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Embrace Learner Variability

Imagine a group of public school students, such as a group of first-graders or a high school physics class. Now, think about how these students learn. What comes to mind? Did you think about what is similar about these hypothetical students? Are they learning the same goals in the same ways? Or did you think about the variability of these learners? Did you think that these students have unique strengths, needs, and interests that they bring to learning?

These questions highlight two views of learning. The first focuses on learners’ similarities, and the second focuses on their individual differences. As a teacher, I saw firsthand that these views can affect how we approach the inclusion of students with severe disabilities in the general education curriculum. For example, the teachers who thought of the variability of their learners first were often the ones who expressed joy in teaching students with severe disabilities and extensive needs. These teachers would stop me in the hall to say, “I love having Marcus in my class. The curriculum changes we made for him are helping a lot of my other students.” In contrast, the teachers who focused on similarities would often express hesitation about teaching students with severe disabilities. They would stop me in the hall to say, “I am not sure if my classroom is a good fit for Marcus. Isn’t there another program or classroom teacher that would work better?”  These experiences made me wonder how I could inspire more joy and less hesitation about students with severe disabilities, and how we might reframe our thinking about our students.

I found the answer in the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework and its fundamental premise of learner variability. Based on research from learning sciences and cognitive neuroscience, learner variability is the idea that all individuals are unique in how they learn. Not only do we all learn in unique ways, but our abilities continually change in response to the environment in real time. Instead of thinking about learner variability in our classroom as something to reduce, we can think of it as a normal and predictable part of teaching any group of learners. Then, we can proactively plan for and even celebrate it. This way of teaching is in contrast to a focus on what is similar or average about our students.

When we shift our focus from what is similar about learners to their variability, the payoff is great. Educators who embrace the idea of learner variability can use UDL principles to design opportunities for all students to engage, understand, and respond in meaningful learning. They see learner variability as an asset, and therefore, the logical starting place for their thinking about students and curriculum. This example is just one way UDL gets us closer to achieving equity-based inclusion. Students with severe disabilities thrive in classrooms where learner variability is celebrated because how they learn helps us to recognize curriculum barriers and optimize learning in our classrooms. This is why my colleagues found joy in having students with severe disabilities in their classes.

Do you want to spread the idea of learner variability in your school? A great way to start is to think about how we talk about students, including those with severe disabilities. 

Learner variability table

Another way to spread UDL thinking about learner variability is to learn more about it. For more information about UDL and learner variability, check out the following resources:

The UDL learning series on Learner Variability from the National Center on Universal Design for Learning

Author’s article on UDL and Learners with Severe Support Needs

An article from Chelsea Miller at EdSurge News on Embracing Variability with UDL

Todd Rose: Variability Matters

- Elizabeth Hartman

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Liz Hartmann is an Associate Professor of Education at Lasell College and an Adjunct Lecturer on Education at Harvard University. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) at Boston College, in collaboration with CAST. She is a graduate from the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education from the University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Professor Hartmann is a licensed special educator and has published, presented, and consulted nationally and internationally in her field. In her research, she examines how to support learners with multiple and complex special needs. She also studies the UDL framework and teacher education. See more at: http://www.lasell.edu/academics/departments/education/faculty/elizabeth-hartmann-phd.html You can follow her on Twitter @profhartmann