The Power in Universal Design for Learning | Imagine Learning

February 8, 2022 8:00 am

The Power We Hold

Mirko Chardin, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer for Novak Education, discusses Universal Design for Learning and the incredible power educators have to realize equitable instruction.

“Educators are the sleeping giants in our society,” said Mirko. “We have the power to change the world.”  

Mirko Chardin is a life-long educator and author, but his story starts back when he was a young student himself. “I had a very not-good school experience, at least at the beginning,” said Mirko. “I was… expelled from several schools and had every desire in my heart to drop out when I was 16.”    

“But,” continued Mirko, “I encountered a learning environment when I went to high school that was different than anything I had ever encountered before. I saw educators who looked like me, I saw materials that were connected to my life and world outside of school, and folks really communicated that I had a voice and that that voice mattered. It shattered the perception that I had in my mind of what school was.”  

Mirko’s experience drives his belief today that “the power educators hold is tremendous,” and that they truly can change the world. “I know that that’s kind of a cliché thing to say, but for me, I always think about my journey and the fact that I considered myself a throwaway kid. But, based on that experience I had with educators my life trajectory was changed.” 

It’s this experience that drives Mirko’s work in education today. “I felt like,” continued Mirko, “if other friends of mine could be exposed to this different way of doing school… they’d have a good time, and that school wouldn’t be terrible for them. That lit a fire in me, and I’ve been on a journey since then to figure out: how do we communicate that school doesn’t have to be something that feels like it’s being done to you? It should be something that’s being done for you and with you.” 

“School doesn’t have to be something that feels like it’s being done to you. It should be something that’s being done for you and with you.”

Mirko Chardin

What is universal design for learning?  

Mirko Chardin is the Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer for Novak Education, whose newest book with Katie Novak, Equity by Design, centers on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a framework to make equity in education a reality. We asked him to define UDL for us, and here’s what he said:  

“It’s an educational framework built on decades of research on brain science and revolves around holding students to the highest possible expectations while providing them with voice and choice to connect with content and show their learning. It’s a framework that communicates that the role of the educator is to identify barriers that get in the way of learning and remove them.”  

Mirko continued, “I love framing it that way because I think one of the hardest things wrestling with this framework conceptually is understanding that it communicates the role of the educator is different than what it’s traditionally perceived to be. It’s not just about casting a net with the hopes that you’ll catch some of your learners, but rather having this expectation that all of your learners have the potential to be expert learners. And if they’re not there, it’s not because there’s something the matter with them. It’s because some things are in the way, and we need to remove those barriers in order to be able to support them.” 

Start with Standards

Equity by Design features a UDL flowchart for lesson design to help provide a starting point for educators who want to give UDL a try. “It’s a reflective tool that helps us identify where there may be barriers or roadblocks in our practice,” said Mirko.  

The process starts with standards. “If you’re universally designing instruction,” he said, “it has to be aligned to standards because that’s where you start… it’s hard work, but our kids are worth it, and it’s our job to ensure that we’re actually delivering instruction in a manner that’s accessible to the kids that we’re serving, right?” 

After standards-alignment, the flowchart prompts teachers to ensure students have the materials they need, time to self-reflect, and a voice and choice in how they complete their work.  “I like framing our industry as a service industry,” continued Mirko. “As educators we’re service providers. I think it’s easy for folks to forget that. The customer or client — our students, the community, families — they’re always supposed to be seen or heard and treated with respect and dignity… if we’re not doing that, then we can’t authentically say we’re teaching because it’s not just about intent; it’s about impact.”

Equity by Design Book Cover

Difference is the Norm 

When it comes to inclusivity and designing instruction, educators have a lot to consider — from race to ability to language. Mirko’s advice? “Think about identity because we all have intersectional identities. Think about how we normalize allowing individuals… to show up, as they are, comfortable expressing all of the different modalities of that intersectional identity. I think if that is kept at the forefront, it helps normalize the fact that we live in a world that’s fluid with difference. 

“Difference is the norm,” said Mirko. “That’s the one thing that we can count on, and it’s fluid, right? So, we can’t design instruction in ways that are static. If you think, ‘Hey, I’m going to try to design this for the African-American guy or male student in class,’ you might get it wrong because you might not realize that I actually identify as Haitian-American, and that means something different. If you’re trying to support me, then that has to be part of the mix. If I happen to be a learner who’s Haitian-American and dyslexic, you need to be culturally responsive in the instructional materials that you’re choosing as you engage with me because I’m my full self all the time. You can’t, like, chop me up in chunks that make it feel more manageable or comfortable for you.” 

