UDL, Expert Learners, and the 36 Ton Machine

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
July 18, 2016

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to the fabulous Loui Lord Nelson, author of Design and Deliver, discuss the characteristics of an expert learner – by sharing an analogy about the “Best. Birthday Present. Ever.”

To provide some background, UDL is all about teaching students how to become expert learners. Knowledge is at our fingertips – Google, Siri, and countless other apps can provide us with knowledge that used to be reserved for only the “great students” of their day. Now, we live in a world that “knowledge” in isolation is rather meaningless. Our task, as educators, is to teach students what to do with that knowledge, how to apply it, and how to synthesize it and connect it to their own experience so they can do something with it. To do this, students need to be inspired, have a purpose, and have a goal and strategy so they can put that knowledge to good use. Students – 1; Siri – 0.

To help clarify this concept, Loui shares an anecdote about her all-time favorite birthday present – a day of operating heavy machinery (seriously, how cool is that?). If you want to operate a 36 ton machine, you don’t just say, “Hey, Siri, how do you drive an excavator?” “Knowing” how to operate an excavator does not automatically result in an ability to operate the machine. Knowledge, as we know it, is only valuable when we are purposeful and motivated and have the skills to apply that knowledge in a strategic, goal-directed way.

As teachers, providing students with knowledge is such a small part of the teaching and learning equation. Thirty years ago, that may have been valuable, but it’s simply not anymore. Our students must know why knowledge is valuable, how they will use it, and how they can persist when learning is challenging – which it’s supposed to be. If operating an excavator was as simple as Googling, we wouldn’t need expert teachers to guide us and support us as “we try and fail, try and fail, and try and succeed” (Love this quote, Loui!)

The characteristics of an expert learner can’t only be reserved for our students. As educators, we need to exhibit characteristics of an expert learner because knowledge of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) won’t be valuable if we aren’t purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgable, and strategic and goal-directed. If we can embody these characteristics, and guide students as they try and fail, try and fail, and try and succeed, we will be engineering the world’s greatest machine – the future of our world, which is even cooler than operating a 36 ton machine.

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