For … With

Last week I went to the Wellington EdTech MeetUp where, among other speakers as well, I listened to a man named Rahman Satti. He spoke about his experience working with refugees and new migrants in Germany in 2015. And of course, we’re not talking about a small group of 15 in a community, but a whole country working with an influx of one million displaced people.

One of the ideas a group had was to create and build an app for refugees and migrants. It would be multi-lingual with the aim of being a kind of ‘one stop shop’ for all kinds of things new people to Germany might need. It was well-intentioned and thoughtful. But it didn’t fly with the people it was supposed to help. There were numerous reasons for this, as there always are, but the point Satti was making was that the app with designed for refugees and new migrants rather than designed with.

Instead, Satti and his group approached the refugees and new migrants as co-designers, as crucial, as agentic, and as fundamental to the design process as they were. One of the first learnings Satti and group gained was that the refugees and migrants didn’t like these labels. They wanted to be known as new-comers.

This idea of co-design, of designing with rather than for, really got me thinking. When we design for, we run the risk of re-creating existing power imbalances despite our very best intentions. Whereas, when we design with, this is empowering for all involved. I think this holds great potential within a school (or a Community of Learning) for open, flexible, genuine learning for all involved – no matter their shoe size (as Keryn Davis might say.)

Co-design calls on us to hold our ideas lightly and to be ready to challenge and confront own assumptions. To put aside what we think “should” be.


I wonder if we might have a tendency as adults who work with younger learners to want to “just” help and that this might mean that although we intend on designing with – this could come with an unintended superiority or paternalism/maternalism, to want to do ‘for’. Perhaps as adults we might need to do some ‘unlearning’ first and to remember the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, where children have the right to be heard, the right to be taken seriously, and the right to be treated with respect. (There are also some cool NZ resources on working with children from the NZ Children’s Commissioner: an explanation of the children’s rights, and some ways to engage with children.)

Which leads me to wonder:

  • How might we approach learners as co-designers?
  • How might we create a safe space for co-design? (The principles of Universal Design for Learning could be awesome here.)

And then further, given my current interest in school libraries: What might a co-designed school library be like?

  • What do learners value in their school library?
  • What innovative ways could they see the library space being used?
  • By whom?
  • At what times?

What rich learning is possible if we design with rather than for.

Re-focusing my UDL Lenses

Lately, I’ve been challenged to think more about Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I’ve been exposed to the framework previously, even using it to inform a professional learning session when I was the Future Learning Leader at Marsden. I thoroughly enjoyed Katie Novak’s presentation at ULearn in 2014. I was so impressed by the way she modelled UDL even given the constraints of a conference keynote speech. Lucky enough to be a CORE Education eFellow last year, Chrissie Butler, our local UDL guru, led us through a session on UDL which prompted me to think more about the kind of language we use to talk about individuals and groups within our schools, e.g. the “special needs” kids and their “teacher aides”.

So I believed I understood the ‘big picture’ behind UDL – that it’s about providing universal supports that work for everyone, the way automatic opening and closing doors do in the supermarket or shopping mall regardless of someone’s mobility.

Underpinning this idea are values that I am comfortable with: the notion of equity for one. That we are not all equal, but with the same right to access information and knowledge and learning. Therefore as teachers, we should provide ‘on ramps’ so that everyone can have access to the learning.

With my design thinking hat on, I easily get on board with the idea of knowing your learner as this is what being empathetic requires.

And when it came to the role of technology with UDL, it was clear to me that it was mostly about assistive technologies like text to speech functions, altering font size and colour. If I pushed the boat out a bit further I could see that digital technologies also had a role to play in offering choice: offering more ways to access information and more ways to demonstrate understanding of knowledge.

Yep. This UDL thing. I’ve got it down.

But then it was pointed out to me the underlying purpose of UDL.


  • Engagement: purposeful, motivated learners
  • Representation: resourceful, knowledgeable learners
  • Action and expression: strategic, goal-directed learners

Suddenly these reminded me of future-focused pedagogy goals. Self-managing learners. Curious, motivated, life-long learners. Oh.

And then I started to connect this to the OECD 7 Principles of Learning. Recognise these ideas?