On Reflection and Feedback 

In Equity by Design, Mirko explains that standards and curriculum are important but that they are only the beginning. The intentional act of reflecting and accepting feedback from peers and students comes next. “The lion’s share of the work now revolves around us, our reflection, and our willingness to do that planning to ensure that instruction meets the needs of our young people.”  

“When we talk about student voice,” Mirko continued, “educators often aren’t willing to authentically hear what students have to say. I often joke with educators that if we talk about providing students with voice, don’t expect them to say something like, ‘Well, the problem in today’s class was your mastery objective wasn’t aligned to the standard…’ They don’t talk like that because that’s not their language. They’re going to utilize their voices to say, ‘This sucks, this was boring, I don’t understand this, why are we doing this?’”  

 “There has to be a willingness to be reflective,” said Mirko, “and understand if a young person is saying that, then they’re communicating to us some really rich data… maybe not what’s working, but what’s not working, which then through process of elimination… It allows us to start slowly refining and moving into a direction that actually meets their needs.” 

Blind-Spot Bias  

When impact matters, not just our intentions, and we open ourselves up to feedback from colleagues and students, we will inevitably discover things about ourselves or our practice that we didn’t know before. “I think the most prevalent barrier [to UDL] is blind-spot bias,” said Mirko. “It’s the ability to externalize and to see what’s going wrong with everybody else: administrators, colleagues down the hall… what I think is going on with this family… but the inability to look in the mirror and question your own thinking and ask yourself really challenging things about your practice.”  

What can educators do, then, to discover their own biases? Mirko recommends what he calls the ‘going beyond access’ framework. It revolves around three powerful, reflective questions: 

  1. Are we valuing impact over intentions? 
  2. Can all learners see themselves represented?   
  3. Is the work authentically relevant?  

“It always starts with that mindset work, which is the thing that I think there’s a great deal of resistance [to]. We need to normalize no shame, blame, or judgment environments for our educators so they can practice and engage in these deep conversations.” 

The scary part about addressing blind-spot bias and doing the mindset work is that it isn’t always easy. “For me,” said Mirko, “a big part of this is naming that discomfort is part of the work. A lot of times when I hear folks say they want to do the work but they don’t know how, I’ll internalize that as code for you don’t want to get uncomfortable.”  

“Educators are the sleeping giant in this society… I think it’s time that we reclaim that power, that we treat it with respect and dignity, and that we try to be more intentional about how we utilize it.”

Mirko Chardin

The Courage It Takes  

“It was educators who saw me as an expert learner,” said Mirko, reflecting on those early days that made all the difference in his life, “[they] saw that I had a voice and used their power to undo trauma that I had with school. Educators have the power to ensure that classrooms can be healing spaces. In fact, as our society is all crazy and funky, I think our schools and our classrooms can be incredible healing spaces.” 

Mirko’s personal story demonstrates why we at Imagine Learning hold equity as one of our five guiding values. A standards-based, quality curriculum in which students can see themselves, combined with the power of an intentional teacher can make all the difference in each student’s unique learning journey. 

“The challenge, though,” said Mirko, “is that it requires self-awakening and a willingness to step outside of the box and current norms, and a great deal of courage to be able to push in a different direction and the courage to be vulnerable and authentic.”  

We’re ready to join educators on their journey to a more reflective and equitable practice, Mirko. Thank you for the inspiration. 

Watch the full conversation:

Mirko Chardin

About the Author — Mirko Chardin

Mirko Chardin is Novak Education’s Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer. Before joining Novak, he was the Founding Head of School of the Putnam Avenue Upper School in Cambridge, MA. Mirko’s work has involved all areas of school management and student support. His greatest experience and passion revolves around culturally connected teaching and learning, recruiting and retaining educators of color, restorative practice, and school culture.  Mirko is a principal mentor for the Perone-Sizer Creative Leadership Institute, a Trustee at Wheaton College, an active hip-hop artist, and presents locally and nationally on issues of cultural proficiency, equity, and personal narratives. He is available to provide workshops, seminars, and trainings on implicit bias, microaggressions, UDL, restorative practice, identity, courageous conversations about race, and personal narratives.

About the Interviewers — Rosebell & Dani

Rosebell Komugisha is a Learning Architect with Imagine Learning’s Product Development Team with experience developing equitable, standards-based Social Studies content.

Dani Ohm is a Senior Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Specialist with Imagine Learning’s Product Development Team and is passionate about culturally sustaining student-centered literacy instruction.