One of the best metaphors I have heard when it comes to talking about identifying those barriers that are created around student learning in our instructional design has to do with fish and the water they swim in. A fish may not be fully aware of the water they are swimming in as it is always around them. It just exists, and it isn’t until they are removed from it that they probably become fully aware of the water.
The same could be said for our own classrooms when we are looking at instructional design. Since we are the ones who are designing the learning that is happening in our classrooms and we are always in it, we may not see what others are experiencing when they are in our classrooms. We know our perception that is impacted by our beliefs and ideas, our abilities, our past experiences, and what we want to happen, but that is going to be so different from person to person that not everyone will experience it the same way. All learners vary so much in their attributes and abilities, that they will not all experience the same learning environment in the same ways. I always like to reference the TED talk by Todd Rose about the “Myth of Average” as way to fully visualize how much our students vary and how this will impact how they experience learning in our classrooms and schools.
Since our classrooms were designed with our own beliefs and understanding around learning, we may unintentionally be creating barriers for some learners. This is not an intentional decision but most often happens because we are just not conscious about how our instructional decisions may impact some learners due to how much they will vary when they enter our classrooms. If we are only designing instruction in one inflexible way, the way that we perceive is best, then some students will experience barriers to success and learning.
For example, if we design a classroom that is centered around having large group discussions, this will cause issues for some students. A student who has a speech impediment may not be willing to speak up for fear of being made fun of and will actively avoid those situations. As someone who had some speech issues and still does to this day due to my hearing issues as a child, I often times would not speak up in class as a student. It took a long time for me to overcome this, and while I may be someone who speaks and presents at conferences now, it is always there in the back of my mind. For some students, they may never get over this and if an instructional design favors those learners who speak up, then they will experience failure due to the instructional design if they are not given other paths to success.
Another example happens in classrooms where there are strict expectations around students sitting still and paying attention to the teacher for long periods of time. Students with one form of ADHD may need to burn off some energy in order to focus, and this will often be visible through fidgeting. A teacher may think this is distracting, but for the student, they can only focus if they are fidgeting. This is not something they can just turn off, it is part of how their brain works, and if they are punished or excluded for fidgeting, then we have lost them as a learner. Sharing my own experience as someone who needs to fidget at times in order to focus on something, there are people who know better than to sit next to me during meetings, but if you expect me to be absolutely still, then I will not be able to fully focus on what you want me to.
One last example that can be seen in so many classrooms, since the number of students that have a form of dyslexia can vary from 15-20% based on different studies, revolves around how we expect students to “read”. If we only give our students paper copies of text and expect all students to be able to fully read and comprehend that text, then we must realize that we could be creating major barriers for 15-20% of our students. There are so many digital tools out there that can easily help a student with a form of dyslexia to “read” and understand a text, but only if they have access to a digital and accessible form of that text. Expecting students to find their own digital copies or to scan it themselves wastes their energy and creates barriers for them. It causes them to feel different and to stand out, which is why some students will not use these digital tools because no one wants to feel like an outsider. As someone who had to wear a hearing aid as a kid and was made fun of because of it, I fully understand this. The teacher may not be actively pointing out how that student is different but that student will feel it strongly each time they have to do extra work because they are not in an accessible environment.
Looking over these three examples, one can easily be discouraged but if we try to design flexible and accessible learning environments for all of our students, we can avoid these situations. This is one reason why I try to share out so much about Universal Design for Learning, as it focuses on the brain and how we learn, and how the environments and instructional decisions can impact this. There are a ton of resources out there, just look at the UDL Guidelines created by CAST or take a read through Dive Into UDL. There are some easy ways to improve the accessibility of our instructional design (making sure all students have access to digital and accessible texts, having multiple paths to engage in learning and to show their learning, not just having one path to success), but this is something we can keep working at and just trying to get better each time. No teacher can get to the highest level of success in one try, it is just about trying to do better each time we design instruction.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a new teacher, almost 2 decades ago now, was to sit in my students’ desks at the end of the day and reflect on what they experienced. I would often be found in my classroom, an hour or two after my students had left, sitting in a desk and just reflecting on the day. Thinking about who had success that day, who did not have success, and why both of those happened. I would focus on what I had control over and just try to do better the next day. It helped when I had others in the classroom who could see things differently than I did. They could see the water when I could not. Nowadays, I would gladly take use of video recording in my classroom and would ask others to help me reflect on what I was doing. If you have people like that who are open to helping you, by being the other set of eyes, by helping you see the water, then please take advantage of that. We are just hoping to do better the next time, and we can’t do that if we do not see those obstacles we may be unintentionally creating for some learners.