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Through the Lens of Variability


“ELL,” “gifted,” “linear, sequential thinker”… how can teachers begin to design lessons to support the range of labels given to our students? There is a term frequently used in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) that can help: variability. As a teacher, understanding variability helped me break the mold of expectation regarding what each student label needs. I will describe how I transformed one of my science lessons through the lens of variability, without using student labels. 

The goal of my 50-minute biology class was for students to learn the structures and functions of an animal cell. For years, I ran this lesson in a way that worked well. I began class with an overview of key information, including images, video, and handouts. Students then worked on an analogy comparing each part of the cell to a part of the city of Boston. They filled out tables and drew images. I generally thought the lessons went well; however, I had not designed the lesson to support the full range of student variability:

* Some students did not know the function of specific city buildings so they had trouble making connections to unfamiliar parts of a cell. There was variability in background knowledge.
* The content was boring for some students, especially those who had already learned this material. There was variability in engagement.
* There was a lot of vocabulary, both for the cell (such as “endoplasmic reticulum”) and city (“Department of Public Works”). There was variability in vocabulary. 
* There was a lot of rote memorization. There was variability in working memory.

In reflecting on this lesson, there was no mention of individual student labels. For example, variability in vocabulary spanned beyond “ELL” students to include the range of vocabulary skills among all students. I made a few simple additional changes to this cell lesson using the UDL guidelines and thinking about variability. 

First, I prepared stations in my classroom that students could choose to use (or choose not to use), including a(n):

* (1) graphic organizer area, for variability in executive function.
* (2) audio station, for variability in perception.
* (3) craft table, for variability in action.
* (4) computer, for variability in expression.
* (5) quiet work area, for variability in minimizing distractions.
* (7) cooperative corner, for variability in collaboration. 
* (8) review and reflection corner, for variability in self-reflection. This station also had end-of-year biology standard exam prep questions.

Second, I let students choose their analogy to learn the parts of the cell, to support variability in student interests. 

I observed such a different class and outcome! Students had debates about whether Harry Potter or Hogwarts was more like the nucleus of the cell. There were group drawings of the Death Star from “Cell-Wars” with music, and a student who had not previously volunteered shared a collaborative cell model. A dancer worked independently on a “Gi-cell poster” based on the ballet “Giselle.” Two students built a “Pirates of the Cell-aribbean” model. One student who I thought would want a partner, instead chose to work independently. When I asked him about this choice, he shared that he had just taken a difficult math test and needed some space (variability in engagement). As students worked, I roamed around the room, checked on student progress, and offered feedback, supporting variability in persistence. Importantly, students did well on the final unit test and actively used the cell vocabulary throughout the year! 

Variability goes beyond labels such as “auditory processor,” “verbal,” or “struggles with attention.” UDL offers a framework to reflect and design lessons that support variability of all students, across subjects, and at all ages.

- Allison Posey

Allison Posey (@AllisonAPosey) works at CAST, a non-profit in Wakefield, MA where she collaborates with educators around instructional design using Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Her background in Mind, Brain, and Education, as well arts education, gives her an appreciation of the dynamic learning processes and the importance of offering flexible, accessible options for all students.