Today, during a half-day of professional development, we high school teachers sat through a Zoom presentation with author and educational consultant Jenna Ruffo as she introduced and discussed the salient points of Universal Design for Learning. Ms. Ruffo has spoken to us before, on our opening day, and so we had already been primed to her message. But in all, Ms. Ruffo, through no fault of her own, was merely another talking head reading bullet points to an audience of learners whose minds were elsewhere. (Though, truthfully I don’t know that I’ve ever found anyone who can actually do such remote teaching well.)
And so a good deal of the power of Ms. Ruffo’s message was lost in the delivery. And the shame of that is that it’s so important. Teachers do need to consider all their learners, understand how to design for those most in need (and with all kinds of needs) and those whose experience can be most enriched, rather than designing for some non-existent “average student” (and yes, we did hear from Todd Rose on “The End of Average”). We need to approach all lessons with empathy for those whose neurodiverse situations require more than bullet points and reading aloud…even if that reading is filled with passionate engagement.
So what could we have done better? How might we–or how might we yet–design a learning moment that focuses less on lecture and more emphatically on experience, the greatest teacher of all? I found the answer this very evening in the Curtis Building at 6th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia, courtesy of frog design and the “Design Philadelphia” festival. A small, but clearly empathetically designed experience called “Designing for Inclusion.”
Designing for an immersive experience, frog crafted some simple and effective experiences, coupled with informative graphic placards and a “ticket reward system” to not only help visitors experience what it is like to “live in a world that is not designed for you,” but to realize the vast amount of privilege most of us carry in this world.
Each station/experience was geared towards a different type of neurodiverse situation or consequence thereof. One station asked us to listen to an informative recording in order to answer questions afterwards–except the recording was actually two tracks layered on top of each other. This station was geared towards helping us build empathy for those who experience auditory processing issues.
Other experiences offered us the chance to think deeply about the impact of color blindness and the almost 300 million people who perceive the world absent an ability to distinguish red and green. Given the prevalence of these colors as indicators of so much in the Western world, such a neurodiverse population (actually 1/12 males suffer from R/G colorblindness) clearly presents huge obstacles for many people.
Further into the experience, we had the opportunity to read aloud a block of text with flickering and changing letters, thus asking us to step into a situation faced by dyslexic people every day. I tried to capture the different stations below.
To be clear, Universal Design For Learning is a just and necessary shift for our district and for all districts. I believe all teachers understand this as well. Rationally, as Jenna Ruffo’s informative presentation indicated, it is an imperative. But we do not make most of our decisions in the classroom, or really, elsewhere, with rational thought. We are far more moved through our emotional centers. What I experienced at Frog on Wednesday night was not “better” than the powerpoint in terms of its content. But the experience made clear, in a way the power point could not, the path I need to take in the future to design my lessons with a more clear, and inclusive intention.
But further, the impact on NOVA Lab of my experience at frog is clear now and will be implemented in our next design sprint for Build.org’s “Build, Design Challenge.” This challenge features five potential clients, all real, diverse people in real and diverse situations. While we have always begun our designs by engaging in empathy interviews and developing insights from those collaborative observations, his year, I will be sure to teach the basics of inclusive design such that whatever entrepreneurial solutions students may develop for their clients, they will be informed by the principles of inclusive, universal, accessible design.