Getting to spend any amount of time with extended family is a joy and a privilege in the COVID-era, and we decided a low-risk way for cousins to visit over the 4th of July weekend was to spend that time outside fishing. Though we’re likely lifelong novices, my wife and I can’t think of a time in our lives that didn’t include memories of family and fishing poles, and it’s been wonderful to get to share those moments with our own children as well as our niece and nephew.
After several hours baiting and re-baiting hooks, untangling lines, and responding to gleeful hoots that signaled a bite, standing there on the dock overlooking the deep-woods pond I was struck by the complexity of the original task we had set out to execute: to get 4 kids (and 2 adults), ages 2–7, of different backgrounds and developmental levels, comfort, interest, and ability to enjoy a day out and, with any luck, catch a fish. I found myself tapping into the “flow” of classroom-style problem-solving that I hadn’t experienced since, well, the last day of learning with my own students back in March, but more than that, thoughts about classroom learning and the role of adults flashed like shoals in my mind as we made our way from the humidity of the water’s edge to the dry smoke of the campfire.
CAST, founded in 1984 as the Center for Applied Special Technology, developed the approach known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a way to evaluate and address barriers to learning for all students rather than only making curriculum accessible through specific and often piecemeal individual accommodations. Obviously these accommodations may still be necessary and important, just as a combination of stairs and ramps to enter a building might still require an elevator or chair lift to get around once inside (especially for older buildings). Increasingly though, reliance on prescriptive individual accommodations is seen as a sign of poor design. The guiding principle behind the universal design of any curriculum or facility, for example, is that universal design improves the experience for all users and facilitates participation for everyone. It’s a shift in philosophy from planning with the imaginary Average Person in mind, and later having to kludge conspicuous exceptions, to designing for Every Person.
CAST defines the three principles for UDL as “providing multiple means” of engagement (the “why” of learning), representation (the “what”), and action and expression (the “how). These can be accomplished by providing options for users to “access” the experience, to “build” an understanding of the experience, and to “internalize” the experience. Each of these values and the means of achieving them are captured usefully on the graphic organizer available on their website and shared here:
No analogy is perfect, but I think we can use fishing as an example of an experience where the philosophy of universal design, combined with the support of experienced and conscientious adults, can help us develop a classroom learning experience that achieves the goal of UDL, in the words of CAST, “to develop ‘expert learners’ who are, each in their own way, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed, purposeful and motivated.”
Of course it’s important to understand your learners, perhaps even to build a profile of each of the students in your room, but as you look at the guidelines for UDL the key is to provide “multiple means” to reach each value and “provide options” for each action so that learners can decide which combination of means and options will work for them.
So what does a Universal Design for Fishing look like on the pond? What explicit connections can we make between CASE’s UDL guidelines and the experience of fishing? What can we learn from this as a thought experiment that transfers into thinking about classroom learning through the lens of universal design?
Let’s start at the water’s edge, which on its own captures the attention of curious children and presents so many opportunities for engagement. When my daughter finds herself bored of watching her bobber, she’ll often wander down to a shallow area to see how many frogs she can catch. My 2-year-old son will become entranced by the actions of insects who congregate closer to his level and will insist on monitoring and announcing their activities. And at some point in every fishing trip, one of the kids inevitably becomes the Worm Lord and insists on being the caretaker for our cup of bait worms.
In UDL terms, the pond environment provides multiple means of engagement by optimizing individual choice and autonomy (Checkpoint 7.1). While a classroom environment might restrict choice and autonomy of the learning objective, the outdoor classroom allows learners choice and autonomy not just in determining their task (fish, frogs, bugs, worms, etc.) but also the goals of the task (to cast further than before, to catch as many frogs as possible, to find new and interesting bugs and behaviors, etc.) and the tools used to meet those goals (which bait, stick, bucket, rock, etc.).
A simple “Whatcha doin?” can elicit a complex narrative from a child, and can open avenues for adults to support planning and strategic development, part of providing options for executive functions (Guideline 6). Rather than stepping in to override their natural curiosity with adult ambitions, adults can facilitate executive function in children as simply as showing caring interest and generating lines of inquiry that support expression of their task, goal, or choice — “Show me what you’re doing”, “How is that working for you?” — and even by using your adult experience to add new areas of exploration or variables to current activities: “I wonder what kind of frog that is? How could we figure that out?”, “Why do you think this is like it is?”, or “I wonder what would happen if you did X?”. These are all ways we can both build in choice and autonomy — in the classroom or outside of it — to engage learners while supporting the development of executive function without negating their experience and lack of adult expertise.
As my father had to explain to my disappointed-child self decades ago, and now as I find myself explaining to my own children and niece and nephew, the point of family outings isn’t the activity itself (catching or not catching fish) but the time spent together. In the words of Daniel Tiger, “A friend just wants to play with you, it doesn’t really matter what we do.”
