Unlearning a “One-Size-Fits-All” Educational Model

In Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, Cathy Davidson asks us to rethink our students’ abilities. She writes, “Where [neuroscientists] perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense opportunity for collaboration. If we see selectively but we don’t all select the same things to see, that also means we don’t all miss the same things” (2). There are many important threads within this book, but in terms of dis/ability, I think there are three themes worth exploring deeper: cultural values, pedagogical practices, and assessment.

First, we must unlearn our cultural values. The current 21st-century narrative blames technology for our inability to pay attention and for the “dumbing down” of students (10). Because of this narrative, Davidson argues that we are “more likely to label [students] with a disability when they can’t be categorized by our present system, but how we think about disability is actually a window onto how attention blindness keeps us tethered to a system that isn’t working” (10). This is where unlearning comes in.

Unlearning is a theme throughout the book, “required when the world or your circumstances in that world have changed so completely that your old habits now hold you back” (19). For me, unlearning is also required when our cultural narrative devalues certain abilities. This is why Davidson’s notion of “collaboration by difference” is so important. She writes, “Collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction” (100). Instead of devaluing students who lack particular abilities, collaboration by difference places students with different abilities together in settings where they work together on a project that requires all of their particular abilities. In order to enact this kind of participatory collaboration, though, we have to unlearn our pedagogical practices.

Davidson seeks to answer the question, “What if instead of telling [students] what they should know, we asked them?” (62). In the case of Duke’s iPod experiment, we see students in control of learning. Davidson describes the experiment as an investment in teaching: “one that didn’t require the student to always face forward, learn from on high, memorize what was already a given, or accept knowledge as something predetermined and passively absorbed” (69). For students, this meant new opportunities to learn information in ways that best benefitted them, providing them with technology that they could use to enhance and support their own learning—a nice reminder of the benefits of UDL and the multiple options it provides.

Davidson argues that a “one-size-fits-all model of standards” that is unbending to students’ particular needs is partially to blame for student failures (77). Perhaps this is why Manhattan’s Quest 2 Learn (Q2L) is so successful. Using gaming principles that engage students in games that require strategy, problem solving, and teamwork allows students to benefit from each other’s strengths. The same could be said for the success of the Voyager Academy. Here, each child is responsible for learning, for self-controlling and self-monitoring her learning processes. My favorite example of this participatory learning is the “disruptive” boy:

He’s been doing well today, but I learn he’s smart and energetic enough to turn the class upside down with his antics. He’s been learning, lately, how to tell for himself when he’s in a disruptive mood, and he has a deal going with Mr. Germain. If he feels like he cannot control himself, he’s allowed to just walk away and go work by himself at the computer. He doesn’t have to ask permission. All he needs to do is take himself out of the situation where he’ll be disruptive. It’s a public pact: Everyone knows it. 135

For me, this example provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on our values: What are the goals of teaching? Of learning? How do we set up our own classrooms to support and benefit all of our students? Davidson argues that all students can succeed in the 21st-century classroom as long as the curriculum moves away from standardization, focusing instead on the collaborative, intellectual work that occurs outside the classroom.

This brings me to the last point: assessment. It is clear within this book (and in her real-life endeavors) that Davidson is no supporter of standardized testing, and in “How We Measure,” she offers alternatives. First, she argues for a stop to end-of-grade exams, opting instead for tests that challenge the “complex, connected, and interactive skills” of the 21st century (125). Second, she argues that we need to imagine assessment in ways that will measure “practical, real-world skills” such as communicating with others, making sound judgments, and determining credibility (127-8). Instead of “dumbing down” students at the end of the year, Davidson suggests adding a “boss-level challenge” that would allow students to participate in decentered, challenging, and collaborative learning (131). All of these alternatives emphasize the importance of testing students not for how much they can memorize or regurgitate on a piece of paper. Instead, these alternatives push students to engage with the material, providing learning opportunities for students who are failed by standardized tests.

