Why do we still teach as if all students are the same?

Opinion: Universal Design for Learning adapts to students’ needs and could combat high college dropout rates

Universal Design for Learning improves teaching practice by using all methods, including technology such as ebooks, Moodle for notes and Livescribe pens for recording notes

Universal Design for Learning improves teaching practice by using all methods, including technology such as ebooks, Moodle for notes and Livescribe pens for recording notes

 

As the dropout rate for third-level creeps higher, we might solve the problem by applying the lessons of architecture and good design.

Good design in education should allow every child to learn. But, after listening to education adviser Dr Ken Robinson and Todd Rose of the Harvard Graduate School of Education on their much-shared Ted Talks, we learn that not all young people are fully included in education.

This is corroborated by a recent Higher Education Authority study of progression in Irish higher education institutions 2010-2012, showing the dropout rate of first years from higher education has increased from 15 per cent to 16 per cent of all first years, and 19 per cent for first-year male students.

Sixteen per cent may not sound much, but it is 7,000 young people.

And it’s worse if they have a disability, especially deafness. Deaf people often do not make it to higher education at all. Recent research shows that, while the total numbers of students with disabilities has risen 7 per cent year on year, the number of deaf/hearing-impaired students fell by 6 per cent, from 288 to 271 (Ahead participation report 2013-2014). Those who get to college may struggle to achieve in a system not designed to include them.

 

Academic ability

This is a lot of talent to waste, and while the HEA survey did not address the reasons for dropping out, it speculated that it was caused by the lack of academic ability of incoming students who do not have the points; in other words they were not fit to learn in higher education.

It is a complex situation, and there is another valid reason for dropout rates: the make-up of education. Courses designed for the average student with good academic skills might not suit all students, resulting in dropouts. Those students pay a high price for not being an “average learner”.

We need to stand back and question the design of our education system, which can be inflexible.

Today’s higher education campuses are more diverse spaces than they were 10 years ago. In many higher education institutions, up to 50 per cent of the student intake is non-CAO and includes mature and international students and those from different socio-economic backgrounds and up to 5 per cent (9,694) students with a disability. These students do not all learn the same way. In fact they cannot all learn the same way.

Managing this difference can be done by Universal Design for Learning. This idea is borrowed from architecture, where you design buildings around the needs of the people using them: tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, able-bodied and disabled. Universal Design for Learning does the same for education and recognises that everyone’s brain works differently and that, like shoe sizes, one size will not fit all.

 

Average learner

In their Ted Talks, Robinson and Rose emphasise that all children are completely different, but we insist on teaching them as if they were all average.

According to Rose, this is a myth, and there is no such thing as the average learner. All students have different levels of curiosity, different perceptions and interests, and different levels of more complex skills such as reading, memorising and using language.

Universal Design for Learning is a way of thinking about learning that makes it easier for the teacher to engage the learner and improves teaching practice by using all methods at their disposal, including technology such as ebooks, Moodle for notes, livescribe pens for recording notes and encouraging projects that interest the individual.

When I started teaching, I thought my task was to hammer my knowledge into the heads of students. I realised in time this was not what the job was about. The real purpose of teaching is learning, and if students are not learning then teaching is not working.

Inclusive practice is not new in Irish higher education, as institutions have an excellent reputation for quality teaching. There are excellent examples of exciting, innovative and student-centred learning, an approach that is actively promoted by the Forum for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Universal Design for Learning applies good design to education and reaches out to all learners, creating better learning spaces at all levels.

Ann Heelan is executive director of Ahead, the Association for Higher Education Access & Disability. Ahead’s conference, UDL: A Licence to Learn, is in Dublin Castle, March 19th-20th. ahead.ie/conference2015

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