I like to compare the teacher’s work designing learning experiences to the work of an architect. In my new book with Dr. Katie Novak, UDL and Blended Learning, I share a story about working with an architect to design a new home after my family lost our house in the Tubbs Fire in 2017. Over a series of three meetings, my architect asked me countless questions about what I wanted in a home and how I used the space. He wanted to understand me to ensure that the home he sketched would fit my needs, preference, and lifestyle. In much the same way, teachers must get to know their students. How do they enjoy engaging with information? Do they work better on their own, with a partner, or in a group? What are they interested in or passionate about? Do they work best in particular environments? What avenues might work best for them to share their learning?

Below are three aspects of our design work that I encourage teachers to consider as they architect learning experiences for their students.

#1 Get To Know Your Students

The first step in our design work must be an effort to get to know our diverse learners. Without this crucial step, teachers fall into the practice of designing a single experience for all students. However, a one-size-fits-all approach to design does not provide equitable learning experiences. In an educational context, equity understands that different learners will need different inputs to reach a particular output. Some students will need more time, resources, and support to reach a particular learning objective successfully. Providing the varied inputs that learners need to thrive in a classroom demands that teachers have more than a single model for designing their learning experiences.

Engage Learners in Conversation
  • How will you get to know your individual students at the beginning of the school year?
  • How can you make time for conversations with individual learners?
  • How might you lean on digital tools (e.g., surveys, video recordings) to aid your understanding of your students?

#2 Establish Clear Objectives and Firm Goals & Select the Best Instructional Model

Teachers must believe all students are capable of meeting high expectations. However, different students will need different inputs and learning paths to get to a particular outcome or goal. It is that flexibility that demands our teachers have an arsenal of instructional models and strategies to choose from when designing learning experiences. Too often, teachers rely exclusively on the teacher-led, whole group model because that is what they were taught in teacher training programs. It’s still common to walk into classrooms with an agenda written on the board and the teacher positioned at the front of the room. In a teacher-led, teacher-paced lesson, students have little control and few opportunities to make key decisions about their learning experience.

I want teachers to explore the range of blended learning models available to select the best model for a particular outcome. The beauty of blended learning models is they shift control over the learning experience from teacher to student. This is a critical shift if we want to cultivate expert learners who are resourceful, strategic, and motivated. The qualities of an expert learner are impossible to cultivate when students are not asked to share the responsibility for learning in meaningful ways. If the focus is on compliance and following directions, learners do not have opportunities to become resourceful or strategic. Over time, the lack of autonomy and agency also negatively impacts a learner’s motivation.

As teachers use the range of blended learning models to combine active, engaged learning online and offline, they are freed from feeling pressure to spend large chunks of a lesson at the front of the room controlling the experience. Instead, these models create the time and space for teachers to work directly with individual or small groups of students. It is in these one-on-one and small group settings when we can be most effective at understanding where learners are and meeting their specific needs.

Create Flexible Pathways
  • Do you consistently anchor your design in grade level standards and articulate clear learning objectives?
  • How much control do students in your class typically have in your lessons? Do they get to make meaningful choices?
  • Which instructional models have you used with your learners? How much experience have you had experimenting with blended learning models?
  • What concerns do you have about designing learning experiences that shift students to the center of learning? What explicit skill building might need to happen to help learners be more successful as we shift the responsibility for learning to them?

#3 Identify and Remove Barriers

When I lead training sessions on blended learning models, I sometimes experience pushback from teachers concerned with the time it will take to make a video or design a station rotation. Yet, when we think about many of the instructional strategies we have used for years (e.g., lecture, discussion, written responses), there are myriad barriers that may make it hard for students to access information and share their learning effectively.

Last week at the end of a flipped classroom workshop, a teacher said, “Why would I spend time to make a video when I can present this information to the class?” I turned the question to the group and asked them to work with a partner to brainstorm all the barriers that might make it hard for all students to access information presented. Teachers identified the following factors that might create barriers: audio processing disorders, poor vision, attention deficit, distractions and day dreams, headache or illness, language proficiency, etc. So, if all those factors could be at play in a classroom, it makes sense to question whether a live lecture or whole group mini-lesson would be the best strategy for ensuring that all students can access the information we are presenting.

Taking time to identify barriers in our design work is critical.

Identify and Remove Barriers
  • What might make it hard for a student to process information presented verbally in a lecture or mini-lesson?
  • How might a whole group, real-time discussion make it challenging for some students to participate?
  • How might asking students to demonstrate their understanding in a written response distort our understanding of what they actually know or understand?

Once we have identified potential barriers, we can focus on providing meaningful choices and providing scaffolds in the lesson to remove those barriers.

The architect I worked with to rebuild my home created a blueprint. He designed a detailed plan customized to my needs, but he did not build my home. Instead, it was a team of contractors and subcontractors who did the laborious work of building the structure. Similarly, I want teachers to design learning experiences that invite the students to do the hard work of making meaning and constructing knowledge. Too often, the teacher does the heavy cognitive lifting in the lesson when it should the students doing it. The more intentional our design work, the more likely we are to create learning experiences that allow all students to be successful and encourage them to think, do, make, discuss, and reflect, which are critical to deep and meaningful learning.

