Expanding the Talent Pool

Raylene Olinger

Designing For No One?

Recently I viewed a TED talk called The Myth of Average. In this talk, the speaker, Todd Rose of the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggests the notion that there is no average student. This talk resonated with me because as a teacher (and parent, for that matter) I have seen that individual differences are powerful in terms of learning.  I have known many successful students who were talented in a variety of areas.  I have also known students who, while incredibly talented, were not as academically successful.  I listened to Rose explain how the Air Force was able to capitalize on a whole new pool of talented pilots when they became more flexible in their thinking around cockpit design, because when they examined the size profile of their pilots it was discovered that no pilots fit an average profile in every area.  I was struck by his idea that by “designing for the average pilot they were actually designing for no one”. He noted that when the Air Force looked even at small changes like adjustable seats, they were able to be inclusive of a group of pilots never before considered.  Rose also drew parallels to universal design in architecture, which allows buildings and spaces to be designed and created for all users, including those on the “edges” or in the “margins”.  These design qualities may include the use of ramps, cuts in curbs, enlarged doorways, lever knobs instead of round door knobs and many other features all designed to make spaces usable for everyone, by considering the barriers that different people may have and addressing them intentionally in the design and construction phases.  

The talk then shifted to a philosophy of educating students. Rose asserts that if we fail to consider the jagged learning profiles (the strengths and challenges) of our students, that we are designing our lessons for no one.  The diverse nature of our classrooms certainly stretches an educator’s ability to help every student reach their potential, and yet… it is imperative that we do just that.  As I have continued to think about his message, I appreciate the parallels to the universal design movement in architecture. Originally called barrier free design, these qualities were intended to provide access to people with disabilities.  However, as time has passed the design features such as those mentioned above have proven to be useful for a wide variety of people; they have been incorporated into spaces in ways we barely realize. Ramps that may have originally been designed for wheelchair access also provide easier use for strollers and bicycles as an example of the flexibility in use.  The accessibility features on our Smartphones are another example of ways that designing for the margins increases flexibility in the way many of us use our devices. By designing for the “margins”, many users benefit.

Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is based on the principles of universal design; the premise being that curriculum and learning should be proactively designed for all types of learners. By considering ways to eliminate barriers to learning for each of our students we actually create more flexible pathways for all students.  An important principle of UDL is to first understand the goals for learning.  Clarity around these goals provides students with a way to engage in the learning, measure their progress, and take ownership for their growth.  After understanding learning goals, teachers then consider what barriers might exist for each of their students in reaching the learning goals.  Knowledge of each student’s strengths, passions, and areas of growth would then allow different pathways to be considered in three main areas.  

The three principles of UDL come from three primary brain networks.  The first network is representation--the what of learning, and focuses on how learning is acquired.  The second, expression is the how of learning and focuses on ways that students can express what they know.  The third is engagement, the why of learning, which focuses on a student’s motivation for learning something.  Focusing on ways to create options for students within these three primary brain networks helps to create a more flexible curriculum. This is in many ways similar to the principles of differentiated instruction, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson, in which curriculum flexibility is built around the options for content, process and product.  The important concept in both cases is that flexibility should be proactively planned for so that teachers can respond to learner needs, including ways in which additional support might be needed.

Who is your instruction designed for?  By designing for students “in the margins”, our instruction is then designed for everyone--as opposed to instruction for the average student, which is designed for no one. If you were to embark on a “cockpit re-design” in your classroom, could you be expanding the talent pool for rich learning in service to each of your students? 


The connection to Colorado’s Teacher Quality Standards:

Standard I,  F:  Teachers make instruction and content relevant to students and take actions to connect students’ background and contextual knowledge with new information being taught.

Standard II, C:  Teachers engage students as individuals with unique interests and strengths.  

Standard II, D:  Teachers adapt their teaching for the benefit of all students, including those with special needs, across a range of ability levels.