Challenging Education's Inflexible Model: Universally Designed Classrooms That Empower

Challenging Education's Inflexible Model: Universally Designed Classrooms That Empower

Emily Art, Tasia A. Chatman, Lauren LeBental
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8860-4.ch003
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Structural conditions in schools limit diverse exceptional learners' academic and social-emotional development and inhibit the professional growth of their teachers. Teachers and students are restricted by the current instructional model, which suggests that effective teachers lead all students through a uniform set of instructional experiences in service of objective mastery. This model assumes that diverse exceptional learners' success depends on access to the teacher-designed, one-right-way approach to the learning objective. This inflexible model prevents both the teacher and the student from co-constructing learning experiences that leverage their mutual strengths and support their mutual development. In this chapter, the authors argue that the Universal Design for Learning framework challenges the one-right-way approach, empowering teachers and students to leverage their strengths in the learning process. The authors recommend training teachers to use the Universal Design for Learning framework to design flexible instruction for diverse exceptional learners.
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Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the “practice of freedom”, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world (Freire, 2005, p. 34).

The current education model, as implemented in schools across the country, both upholds white dominant norms and emboldens deficit thinking related to diverse exceptional learners. Teachers and Black and Latinx students with disabilities who aim for success within this model encounter significant barriers to personal growth and achievement. Repeated experiences of failure, over time, reinforce the teacher's deficit perspective that diverse exceptional learners are needy and passive and that the disability lies within the learner, not the learning environment (Shume, 2020). Students then internalize their lack of success as a manifestation of their disability, limiting their agency in the learning process. This chapter will make the case that the Universal Design for Learning framework allows the teacher and student to co-construct a learning environment that disrupts current structural barriers to growth and achievement.


Traditional Models Of Schooling And The One-Right-Way Approach

Within the traditional education model, both teachers and students are stifled by the perspective that there is one-right-way to teach and learn. In this model the teacher sets the path for learning and their students all engage in the same sequence of learning experiences, in pursuit of a shared objective. This one-right-way approach to teaching and learning is steeped in the white dominant norms that Okun (2020) identifies as embedded within organizational culture in the United States. According to Okun, a prevailing white dominant norm is “the belief that there is one-right-way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it” (p.4). Despite differences between students that might justify various approaches to learning, the teacher’s way is by default the best way, and students are expected to deviate very little, if at all, from the path laid out. If students do deviate from the teacher's way, the normative response is “something wrong with them (the other, those not changing)” not with the teacher or the one who “‘know[s]’ the right way” (Okun, 2020).

Throughout this chapter, evidence will be presented to suggest that diverse exceptional learners, or students who may learn or think differently, and their teachers are more likely to be marginalized by white dominant norms within this educational model. A one-right-way model of teaching and learning does not create the conditions necessary to support the growth and development of diverse exceptional learners. When the teacher designs a lesson for all students to engage with in the same way, they ignore the unique characteristics of the students in the instructional design process. This imposes a great burden on students who learn differently from the ways outlined in the lesson. The repeated academic and social-emotional failure that results from a poor fit between the student and the learning activity has the potential to have a long-term impact on the student’s self-concept and their capacity to drive their own growth and achievement.

Just as diverse exceptional learners are limited by this model, their teachers are as well. Teachers of exceptional learners are taught that they should be able to effectively include diverse exceptional learners within a model for lesson planning and delivery that does not adequately account for learner variability. While differentiation is encouraged, teachers are ill equipped to do so in a manner that radically changes diverse exceptional learners’ experience within a lesson. When one-right-way teaching techniques prove a poor fit for diverse exceptional learners, teachers question their capacity to effectively teach all students and often adopt a deficit view of diverse exceptional learners. The researchers will argue that this limits teachers’ abilities to drive their own professional development in support of more inclusive practice.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Scripted Curriculum: A pre-packed curricular materials that script out exactly what a teacher will say and do to lead students through a learning experience ( Fitz, & Nikolaidis, 2020 ).

Universal Design for Learning: A framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn ( CAST, 2018 ).

Self-Efficacy: The belief that one’s past performance impacts one’s belief about their own ability to perform a task successfully, which subsequently impacts future performance ( Bandura, 1997 ).

One-Right-Way: A tenet of white supremacy culture that suggests that there is one best way to approach a task, above all others, and that people who are using a different approach are doing so because they don’t yet know the best way ( Okun, 2020 ).

Expert Learner: One that is has sufficient knowledge of themselves as a learner to effectively drive their own progress toward a goal ( CAST, 2018 ).

Self-Concept: One’s established or characteristic attitudes about themselves ( Demo, 1992 ).

Diverse Exceptional Learner: Students who may learn or think differently, often with identified disabilities.

Differentiated Instruction: Providing individualized instruction for a particular student or group of students ( Weber et al., 2013 ).

Deliberate Practice: Frequent and intentional practice of isolated skills designed to maximize individual improvement ( Ericsson et al., 1993 ).

Growth Mindset: The belief that intelligence is not fixed and can be developed ( Dweck & Master, 2009 ).

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