What I like best about Davidson’s approach to testing is her willingness to challenge what constitutes “failure.” She asks, “By what logic would failing a test in a language other than the one spoken in your home constitute a failure for you as well as for your teachers, your classmates, and your entire school?” (94), a question similar to our previous readings and discussions of assessment. If we have different tests, students with different abilities have more opportunities to perform in ways that more accurately measured their knowledge. By unlearning our 20th-century values of ability, pedagogy, and assessment, we provide all of our students with more genuine and fair opportunities to learn and demonstrate that learning in 21st-century contexts.

Incidentally, if y’all haven’t heard of the “badges” for lifelong learning that Davidson mentions, here’s a video that explains them. Badges are the brainchild of HASTAC, a cross-disciplinary organization that explores the collaborative uses of technology. When they announced the badges competition last Fall, people freaked out—not as much as it sounds like they did for Davidson’s “How to Crowdsource Grading” but there were definitely some people with some important and interesting things to say about these alternative grading measures, including Davidson.

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York, NY: Viking, 2011.


The Role of “Fairness” in Accessible Assessment Practices

What struck me most about this week’s readings was the language used to describe universally designed assessment. Of course, Rose & Meyer make a very clear argument: “It is true that standardized tests can yield valuable information, especially if one is evaluating trends and information about groups, but as accurate assessments of individual students’ skills, knowledge, and learning, these assessment tools are severely flawed.” And while the other authors don’t seem to argue against accessible assessment practices, they are more cautious, making points about “reasonable accommodation” (Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone 165), an awareness of “high-tech cheating” (Salend 49), and “fairness.”

Fair Selection cartoon

"Fair Selection" & the Importance of UD Assessment

In “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education,” Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone make an argument for applying principles of UD to assessment in order to minimize accommodations (thus reducing stigmas and barriers to learning). Before they make that argument, though, they have to lay down some rules.

  1. First, ADA only extends to “reasonable accommodations”—those for classroom practices or environments that “do not place an undue administrative burden or cost on the institution” (165). But what counts as reasonable? And why don’t all accommodations count as reasonable?
  2. Second, the student’s disability must “interfere with at least one major life activity” (165). Yet, even if the student has documentation, reasonable accommodations are not guaranteed. Students must first perform (in fairness, they say “demonstrate”) their disability.
  3. Third, there is an issue of fairness. Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone note that if students are incorrectly diagnosed, “the fairness of the system is jeopardized because of the inappropriate advantage that accommodations might provide” (165). If all students benefit from an accommodation, then the accommodation provides “an unfair advantage” to those students (165).

Now, Ketterlin-Geller & Johnstone are simply the messengers of accommodation legalese, so I’m not faulting them, but these policies raise a number of questions: What are the implications for students and teachers? What does it mean that students must perform their disabilities in order to receive “reasonable” accommodations? Again, how and why is “reasonable” defined? What do these policies convey in terms of fairness?

My questions continued as I read Salend’s article, “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Here, Salend makes the argument for using technology to provide multiple ways for instructors to present test materials and for students to engage with and respond to the test material (41). Generally, I agree with Salend’s argument. I think technology can greatly impact the test-taking experience for all students—in fact, I would argue that digital projects can often stand in for traditional tests (but I’m coming from a non-standardized, non high-stakes perspective).

However, I was thrown off by Salend’s uncited claim of increased accounts of high-tech cheating, defined as “accessing unauthorized information such as notes, Web sites, e-mail, handheld devices, and cell phones” (49). There are two problems I see with this point. First of all, it’s fallacious—just because students have access to technology during tests does not necessitate that they will cheat. Second, if this is a persistent issue, why—instead of creating software and programs that monitor student cheating—aren’t instructors talking with their students about cheating? This comes up so often in writing classes when students plagiarize papers. They don’t take responsibility for plagiarizing because they are accustomed to their instructors taking responsibility by tracking their cheating (often by uploading their papers to Turn It In). Like any new “tool,” instructors should talk openly with students about the ethical uses of new technologies. Without having this discussion, is it “fair” for instructors to discredit technology-based assessment?

While reading these articles, I couldn’t help but think ahead to Cathy Davidson’s approach to assessment. Recently, she has written some great articles that have developed from her book, including “Badges: A Solution to Our Teacher Evaluation Disaster?” in The Washington Post and “Blogs vs. Term Papers” in The New York Times. Davidson sides with Rose & Meyer, claiming that traditional assessment practices are dated, inaccessible, and unfair. We will certainly see this argument developed more in a few weeks, but for now, I think it’s important to think about what constitutes “fair” assessment and remember Rose & Meyer’s final thoughts: “Assessments in our digital age should be dynamic and universally designed.”



