Principles of UDL (and Home Adventures in Plumbing)

It was the wobbly toilet tank I noticed first.

I was balanced on a step stool with a paint roller in my hand, adding a fresh coat of paint to the upstairs bathroom. As I moved the roller along the wall, I nudged the tank–and it shifted. Noticeably. With a steady “drip, drip, drip” of water on the linoleum tile.

“That can’t be good,” I thought.

I have zero background or experience with plumbing beyond jiggling the handle in a desperate attempt to avoid calling a plumber. I was alone in the house and had two options: 1. Pretend I didn’t notice the rapidly deteriorating situation and hope it would miraculously fix itself. Or 2. Roll up my sleeves and take a look inside the tank. No one was coming to save me. This was going to take some courage.

I didn’t really want to look. I wasn’t sure what I’d find once I took the lid off the top–and even when I did, how was I supposed to tell if the widget sprocket was properly attached to the doohickey? Even if I could tell what was wrong, that didn’t mean I had the skills or the tools to fix it. I hesitated and wondered if I ought to just call in an expert and stand aside. It struck me in that moment that this was a feeling I recognized in myself and in my students. I was afraid to fail.

Facing Uncertainty

As a teacher, I am used to asking my students to embrace uncertainty–and to revel in the struggle that goes hand-in-hand with learning. Just this year I had encouraged my classes to “lean in” to what we called the mushy-middle of the learning process, that icky, uncomfortable feeling we get when we’re not sure if we understand something well enough. The road to developing the dispositions of an expert learner is paved with bricks of uncertainty and discomfort. Without the struggle, there’s no lasting learning. For me, that meant I was going to have to face my discomfort if I planned to solve my current problem. I had come face to face with the first principle of Universal Design for Learning: Engagement.

When it comes to education, the term engagement often triggers images of students actively participating in and enjoying a task, but that’s not the whole picture. When we dig a little deeper into the UDL guidelines in the area of engagement, it becomes clear that engagement is an orientation to learning that allows a learner to persist in the face of difficulty and approach challenges with a growth mindset. For me, in taking the lid off the tank, I was committing myself to fully engage with this problem. I was going to need some persistence and the ability to self-regulate in the face of my discomfort.

Taking Action

When I removed the lid, the next step was to figure out my strategy. What was wrong? What would it take to fix it? How might I go about solving this problem on my own? I was now in UDL territory for Action and Expression. Like many of my students, since I wasn’t sure where to begin, I started by experimenting. I noticed a couple of rusty blobs evenly spaced at the bottom of the tank and decided to poke one. It promptly disintegrated into a cloud of grime and I now heard a metallic “thunk” accompanying the ceaseless dripping as the remains of a threaded bolt spiraled across the floor.

A quick mop-up and a few web searches later, I had diagnosed the trouble. The tank bolts (Who knew there was such a thing?) had corroded and I would have to replace them along with the rest of the worn-out parts governing the toilet’s operation inside the tank. My next step was to do what I want my students to do; I made observations, consulted my resources, and sought expert advice. After a quick trip to the hardware store for the necessary tools and supplies, I was ready for the next step.

Scaffolding, Mentor Texts, and Exemplars

In the classroom, I’m used to sharing materials to support my students through a UDL lens. Not every student needs the same supports, but I provide a wide variety to all my students and give them the freedom to choose the level of support they need. When it came to making my repairs, I definitely needed the final UDL principle: multiple means of Representation. Since I’d never done any plumbing repairs before, I bought a kit that included specific step-by-step instructions as well as a QR code link to an installation video. I looked up diagrams and used pictures to check each step of the process as I worked. I was grateful for the video support because it meant I could watch (and rewatch) the same step as much as I needed until I got it right and could move to the next one.

Experts vs Expert Learners

I wish I could say that simply following directions meant that once I turned the water supply back on that there were no more issues and everything worked just right. Instead, I discovered mistakes in my installation that required going back a step, reviewing the supporting materials, and trying again (and again.) How many times do my students find themselves in this situation–whether it’s encountering feedback on a writing assignment or looking over an assessment for right and wrong answers? I was getting feedback with every sputter and drip of a misaligned seal. It wasn’t personal. I needed the feedback to ensure my work was correct.

After a couple of hours, I was able to put my tools away, turn off the bathroom light, and move on to another home improvement project. I’m by no means a master plumber, but this experience reminded me what’s at stake for my students and their learning experience in the classroom. Bringing UDL into the classroom means I can leverage my content to help students develop into lifelong learners. I recognized the skills and dispositions of an expert learner in myself as I took on the repair work–skills and dispositions I want my students to develop so that when they are faced with a problem outside the classroom, no matter what situations they encounter, they approach those challenges as an expert learner.

Your Turn

What does engagement look like for you? For your students? How can we help students find feedback meaningful (and necessary) for learning? Explore these resources if you’re ready to take on your own classroom improvement project and leave a comment if you have your own story or insight to share.

Although I couldn’t find any other exciting videos about home plumbing repairs, I did want to share this video of American Ninja Warrior Jessie Graff completing her course. Jessie exemplifies someone who is thoroughly engaged in a task in spite of the effort and strain it takes to complete.