  • Learner at the centre: “Learners are the central players in the environment and therefore activities centre on their cognition and growth.” “The environment aims to develop ‘self-regulated learners’” (p. 6)
  • Recognising individual differences: “The learning environment is acutely sensitive to the individual differences among the learners in it…” (p. 7)

With these new UDL lenses on, the role of digital technologies becomes greatly expanded. Much more than a learning support and a means to offer choice, but instead to ensure learning is:

  • Engaging
  • Motivating
  • Personalised
  • Collaborative
  • Connected to students’ passions
  • Matched to students’ needs and interests

And that learning is about:

  • Bringing who you are to the learning
  • Being responsible for your own learning
  • Becoming a more independent, self-managing learner: knowing what is being taught and why


I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve still got a lot more thinking to do about this, but suddenly UDL makes a lot more sense to me. As always, there is a lot more behind a concept than a surface glance can give.

Adopting future-focused pedagogies means being learner-centred. In turn this means knowing your learners deeply. And UDL is a way to achieve this. It is not a separate framework, but a lens through which to view curriculum design and the role of digital technologies for learning. It isn’t a ‘bolt on’ addition, but a crucial ‘yes, and’.

This re-focusing also reinforces my belief in the power of language. If you choose to adopt a ‘buzz word’, or, as in this case, a buzz phrase like ‘learner-centred’, be prepared to really sit with it and unpack it deeply. There’s always a lot more than meets the eye.

Wine Glasses on the Table

I’m having a dry April. (I know, I know, it seemed like a good idea at the time, what can I say?!) But I tell you what, there’s nothing like foregoing alcohol for an extended period of time to make you think about the place of booze in New Zealand culture.

You start to realise how many social events revolve around alcohol: have a catch-up with a friend. At a pub. Enter a quiz. At a pub. Watch a sports game. At a pub. Birthday parties. Dinner parties. Parties parties. Heck, even the cinema these days.

Then I feel as though I have to explain why I’m not drinking. No, I’m not on antibiotics. No, I’m not pregnant. Yes, I am driving, but that’s besides the point. I’m just not drinking at all this month. A glass of sparkling water would be delicious, thank you.

It makes me think about how taken for granted having an alcoholic beverage is. How ubiquitous the booze. In fact, even the word ‘drink’ itself in adult contexts is synonymous with alcohol: “Now, what can I get you to drink?” When you go to a restaurant, the non-alcoholic drinks are listed way at the back of the menu. The expectation just is that you’ll be having wine. In fact, there are empty wine glasses already on the table, waiting for you. The prevailing, underlying, unspoken assumption is that everyone drinks alcohol.

Image Source 

And all this makes me wonder. What are the wine glasses on the table for education? In other words, so as not to torture the metaphor further, what are the prevailing, underlying, unspoken assumptions that we just ‘know’ about school?

That everyone speaks English? That everyone is literate? That everyone has access to the Internet? A TV? That students wish to accumulate knowledge and pass tests? That teachers will be referred to by their surnames? That students aren’t allowed in the staffroom, but that teachers are allowed in the common room? That high schools don’t need playgrounds? That everyone should learn English, Maths and Science? That teachers are experts in their field? That school starts at 9am, finishes at 3pm, and runs Monday-Friday in ten week blocks we call terms? That summer is sacred?

There are several approaches I could suggest at this point, first and foremost being Universal Design for Learning, but I wonder if we need to start even more from first principles here. What if we wrote all the things we ‘know’ about school, and thought about whether they were helpful (i.e. nourishes a culture that empowers confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners – and in that I include adults, and whanau too), or not helpful. What if we asked lots of questions? What if we openly acknowledged and examined our assumptions – maybe by using a framework such as Timperley, Kaser and Halbert’s spiral of inquiry (2013)? What if everything was up for debate, and we welcomed students and whanau to debate them too? Then we might be on our way to reimagining and revisioning school and not just assuming that we should put wine glasses on the table.

Pick Me!

This post is my application for a 2015 CORE eFellowship.

#edchatNZ steering committee. L-R: Heather Eccles, Sonya van Schaijik, me, Matt Nicoll, Alyx Gillett, Danielle Myburgh, Mel Moore
#edchatNZ steering committee. L-R: Heather Eccles, Sonya van Schaijik, me, Matt Nicoll, Alyx Gillett, Danielle Myburgh, Mel Moore

My application presentation can be found here.

My Twitter profile
My Twitter profile
The kind words of Steve Mouldey
The kind words of Steve Mouldey

Marsden Professional Learning Session 8

If this afternoon’s session was at all coherent or useful, I really owe it to my PLN. I was presenting on ‘UDL’ (Universal Design for Learning), which I have been growing in understanding of over the past six months or so. Nevertheless, I was struggling to know how to do the concept justice in a 20 minute slot. Luckily though, Claire Amos had covered UDL in a #hackyrclass blogpost earlier this term, which also led me to Chrissie Butler’s blogpost. This latter post in particular I found invaluable. My own presentation shamelessly plunders her links and ideas.

