Drawing on real classroom experiences: Teaching for diversity

In this blog post, Suzanne Carrington, Beth Saggers, Amanda Webster, Keely Harper-Hill and Julie Nickerson discuss their new research, published this week in the International Journal of Educational Research. This research investigated the Universal Design for Learning principles, guidelines, and checkpoints used by Australian teachers when supporting students on the autism spectrum.

 

Teachers find it challenging to teach the diverse range of students in classrooms, particularly those students with disabilities. In the past, teachers used to teach classes streamed by ability for academic work and students who were not of a similar academic standard were taught in segregated classes or even special schools. However, with more and more classes including diverse students with a range of learning profiles in an inclusive education environment, it presents both challenges and opportunities for teachers. Teachers now need ways to teach all students in their class with strategies that have been shown to work for every student to be able to access the curriculum and participate fully in classroom learning.

Practical ways of meeting the needs of all students

One very practical way of meeting the needs of all students in a classroom is using a framework of guidelines and checkpoints to provide teachers with a structure to plan their lessons. This tool is called the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. Universal Design for Learning is a comprehensive research-based framework developed by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST). It aims to support teachers to meet the diverse learning needs of students in their classrooms. Based on neuroscience research and evidence on how people learn, UDL is a flexible system that can be customised to meet the individual needs of all learners. UDL can support teachers to enact inclusive teaching practices and to engage students in their learning.

There are three overarching principles of UDL:

Each of these three principles are broken down into guidelines, and these in turn are broken down into checkpoints. There are a total of nine guidelines and 31 checkpoints making up the UDL framework. Here are some examples, developed from the CAST website:

An example of a Guideline for multiple means of engagement is provide options for sustaining effort and persistence. Checkpoints include (i) foster collaboration and community, and (ii) increase mastery-oriented feedback.

An example of a Guideline for multiple means of representation is provide options for language and symbols. Checkpoints include (i) support decoding of text, mathematical notation, and (ii) symbols and promote understanding across languages.

An example of a Guideline for multiple means of action and expression is provide options for executive functions. Checkpoints include (i) guide appropriate goal-setting, and (ii) support planning and strategy development.

UDL in the Australian classroom

Although this framework is based on research, we do not know whether teachers in Australia are using it to improve the learning of all their students. The answer to this question is the focus of a new publication by Suzanne Carrington and colleagues. The paper is titled What Universal Design for Learning principles, guidelines, and checkpoints are evident in educators’ descriptions of their practice when supporting students on the autism spectrum? The paper draws on research from the larger Australian Educational Needs Analysis project funded by the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC).

 

Twenty Australian educators (8 teachers, 2 school principals, and 10 specialists) talked to researchers about what practices they used in the classroom to engage and support the learning needs of students on the autism spectrum. Their interviews were analysed and categorised using the UDL framework to see whether or not UDL was being used in their daily teaching practices.

How educators used UDL practices in their classrooms

While it is unknown whether the educators had received specific training in UDL, the results overwhelmingly indicate that educators are utilising UDL practices in their classrooms to support not only the needs of students on the autism spectrum, but to support all students. Evidence of all three principles, all nine guidelines, and many checkpoints are evident in the educators’ descriptions of practice. The following table summarises the categories of teaching practices identified in the data, aligned with the overarching UDL principles:

UDL principle Teacher/specialist practice
Provide multiple means of engagement
Provide multiple means of representation
  • Use of visual systems
  • Alternative approaches to teaching (e.g., role-modelling, explicit instruction)
  • Scaffolding activities
  • Teacher behaviour and language (e.g., awareness of type and amount of language used)
Provide multiple means of action and expression
  • Providing alternative approaches to assessment (e.g., more time to prepare for and complete assessment)
  • Executive function support
  • Accepting and facilitating alternative means of communication (e.g., PECS)

These encouraging results indicate that educators are using UDL strategies to provide opportunities for all students to access and participate in classroom learning, not just those on the autism spectrum.

What next?

The results of the paper have implications for both teacher education and for professional development for teachers and specialists supporting the needs of diverse learners in the classroom. It is essential that we continue to listen to the voices of educators to gain information on their individual and collective realities to gain an understanding of how they implement support for students with diverse needs in their classrooms. More research is required to document educator-reported experiences on enacting the UDL framework. This will give us a better understanding of how educators can effectively use UDL to support the diverse learning needs of all students in their care.


Suzanne Carrington is a Professor and Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Education, QUT Australia. Suzanne’s areas of expertise are in inclusive education, disability and teacher preparation for inclusive schools. She has engaged in research to inform policy and practice in Australian and international education contexts and is currently the Program Director of the School Years Program in The Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC).

Associate Professor Beth Saggers is part of the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Education at QUT. She has over 30 years of experience across a broad range of educational settings. Beth has a strong interest in the educational perspectives of key stakeholders including students on the autism spectrum and best practices for supporting students with ASD in education contexts. Beth is currently an active researcher in the Autism CRC and lead the development and implementation of the Autism CRC Australian Educational Needs Analysis.

Amanda Webster is an Associate Professor and the Academic Program Director for the Master and G.C. of Autism at the University of Wollongong (UOW). Her research and teaching is focused on creating inclusive learning communities that support individuals on the autism spectrum to exercise agency and achieve their goals. As a community-engaged researcher she is committed to co-production of teaching and research programs that have meaningful social impact for the community.  Dr. Webster has recently led UOW to become a research partner in the Autism CRC and has worked with the autistic community in her area to develop the My Life My Decisions Community of Practice.

Keely Harper-Hill is the Research Associate in the School Years program of the Autism CRC. A speech pathologist, Keely’s research and clinical interests include the interface between language processing, communication and student learning; teacher professional learning and knowledge translation. Keely was instrumental in the development of inclusionED, the Autism CRC online platform designed to support educators to use evidence-informed teaching practices within a community of practice.

Julie Nickerson is a Research Assistant with the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology, Australia. She has worked on the research, writing, and editing of many articles and books for publication with topics including inclusive education, high-stakes testing, teacher professionalism, and curriculum design.

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