Now, about those stairs...
Look at the picture above. You may think - what a beautiful building with a stunning entrance. But if you look closer, you’ll see that this entrance has stairs. Lots of stairs. And this “one-size-fits-all” design approach lends the question of how everyone will get in?
They’re not, at least easily. Because this building is not universally designed.
This building represents our traditional approach to education and the stairs symbolize the sorting that our traditional school system was designed to do. Got a leg injury? Gonna be hard for you to get in here. Confined to a wheelchair? Sorry this school is not for you. Need directions to find where to enter? Well you need to be able to read English.
Now imagine that the entrance represents access to grade level standards, engaging curriculum, teaching, and grade-level peers. Those stairs represent the only way to access a rigorous school program and learning experience. Our special education students are left standing at the bottom of those stairs, Our non-English speaking students are left at the bottom of those stairs, Our culturally diverse students are left at the bottom of those stairs. And instead of constructing other ways to support equal access to the grade level programming, separate rooms are built for those students at the bottom of the stairs. The message is clear,
“Since you can’t get up these stairs, we are going to have you meet over here with other students like you.”
“And you there, we have another spot for kids like you.”
“And, if you can’t be compliant, we’ve got an office to send you to.”
So much time and energy is spent creating other spaces for students to learn below grade level standards versus creating ways for them to access learning at grade level and helping them meet their potential.
Differentiated Instruction (DI)
More recently, differentiated instruction was introduced with the idea that the teachers could create an individualized learning experience for each student in the classroom by being responsive to individual differences. Seems like a good idea. In truth, it results in the teacher having to make thirty trips up and down those stairs in order to get kids in the “grade level learning” space. All those trips up and down the stairs are untenable. In turn, killing the drive of caring, purpose-driven teachers.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
Now, consider Universal Design for Learning. In this scenario, it’s understood that our learners are all unique and beautifully different. It’s recognized that the stairs represent a single text, a single way of making meaning, a single way of showing understanding. It’s recognized that the stairs sort out kids that may not have the capacity to go up the stairs. As a result, the stairs are seen as a barrier to grade level learning. We need to design entry points that are more accessible, more engaging, and more equitable.
Build ramps. Build elevators. Build escalators. Build hover cars ;-)! But please, build something. And once it’s built, it’s built! Now some students will still need some differentiated support; except now, there are fewer students who need this support, and that support will be there.
It isn’t easy to think about deconstructing and remodeling that traditional entrance. But it is possible. Even though there is a heavy lift associated with Universally Designing learning, we must endeavor to start today. Even though it means parting ways with the past way of designing, we must endeavor to start today. Even though we are in the midst of a pandemic, we must start today.
That entrance, beautiful from a distance, is a marvelous piece of architecture that did exactly what it was intended to do in the past, support entry for some and prevent entry for others. If you look close, it really isn’t beautiful at all, is it?
To Langston Hughes who writes that “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” I say, “No, it hasn’t. It has been a set of concrete stairs to the schoolhouse that you were not allowed to climb.”
It is way past time to do something about those stairs.