It seems obvious in a familial context, but a safe and secure learning environment sustained by healthy collaboration and community is also foundational to UDL: “The optimal instructional environment offers options that reduce threats and negative distractions for everyone to create a safe space in which learning can occur.” (Checkpoint 7.3)
Providing options for sustaining effort and persistence by fostering collaboration and community (Checkpoint 8.3) is a key UDL principle as well. When encouraged and supported, positive adult and peer relationships let children try on a variety of roles and role-models, especially in a multi-age setting with a diverse range of peer models and experiences to draw from.
The UDL framework clarifies what we understand from our experience and intuition: that there is nothing secondary or optional about the relationship between teacher and student (nor parent and child!). The condition of these relationships is vital for kids to grow and flourish, let alone cultivate lasting positive changes that characterize learning.
As Frank Smith lays out in his classic Book of Learning and Forgetting:
“We rarely forget the interests, attitudes, beliefs, and skills that we acquire simply by interacting with the significant people in our lives.
I’m not claiming that we learn from all the people around us. That obviously isn’t the case. All sorts of things can go on around us…and we don’t seem to learn a thing…Instead I mean that we learn from the individuals or groups with whom we identify.
And as we identify with other members of all the clubs to which we belong, so we learn to be like those other members. We become like the company we keep, exhibiting this identity in the way we talk, dress, and ornament ourselves, and in many other ways. The identification creates the possibility of learning
All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.”
Understanding that choice and autonomy, with a foundation for learning in safe, collaborative relationships, are key for designing an engaging learning experience, next comes thinking about the tools, resources, and materials that will facilitate environmental interactions.
As you can imagine, my two-year old does not have a lot of success with the rod length and complicated parts of the open-reel commonly used by adults, but he has learned how to click the button on his Paw Patrol kiddie pole to lower his line into the water and can reel his line in by himself. And fortunately for me, the handle on my own reel can be adjusted to match my left-handedness. These are all simple examples of providing options for physical action (Guideline 4), which in practice means varying the methods for response and navigation and optimizing access to tools and assistive technologies (Checkpoints 4.1 & 4.2) “to provide equal opportunity for interaction with learning experiences, an instructor must ensure that there are multiple means for navigation and control is accessible.”
As learners vary in the tasks they choose, so too will the demands of the task and the resources needed to meet it. While the younger kids are content with bait worms and the smaller fish they consistently attract when dropped off the dock, my seven year-old nephew is motivated by the greater risk-reward of deeper waters and sorting out the riddle of the tackle box. Fishing is an activity in which it is natural to vary the demands and resources to optimize challenge (Checkpoint 8.2) as the difficulty scales up and down in response to feedback from the environment. What does it look like to provide “a range of demands, and a range of possible resources, allows all learners to find challenges that are optimally motivating” in the classroom?
CAST advises that it is “important to provide alternative modalities for expression, both to the level the playing field among learners and to allow the learner to appropriately (or easily) express knowledge, ideas and concepts in the learning environment”. (Guideline 5)
Once learners have made decisions about the tools and resources they will use to meet a task, they need to be supported in building fluencies with graduated levels of support for practice and performance (Checkpoint 5.3). My five year-old daughter, for example, might choose to fish with her purple branded Rapunzel kiddie pole, but unlike her younger brother, she has begun to improve in her confidence and ability to cast her line further out into the water. I should add that she got both the motivation and modeling for this action from watching her older cousin.
As recreational fishers our method is catch-and-release, so every fish we pull in together is both a celebration and an event. Depending on how well the fish took the bait, we try to let the kids remove the hook independently. And while my five year-old niece loves the thrill of the catch, she mostly enjoys the fish themselves as an idea rather than their slippery, floppy physical form. When it comes to her turn to release the fish back into the water, we offer to prop it up on a surface that she can then push it in using her hand or her foot as she works up the courage and motor skills to release it independently.
Each of these examples supports kids on their path to eventual independence in the mechanics of the actual physical act of fishing. I have no doubt that with practice, each child will become fluent in casting, unhooking, and releasing fish independently.
You can see that maximizing options for engagement, action, and representation, while necessarily providing minimal individual accommodations, helps build an experience that follows at least several of the principles of universal design (and probably many more I failed to mention in my analysis*!).
It was my goal with this thought experiment to demystify the UDL framework and apply it to a common experience like fishing so that as classroom teachers thinking about whatever our “Return to Learn” looks like in the next several weeks, we can plan with universal design in mind. As CAST reiterates on their website, “These guidelines offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.” The purpose of this exercise is not to force yourself to adapt to every guideline or to give up in frustration at being restrained by your current limitations, rather, if we understand that universal design makes for a better experience for all users, understand that any shift toward UDL improves classroom learning for all of your students. CAST also encourages teachers to mix and match which guidelines and checkpoints to target to best help support and scaffold learners. Use the guidelines and framework provided by CAST and do a similar analysis of your virtual or physical classroom space:
*As a post-script, I think it is interesting to note that because of the concrete, experiential nature of fishing — rather than be mediated through symbolic interpretation as school often is via text and other media — I found few, if any, connections to the guidelines for Perception, Language & Symbols, & Comprehension (in purple at left)! Though these would undoubtedly need to be addressed for classroom learning is to truly be considered “universal”.