My own ‘spin’ was that I attempted to follow UDL principles in putting my presentation together. For the ‘Engagement’ phase I started with the opening minute of the ‘Failing Superman‘ YouTube clip and then posed a question which groups could discuss, or jot ideas down on post-it notes. For the ‘Representation’ phase I gave an overview of UDL, and then gave various options as to how people might like to access more information on the topic. Choices included watching a video, reading blogposts or discussing a document with a partner. Finally, for the ‘Action and Expression’ phase, staff had the choice of three workshops to attend based on their needs and interests (which is standard for our professional learning sessions). Sessions also end with reflection time, which staff can complete in a way that suits them.

Furthermore, I made explicit my intention in using UDL guidelines in framing the presentation. I hope that this allowed staff to both understand UDL better, having realised they had seen it in practice, as well as demonstrated that technology is a powerful tool to allow for a range of supports to be offered. Overall I feel pleased with how the presentation worked.

Image credit:
Image credit:

Beyond teacher egocentrism: design thinking

Now that I’m feeling more confident with the ‘big picture’ of future or 21st Century learning themes, I’m aware of the need to move to considering programme-unit-lesson design. Posing challenges or ‘ungoogleable’ questions appeals to me, and this reading might help me with my exploration. Steve Mouldey’s application of this reading also has considerable food for thought: Designing and Causing Learning

Granted, and...

As teachers we understandably believe that it is the ‘teaching’ that causes learning. But this is too egocentric a formulation. As I said in my previous post, the learner’s attempts to learn causes all learning. The teaching is a stimulus; the attempted learning (or lack of it) is the response. No matter what the teacher says or does, the learner has to engage with and process the ‘teaching’ if learning is to happen.

From this viewpoint, the teacher is merely one resource for learning, no different from a book, a peer, an experience, or an experimental result. It is the learner who decides to try to learn (or not) from what happens. And the learner will only wish to learn and be able to learn if the conditions of learning have been optimized to make sustained engagement and understanding possible.

Put in terms of a phrase that many now…

View original post 886 more words

Universal Design for Learning

This is another concept which I need to spend more time thinking about – particularly: how does it relate to future learning principles?  However, I definitely agree with the idea of universal design for learning – that students should be able to show their understanding in a way that best suits them.  The principles of UDL seem to be around making knowledge accessible, and making the assessment fit the learning.  I think English as a subject is particularly well placed to do this – we might have more freedom in an English classroom to allow students to present in writing, orally, or visually.  This way we can assess both content knowledge and production skills.  Success criteria therefore need to be flexible, or perhaps even co-constructed with students.

I do think that there is a challenge (albeit not an insurmountable one) to balance the concept of universal design for learning against the demands of meeting NCEA assessment criteria.  Something we’re looking to try at Whitby next year is to focus on teaching key skills in the first half of the year, putting aside various pieces of student work as they go.  Then, in the second half of the year, these pieces can be crafted into items for assessment, playing to the strengths students have exhibited.  It will be interesting to monitor how this approach works towards meeting the needs of students.

As I came to appreciate at ULearn, and as this YouTube clip makes clear, it is about opening doorways for students – and technology has the power to do the same.  Technology can be used to make knowledge accessible to students, and it can be used to help students show their understanding in a way that best suits them.  The New Zealand Curriculum talks about ‘diversity’, and some of the reading I’ve started to do unpacks this idea to not just be about catering to students from diverse backgrounds, and not just a diversity of learning styles, as UDL can do, but it’s also about coping with and managing a diversity of ideas.  In this way technology can be both a boon and a burden.  Perhaps this is also where TPACK and careful, clever learning design comes into play – providing a specific context but flexible success criteria so that students don’t flounder and lose their way.

Today I gave my Year 8 students an independent reading assignment.  Within reason, they can choose their own fiction book to complete the assignment on, and while I have given them a range of activities and questions to complete in relation to their chosen text, I have set them the challenge of finding a creative and original way to present their final product.  They can complete it in their exercise book, as a poster, as a blog, as a podcast, as a YouTube video…it’s up to them.  The girls have embraced the idea and are hugely enthusiastic.  And while, yes, it will be interesting to see the final products, at least it has them excited about learning, and they feel they can attack the task.  And perhaps that’s a real benefit of trialling something like universal design for learning.