Additional Learning Opportunities

If you want to do a deep dive into universally designing blended learning to remove barriers and create flexible pathways, you can order your copy of UDL and Blended Learning: Thriving in Flexible Learning Landscapes from Amazon or request a bulk order for a team of teachers (10+) who want to do a book study! Each chapter ends with reflection and discussion questions to guide those book study conversations.

Dr. Katie Novak and I have also completed a self-paced online course to support teachers as they gear up for back to school! If you are a school leader interested in exploring a book and course pairing for your teachers, you can submit this form to get a quote for bulk course licenses and a discounted price on our book.

Want to explore blended learning in an online course? I have two courses–1) beginning and 2) advancing– so you can choose the self-paced course that is the best fit for you! Both courses include video tutorials, templates, resources, and action items to help teachers explore blended learning models and design student-centered learning experiences that combine active, engaged learning online and offline. Teachers who purchase a license for either course will have unlimited and ongoing access to it, so you can continue learning all year long! Leaders looking to purchase bulk licenses to support teachers can complete this form!

8 Responses

  1. Do you advocate for advance planning for courses or planning after getting to know the students? I have tried both approaches and feel advanced planning does not take student learning preferences into account (as you mentioned). However, planning as I move through often feels overwhelming along with grading and other responsibilities. Any thoughts on how to maximize student preferences with time constraints when preparing lesson/unit materials?

    • Hi Kevin,

      Grade level standards and skills provide the general guide for lesson planning in advance of a course. However, as you point out, we have to get to know our learners in order to ensure that the design of learning experiences honors learner variability. The objective of lesson design is to have clear firm goals that we are working toward while allowing for meaningful choice and flexible pathways. Even a couple of “would you rather” options in a lesson or learning experience can make a dramatic difference in a student’s ability to be successful in engaging with new information, making meaning, and demonstrating learning.

      I also encourage teachers to bring a critical eye to what they grade and why they are grading it as traditional grading practices tend to consume a lot of our time and energy without truly reflecting mastery of grade-level skills and content knowledge. I encourage teachers to use the flowchart in this blog post to decide where to put their finite time and energy.


      Take care.

  2. Hello!
    I’ve recently discovered your blog and find it informative and fascinating – thank you!
    You talk about “clear (academic) goals” and “identifying/removing barriers”.
    My intense focus on those has created a thorny problem.
    I teach English as a foreign language to Deaf and hard-of-hearing high-school students and have been teaching in the format of a learning center for more than 30 years. The students work at various learning stations. When technology “arrived” I incorporated blended learning into the “station system”. The students’ levels and needs vary WIDELY and it enables each student to progress at his/her own pace, enabling advanced students and those who can barely read to work respectfully side by side and LEARN.
    I have a problem with students (teenagers!) coming to class on time. The lesson is not frontal, they know they can start their work at any of their stations just as well 10 minutes later. They’ve got goals to meet, but this being special ed, the goals have “time to spare” and some flexibility, which is good but adds to the problem. For reasons I won’t go into here, the general school system for marking tardiness and absence is irrelevant in my classroom.
    So tardiness has become an issue.
    Any suggestions?
    Many thanks,

    • Hi Naomi,

      That’s tough because it isn’t something you have much, if any, control over. Tardiness tends to be a systems issue that requires someone in leadership to create more rigid expectations around attendance and punctuality. I suppose you could create some “fun” incentive for students arriving on time, but that really should not fall on you as the teacher. I think my go-to would be to communicate directly with parents to stress the challenge of meeting their students’ needs when they show up late. I also used to tell my high school students if they showed up late, they stayed late to help me tidy up the classroom or help with some task I needed. I was lucky because I saw my kids before a break, before lunch, and right before the school day ended so I had that luxury. I know that may not be possible for you without making them late to someone else’s class. I wish I had a better solution, but maybe someone else can chime in with a great idea for how to handle this!

      Take care.

      PS. I love how you are structuring your lessons! Sounds awesome.

      • Thank you so much for replying!
        I’m glad you brought up the issue of “fun” incentive – I’ve been racking my brains as to what sort of fun incentive I could offer, and then realized I would have to have several for it to remain attractive and was floored by how complicated it was all getting. You are right, it shouldn’t fall on me. Parents are not helpful here, I’ll have to talk to each homeroom teacher about ways for them to be involved in the issue. You are the first person I’ve found to discuss teaching in such a format with – I don’t know anyone else who does it in high school! Thank you!

        • You are so welcome, Naomi! I wonder if even allowing students with stellar attendance to enjoy a privilege, like fun brain-break activities, listening to music during certain moments, not having to stay after class to tidy up…just brainstorming as I would not want you to have always come up with new stuff. I know in a lot of elementary classes the teachers will tell students that if everyone is on time (or following class expectations) for the whole week, they get to do something fun on Friday.

          Hopefully, you can figure out something low-maintenance and sustainable!


          • Catlin!
            I bought your book and am so pleased that I did so!

            Thank you for brainstorming with me! Having someone to discuss issues lights a spark even when my teaching constraints are not what you imagine ( students are Deaf and have rigid school bus timetables but there are certainly other options).
            This is why I bought the book – even though I already implement many things discussed, going through it in an orderly way is helping me feel good about what works well and identify the thorny patches.
            Engagement includes COMMITMENT- reading that statement is an example.
            Thank you!

          • Your welcome, Naomi! I hope you enjoy UDL and Blended Learning! I’m thrilled it has been a helpful complement to the wonderful work you are already doing.

            Take care.

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