In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Katie Novak, an internationally renowned education consultant, author, adjunct professor, former teacher, and former assistant superintendent of schools. We discuss the topic of her newest book, cowritten with Dr. Catlin Tucker, The Shift to Student-Led: Reimagining Classroom Workflows with UDL and Blended Learning. This work explores the unique intersection of Universal Design for Learning and blended learning as a way to design learning that is both student-centered and student-led.
Dr. Novak says, “My work is predominantly focused on deconstructing one-size-fits-all models for teaching and learning, and I do that through the lens of trying to universally design instruction.” She adds, “Universal design is essentially how we recognize barriers to one-size-fits-all and then provide pathways, so everyone has what they need to be successful.”
Throughout our conversation, Dr. Novak details how these two approaches work together. She says, “Blended learning allows you to operationalize the research base as universal design because it gives us a frame for how we can provide all of these different pathways but also have opportunities to work with small groups of students—to help them self-assess, to determine if the choices they’re making are in fact serving them as learners.”
The truth is that it is much easier to be a student in a teacher-centered classroom and much more challenging to be a student in a student-centered classroom.
Dr. Catlin Tucker, from the book cowritten with Dr. Katie Novak, The Shift to Student-Led: Reimagining Classroom Workflows with UDL and Blended Learning
- Design With Accessibility in Mind (article collection)
- Become Information and Media Literate (article collection)
- Empower Students Through Creativity and Choice (article collection)
- Unpacking Blended Learning, Part I, with Dr. Catlin Tucker (podcast episode)
- Unpacking Blended Learning, Part II, with Dr. Catlin Tucker (podcast episode)
- Explore Blended Learning Strategies (article collection)
- Blended Learning Resources (planning documents and playlist templates)
- Engage Students Through Inquiry Learning (article collection)
- Inspire Students With Project-Based Learning (article collection)
- Blended Learning as a Response to Trauma-Informed Instruction, with Elizabeth Buffington and Conrado Julian (podcast episode)
Dr. Novak believes that although teachers are working harder than they should have to, we need to find a better way to facilitate learning in our schools. She says, “What we do doesn’t work, so there is no alternative than to do it differently, if we believe in kids.”
Part of this different approach is to leverage the power of Universal Design for Learning and blended learning to design learning experiences that empower all learners. Dr. Novak suggests that the process starts by identifying barriers to learning. Then, by shifting control of the learning to the students and providing multiple pathways to success, we can empower learners while simultaneously reducing teacher workload. Through this win-win approach, it’s possible to give all students the learning experiences they need to be successful while making the teaching profession more manageable. At its foundation, she says this approach is about “firm goals and flexible means.”
In The Shift to Student-Led: Reimagining Classroom Workflows with UDL and Blended Learning, Dr. Novak and Dr. Tucker outline 10 ways to shift from a teacher-led to student-led learning experience. The following are a few highlights from our conversation:
- About Our Guest: Dr. Novak is a former English teacher, an internationally renowned education consultant, an author, an adjunct professor, and a former assistant superintendent of schools. These experiences provide her with unique insights and expertise into education and the learning process.
- Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Dr. Novak says, “Universal design is essentially how we recognize barriers to one-size-fits all and then provide pathways, so everyone has what they need to be successful.” Once we have that realization, we can begin to provide options and choices to give all students a better chance at success.
- The Benefit of Using Blended Learning With UDL: Dr. Novak explains, “Blended learning allows you to operationalize the research base as universal design because it gives us a frame for how we can provide all of these different pathways but also have opportunities to work with small groups of students—to help them self-assess, to determine if the choices they’re making are in fact serving them as learners.”
- Flexible Grouping: One strategy for implementing UDL along with blended learning is to put students into groups based on their performance or learning needs. Using station rotation, the teacher can meet with each group one at a time. Dr. Novak explains, “It creates this really beautiful space for independence, for targeted instruction, for feedback.”
- The Source of Knowledge: Teachers no longer have to be the source of all knowledge in the classroom. Instead of implementing teacher-led lectures, educators can empower students to search and find answers to questions that they develop. While lecture was once necessary and the most effective way to transfer knowledge, technology has changed this dynamic. Dr. Novak says, “I think that so often we’re going back to pre-computer days where, truly, there wasn’t another way to get it [knowledge].”
- Student-Led Is More Efficient: Because students now have ways to research and gather information on their own, teachers can infuse the learning process with digital tools to both empower students and reduce their own workload. Dr. Novak says, “Instead of me spending hours and hours of my night trying to find the perfect podcast or trying to find an amazing article, I could work with students instead to say, ‘Let’s cocreate a rubric about how you determine that something is accurate, and then I want you to try to find some resources, and before you even dive in, take them through the self-assessment.’” She adds, “Teachers are working way too hard not to have better results.”
- Student-Led Discussions: Having a teacher ask an entire class a question typically empowers only one or two students at a time, and oftentimes, these are the same students day after day. Even turn-and-talk strategies can allow students to disengage. Dr. Novak suggests letting students explore resources and then produce their own questions. Once they have generated questions, they can be empowered to decide how they want to discuss them. This provides both flexibility and ownership of learning. Dr. Novak says, “I have seen so much growth, even in adults, in their excitement and willingness to be able to cocreate that experience for themselves, as opposed to me coming in and requiring them to answer certain questions.”
- A Shift to Project-Based Learning: Project-based learning (PBL) can be an ideal space for both UDL and blended learning. For truly effective PBL, the questions and actions should be driven by students. While this happens within a framework, students must lead it. Dr. Novak suggests, “Asking students what are the problems and what do you need to research about it and how are you going to work together to make change, like that really is the power of those deeper learning experiences, which we circumvent sometimes with our own passion.”
- Reduce Grading: One of the key steps, says Dr. Novak, is to get rid of the grading. Instead of spending countless hours outside of school marking papers and providing feedback, teachers can facilitate this in class. She suggests focusing on self-assessment and peer assessment whenever possible and to move away from the feeling that we need to mark everything.
- A Practical Book: The book, The Shift to Student-Led: Reimagining Classroom Workflows with UDL and Blended Learning, is packed full of practical strategies for making the switch to a student-led approach. Dr. Novak says, “We wanted to be super practical about it.” To do this, they included many templates and documents that you can copy, edit, and use in your classroom.
- Choices for All: Choices should not just be for students with learning challenges or a history of poor performance. Katie points out that we are all changing and that our ability to learn may change from day to day. For that reason, she, as well as other proponents of UDL, say, What we know is necessary for some needs to be provided to everyone.
If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:
- What is Universal Design for Learning?
- What is blended learning?
- How do these two educational approaches complement each other?
- How can we move away from lecture and allow for student-led acquisition of knowledge?
- How can a student-led model save teachers time outside of class?
- How can you design discussions that are student-led?
- How does project-based learning fit into this conversation?
- What are your next steps in making your classroom more student-centered and student-led?