the term Universal Design for Learning Ever since, the Center for Applied Special Technology has been going strong, and the principles of UDL have been implemented in an increasing number of schools. In the last 10 years, it has also taken root in Canada, from coast to coast. This Pan-Canadian Conference will in many ways celebrate these accomplishments and the development UDL across provinces.
It is not just in the K-12 sector that UDL is going strong. Universities and colleges also have struggled to address learner diversity. The traditional teaching format - ‘sage on a stage’ - seems both ill-suited to the expectations of learners and unable to fully embrace the diversity of learners. The adoption and implementation of UDL enable instructors to offer flexibility to learners within the classroom and greatly reduce campuses’ reliance on Accessibility services.
As Cathy Rose, Coordinator of Accessibility Services at UPEI, explains: ‘the demand for services has almost doubled in the last six years; the use of UDL principles in the classroom would reduce the spike in demand for accommodations, and allow campuses to function in a sustainable way. These students are then able to obtain the flexibility they require within the classroom itself.’
UDL is not a framework that is solely beneficial to students with disabilities. All learners benefit from the adoption of this lens on teaching. As Academic Lead on the Global Perspective MEd and advocate of UDL, I have had much success in using the UDL principles in my classroom to address the needs of International Students. UDL has offered me an effective lens to rethink my practices and make the experience congenial for all learners whether they are home students or International students.
The conference will offer five streams and include 38 presentations by practitioners and researchers from across the country and overseas. For more information, visit www.udlconference.ca

- Frederic Fovet is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island