Ketterlin-Geller, Leanne R., and Christopher Johnstone. “Accommodations and Universal Design: Supporting Access to Assessments in Higher Education.”  Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 19.2 (2006): 163-171.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 7: Using UDL to Accurately Assess Student Progress.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2002.

Salend, Spencer.  “Using Technology to Create and Administer Accessible Tests.” Teaching Exceptional Children 41.3 (2009): 40-51.

Technology Lab 3: Online Portfolios

Online surveys could serve some interesting roles in the composition classroom: they could be used to check homework progress or to administer informal, yet anonymous, “quizzes” to initiate discussions about assigned reading. They would be particularly valuable tools for giving students a voice in the classroom—allowing both me and their peers to see what everyone likes about the class, how they would like to see the class progress, what they would like to see changed, etc.

And while I think these are valuable functions, I’m not super attached to online surveys. Inspired by this article about using Google Sites for online portfolios, and recognizing that many comp. programs are portfolio-based, I decided to find out more information about online portfolios.

I’m pretty familiar with online portfolios. I’ve created them for my own professional purposes—which have involved building them in Adobe Dreamweaver. And I have used them to teach, but not often. I’ve had great results with Weebly because it’s easy to use, intuitive, and gives students a fair amount of design freedom without overwhelming them with too many options. I have also seen really great student portfolios made with WordPress and with Google Sites. All of these sites are also ideal places to host a class website—that way, students gain some experience using them (to locate assignments, readings, class policies) before they set up their own sites.

Online portfolios are really valuable in a writing classroom for a number of reasons:

  1. There is a (potentially) larger audience, which means students have more opportunities—and incentive—to spend time thinking about selection, visual rhetoric, and arrangement. This often means gaining a deeper understanding of the course goals—thinking critically, choosing words (and documents) carefully, considering the value of photos and videos, etc.
  2. Students gain practical experience composing and working with digital media, which is certainly valuable for entering the 21st-century workplace. If it’s a really nice portfolio, students could definitely link to it on a résumé.
  3. Online portfolios are often more engaging than print. There is more flexibility with what students can include and how they display that material. This flexibility could extend to providing instructors with a better sense of students’ learning and writing processes.
  4. They present a great opportunity to discuss web content accessibility standards and what factors students should consider when making their websites as accessible as possible.

There are certainly drawbacks to online portfolios, though, ranging from privacy to accessibility:

  1. There are material accessibility issues with using online portfolios. I rarely have access to a technology classroom, and not all of my students can bring laptops to class. If the group isn’t accustomed to the medium (or genre), it helps to be able to work on the portfolios together in a lab. I wouldn’t assign an online portfolio if everyone didn’t have the access to computers in class.
  2. There are privacy and legal issues that must be negotiated. Most websites allow you to choose whether or not your website can be found via search engines, and you can usually set your site to private, sharing the link with whomever needs to view it. 

    I didn’t know about the legal issues with using online portfolios before I went to a Google Sites presentation in my department at the beginning of the year. Students grades are not allowed to be posted outside institutionally-sanctioned spaces (e.g. Blackboard). This means you can’t share a student’s grade through email or through any other web site. Those rules would need to be clear so students knew not to post graded papers to showcase their learning/writing processes.

    Also, it’s important to talk to students about intellectual property, creative commons, fair use, etc. This becomes particularly prominent when students start including photos they find on the web (always use CC images!).

  3. And, keeping UD in mind, online portfolios cannot meet all students’ needs. An online portfolio cannot simply replace print as “better” for all students. No one would force a student with epilepsy triggered by staring at computer screens to create an online portfolio (I would hope). Some students, particularly tactile learners, may be more interested in creating a print portfolio that they can physically arrange. Low-vision or blind students could create online portfolios (assuming the class used an accessible web platform), but the student may prefer a portfolio option that wasn’t so dependent on visual design. And again, some students may not have the technological access to create a fully developed online portfolio.

