You Do You: UDL and Multiple Means of Expression

In our last installment, we made a case for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and took a brief look into the concept of “multiple means of representation.” If you recall, UDL is made up of three core tenets: Multiple Means of Engagement, Multiple Means of Representation, and Multiple Means of Expression.  In this installment, we are going to explore the latter of the three, Multiple Means of Expression.

We Are All Beautiful Snowflakes

One of the most important lessons we learn as teachers/educators is that every student is wonderfully and beautifully unique and special.  We all come from different backgrounds with different life experiences and different skills and competencies, and none of this makes us inherently inferior in any way, shape, or form, to our classmates.  In fact, it is precisely these differences that make us individually, and collectively, an invaluable addition to the classroom. Through our differences, we bring new insights, new perspectives, and add our own energy and creativity to the lessons we teach and learn.  Learning to encourage and nurture these differences is also one of the most difficult skills to develop, and requires patience, time, imagination, and a healthy portion of courage.

Just as we all benefit from being given the opportunity to consume content in unique and individualistic ways (e.g., text, visuals, virtual or physical interactions, etc.), we also thrive when afforded the ability to express what we have learned in a manner best suited to our unique strengths and abilities.  While you may prefer the more traditional forms of essay writing to share what you know, the person next to you might have a penchant for acting, music, and other performative methods, or painting, video-making, and other visual arts, or constructing physical representations through sculpture, engineering, or robotics; the possibilities are, indeed, limitless.

Guard the Goal

At first, it may feel daunting ̶ even crippling ̶ to consider allowing every student to express their knowledge in a unique manner.  How, for instance, do you qualify and compare, in a fair manner, the performance of one student who writes an essay against another who acts out a play or makes a video?  The key is to not assess the form of expression (e.g., how good of a singing voice did the student who sang their assignment possess), but rather to assess the knowledge of the student based on your intended goals and outcomes.

This last bit is very important, and goes back to some of the concepts we discussed last time around identifying your goals.  If writing competency is not a primary goal for the assignment, nor a secondary goal for the individual student, then there is no explicit reason to enforce writing as a method of expression.  In a sense, the specific method becomes superfluous as the only truly important thing is whether or not the knowledge embedded into the lesson can be retained and recalled by the learner.  If the goal is to learn the periodic table, what does it matter if I demonstrate that through an artistic rendering, or rap, or poetry and prose?  If I, as an educator, focus on the goal of a lesson (e.g. the order of elements in the periodic table), then I will have no problem assessing a learner’s mastery of that lesson.

Of course, as with “representation,” this does not mean all learners should have access to all forms of expression.  As an educator, you need to guide and direct their efforts.  If they are struggling with grammar or vocabulary or spelling, it may very well be appropriate to require a written response.  If rhetoric or public speaking are the secondary goals to the lesson, then you may need to guide them to a more verbal or performative form of expression.  It is still your role as an educator, in other words, to ensure that, while options are provided, they are specifically suited to your goals for the learner and the intended outcomes.  Furthermore, not every assignment needs to allow for a wide variety of expression ̶ you can pick and choose when your students may utilize this UDL paradigm and when they must adhere to more traditional methods.

Technology to the Rescue...Again

Just as educators benefit from the use of technology to facilitate authoring with UDL paradigms at the forefront, the same holds true for learners.  Clearly, technology offers an ever-growing wealth of opportunity for variety in expression.  Video cameras, digital art and animation tools, audio recording systems, word processors, 3-D printers, robotics, video game authoring platforms ̶ the list is endless.  It goes beyond just variety in the creation of expressive works, though.  

Through technology, we can create safe and collaborative environments.  We can provide assistive technologies that improve access to, and encourage the use of, these expressive tools.  Technology makes possible self-check opportunities to build competency and confidence and break down barriers that might otherwise dissuade learners from taking risks in expressing themselves.  Technology increases excitement and engagement by allowing learners to share their ideas and experiences with their classmates and the world, helping them to feel valued and heard.  It gives a voice to those that might otherwise feel stifled and remain silent.

How and when you choose to apply these concepts, as an educator, is up to you.  The only thing I ask is that you give it a try.  As with all things UDL, it is not all or nothing.  As an experiment, take one lesson in your curriculum and allow your students to choose their mode of expression.  Start simple.  Provide one or two alternatives for a traditional writing assignment and observe how your students react, how they perform, and what improvements, if any, you see in their engagement and investment in the assignment. There are very few guarantees in life, but I can make this guarantee ̶ you will not regret undertaking this little experiment.

Stay Tuned for Multiple Means of Engagement

As a final installment in this series, we will take a deeper dive into the third core principle of UDL ̶ Multiple Means of Engagement. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about how you can apply UDL principles to your content through the use of flexible and intuitive digital authoring tools or would benefit from some instructional design consultation to get you started, please reach out to us at knowbly and we would be more than happy to help.

Related articles by this author:

The Truth About Free Authoring Tools
Situated Learning and the Evolving Learner
Narrative Learning: The Value of Storytelling in Adult Education
Should You Open Source Your Educational Technology?

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