Generally, I think online portfolios are a great option for a portfolio-based classroom. However, I hadn’t fully fleshed out some of their drawbacks, particularly in terms of privacy, IP, and disability. As with any assignment, an online portfolio should not be a 1:1 replacement of another, possibly more accessible, option that shares the same curricular goals.

These sites provided me with a greater understanding of the benefits, issues, and conversations surrounding online portfolios, both within composition and beyond:

“CCCC Position Statement: Principles and Practices in Electronic Portfolios.” CCCC: Conference on College Composition and Communication. National Council of Teachers of English. 19 Nov. 2007. Web.

“E-Portfolios.” EDUCAUSE: Learning Initiative. EDUCAUSE. 2012. Web.

Steele, Kristen. “What It Takes: Issues in Implementing Electronic Portfolios.” Independent Studies and Capstones. Paper 444. Program in Audiology and Communication Sciences, Washington University School of Medicine. 2009. Web.

  • This is actually a public capstone project for this student’s M.S. in Deaf Education, and she points to a lot of key questions that we should ask ourselves about the benefits and potential drawbacks to using online portfolios.

Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Strategic Networks and Multiple Means of Action & Expression

Strategic Networks and Multiple Means of Action & Expression via UDLcenter.org

Following up on last week’s focus on Principle I, this week’s readings addressed Principle II: Multiple Means of Action and Expression. Like the first principle, Principle II has three separate guidelines: 4) Provide options for physical action; 5) Provide options for expression and communication; and 6) Provide options for executive functions. Whereas Principle I coincides with recognition networks, or the “what” of learning, Principle II matches up with our brain’s strategic networks and the “how” of learning. (CAST)

Though Guidelines 4 and 6 make important points about optimizing physical access and helping students make choices that support their long-term goals, Guideline 5 seemed to receive the most emphasis, and it is the one that resonates most strongly for me within the context of writing classes. Providing students with options for communicating is broken down in different components: composing in multiple media, using social media and interactive web tools, and using multiple tools for composition (CAST). I think about these suggestions often while trying to implement a multimodal pedagogy.

In her book, Pippa Stein argues that “multimodal pedagogies acknowledge learners as agentive, resourceful and creative meaning-makers” (122). In this regard, multimodal pedagogies stand in opposition to the “standard” teacher conception that Bain discusses—the idea that “teaching is something that instructors do to students, usually by delivering truths about the discipline” (48). By promoting the use of different modes to create texts, multimodal pedagogies encourage students to take learning into their own hands. In writing classrooms, this could mean having students choose their own inquiries, delving into multiple media to do research, and encouraging the use of multiple modes—essays, videos, photographs, websites, blogs, music—to find the best mode of expression for a particular student (and context).

David Rose and Anne Meyer, while also working within UDL’s major principles, frame strategic networks slightly differently. They claim that in order to support diverse strategic networks, we must provide students with 1) flexible models of skills performance; 2) opportunities to practice with supports; 3) ongoing, relevant feedback; and 4) flexible opportunities for demonstrating skill. I found these ideas really useful for thinking about how I teach, too.

First, it’s important when assigning multimodal projects (or any project, really) that students have a variety of models to gain knowledge about what their options are and how different media affect their arguments. If students are used to writing traditional term papers, assigning a multimedia essay would be overwhelming without strong models. Second, if we expect them to learn to communicate with new media, students need to know that they can experiment without failing. Many comp courses (and others, I’m sure) require a reflection accompanying any major projects so that students have the opportunity to explain their learning. Third, students need feedback at multiple stages of the composing process. Particularly with peer review, I like to try out different forms of feedback—sometimes students handwrite feedback; sometimes they type out comments through Word’s track changes/comment functions; sometimes they provide oral feedback and the writer jots down what the reviewer is saying; sometimes I join the peer review etc. Finally, it’s important for students to have multiple opportunities to showcase their work! If they spend six weeks working on an exciting, audience-based, multimodal project, and I’m the only one that sees it, I’m not creating the natural and critical environment that Bain promotes. Final presentations (in whatever mode students choose) are a must in my classrooms, and these are often preceded by informal research updates, online class discussions, or blog posts.

This is an example of a comp student’s multimodal presentation that I found on YouTube. How does this video use multiple media to create an argument that is different that a written, text-bound argument? What do students gain from this mode of expression?


Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.

CAST. “UDL Guidelines – Version 2.0: Principle II. Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression.” National Center on Universal Design for Learning. CAST. 2011.Web.

Rose, David H., and Anne Meyer. “Chapter 6: Using UDL to Support Every Student’s Learning.” Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 2002. Web.

Stein, Pippa. Multimodal Pedagogies in Diverse Classrooms: Representation, Rights, and Resources. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Technology Lab 2: SMART Boards

I was a little anxious about this week’s technology topic. I’ve never used, or seen anyone use, a SMARTboard. They weren’t popular when I was in high school, and I had never seen anyone use one within a college setting. So I expected to learn a lot from the in-class presentation about their various functions. However, I still had reservations after the presentation. From the examples we covered in class, SMARTboards seemed to only apply to K-12 settings—elementary school in particular.

After some web searching, I found a collection of narratives from college faculty via SMART Technologies and a couple articles from The Chronicle of Higher Ed. In “‘Electronic Whiteboards’ Add Flexibility to Classrooms,” Young highlights the benefits of the “capture” feature. He writes, “The capture feature is a useful service for students, who can get exact copies of what was on the board after class, he says, and it can also help professors save a record of what went on in class so they can review their own teaching.” I could definitely see this as an advantage in a lecture-based classroom when a lot of information is written on the boards. Writing classrooms aren’t lecture-based, though, and I had a difficult time trying to relate different faculty narratives to my own classroom.

The author of “Do We Really Need SMART Boards to Teach Writing Well?” is a bit of a luddite, but I think the question is valid. I certainly believe in the value of technology to teach writing, but I’m not sure what the advantage of SMART Boards vs. another technology is—for example, a tablet PC. In fact, “11 Reasons Why a Tablet PC is Better” provides five reasons why a tablet PC + digital projector works better than a SMART board. Of particular interest are the abilities to transport it easily—to take home or to move from class to class—and to create video podcasts using PC software. For that matter, I think the same benefits could be said of the iPad, particularly with all of the apps you can download.

It wasn’t until I spoke with my partner, who is a community college writing teacher, that I began to see some really clear uses for the SMART board in a college writing context. Here are a few:

  • Interacting with databases. Because comp classes are meant to introduce students to college-level research, it’s crucial that students learn to navigate databases. Bringing up different databases and circling particular buttons/tabs would be helpful.
  • Outlining student papers. You could open a student paper and show students how to do an outline (or a reverse outline!) of that paper in the margins.
  • Identifying topic sentences. Particularly in intro comp courses, and in community college comp courses, it’s important to start with the basics, and any way to spice up a topic sentence lesson would be great.
  • Write sample theses. Thesis statements are so important for teaching good arguments, and it would be nice to have students interact with writing theses as a group.
  • Practicing critical reading. You could bring up different texts and have students identify the parts of the text that they think are most important.

I think the accessibility of SMART Boards has its ups and downs. Barring the issues we talked about in class, I think they could be very limiting for low-vision students. Like we saw in class, the image couldn’t get any larger than the projector, and it was fairly difficult to see some of the smaller images on the board. As the Tablet PC article explains, a tablet PC (or an iPad) used with a projector can make the images much, much larger. In terms of increasing accessibility, the interactive nature of SMART boards seems like it would be great for students who learn better with multiple modes and stimuli.

Though I’m not sure I would use a SMART board (nor do I think I am likely to teach in a place that uses them), I do think they would have some interesting benefits if you knew exactly how you wanted to use them. Like any technology, they don’t automatically improve class. If you have a set lesson plan, though, it seems like SMART Boards could provide more options within the classroom.


“11 Reasons Why a Tablet PC is Better.” The HP Blog Hub. Hewlett-Packard Development Company. 14 June 2009. Web.

“Customer Stories.” SMART Technologies. SMART Technologies. 2012. Web.

“Do We Really Need SMART Boards to Teach Writing Well?” Two Writing Teachers: Teaching Kids. Catching Minds. 565 Miles Apart. WordPress. 17 June 2010. Web.

Young, Jeffrey R. “‘Electronic Whiteboards’ Add Flexibility to Classrooms.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 Feb. 2002. Web.