Universal Design for Learning: Why Does it Matter to Dance Teaching?

By Patricia Reedy

October 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

SINCE INCEPTION, Luna Dance Institute has investigated strategies for bringing all children to dance, including providing access to children who learn in various ways. We’ve worked with the physically-integrated dance company, AXIS Dance Company, to better understand the creative potential of dancers with a wide range of physical ability, as well as to provide expertise during our learning institutes. We led a six-year inquiry project in our school programs asking, “what does creativity look like in an inclusive classroom?” The more we collect and analyze our observations of student learning, the more we see that all students are able to learn through the art of dance and increase their range and capacity to express themselves.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of principles designed to give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. Resulting from years of research by the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) on how to provide better education experiences to students with disabilities, UDL is quickly becoming a respected process for bringing to life what the field of neuroscience is uncovering about the various ways individuals recognize, express and engage with information. The elegance of the UDL approach can be found in its adaptability and ease. By understanding and utilizing UDL principles, educators do not have to laboriously de-code, analyze and interpret each and every student’s needs. Rather, UDL guidelines allow educators to create an environment with multiple points of entry for any and every student, regardless of topic. This results in an aesthetic that is universal and flexible at the same time. Discovering and working with the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines dovetailed gracefully into our inquiry by providing a framework for what we were realizing in practice.

In August 2013, Nancy Ng presented Luna’s professional learning, studio and school-based work at the Kennedy Center’s Arts and Special Education Conference. Educators, administrators and teaching artists in all art forms came to the conference to learn from each other and to examine the intersection between arts education and inclusivity. This convening offered a range of sessions, which included creativity researcher, James Caterrall, presenting his latest findings of students participating in a musical theater production. Scholarly work such as Caterrall’s was balanced with practical presentations such as that of a multi-disciplinary training institute providing teaching artists with instructional strategies to use when teaching students with disabilities. Prevalent in each session was the core tenet that the UDL guidelines are beneficial for all students, not just the students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs).

UDL Guidelines are organized toward increasing opportunities for success in three areas: Representation is part of a recognition network allowing diverse learners options for acquiring information and knowledge; Expression provides options for diverse learners to demonstrate what they know; and Engagement taps into learners’ interests, offers challenges and increases motivation. All three areas are meant to guide the educator to creating an environment where any child, at any time, can access what they need to learn. All three can be used in the classroom or studio to allow accessibility to learning for all children in a self-determining way.

The first guideline encourages teachers to use multiple means of representation when teaching including providing options for perception, such as alternatives for displaying information or providing auditory information; providing options for language and symbols including symbols, notation, non-linguistic illustrations and options that promote cross-linguistic understanding; and providing options for comprehension including highlighting the big ideas or relationships or activating background knowledge. Examples in the studio that support this guideline might include using Motif Symbols to support dance concepts or to have students describe their intention; giving movement prompts verbally but also writing them on a whiteboard or monitor; asking students questions about what is most important in a particular movement phrase and having them explore that highlight in various ways before, during and after performing the phrase.

Expression is the second UDL guideline and may come most naturally to the dance educator. Teachers provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know including options for physical action including accessing tools and assistive technologies; options for expressive skills and fluency including tools for composition and problem-solving, media for communication and scaffolds for performance; and options for executive functions including supporting planning and strategy development, guiding effective goal setting and enhancing capacity for monitoring progress. Luna’s composition-based curriculum provides multiple opportunities for students to activate their strategic networks in action and expression because our lesson structure scaffolds students’ dance making. For example, students explore concepts, then improvise to certain problems posed by the teacher or inherent to the idea, then create an expressive dance study using that concept. We can leverage accessibility by using UDL guidelines to ask questions along the way that help students organize their time and process such as midway asking “raise your hand if you have the ending of your dance phrase,” or reminding students they have 5, 2, 1 minutes more to work. Other studio examples may include holding Q & A sessions with students or recording brief interviews about their decision-making process.

Teachers in all settings have questions about student engagement. The third UDL guideline asks teachers to provide multiple means of engagement. Many of these may be familiar strategies to the dance teacher, however UDL guidelines infer a level of respect and encourage us to trust the student’s capacity to bring meaning to the learning. Engagement is encouraged by providing options for recruiting interest such as increasing choice and autonomy, reducing threats and distractions, and enhancing relevance; providing options for sustaining effort and persistence such as heighten the salience of goals, vary the levels of challenge and support, and foster collaboration and communication; provide options for self-regulation by guiding personal goal-setting, scaffold coping skills and encourage self-assessment and reflection. Art, by its nature is about meaning-making. By developing the capacity for student voice in choice-making, setting goals and self-reflection, the dance teacher can easily connect the student artist to the concepts of the classroom. As teachers, we can take a critical look at our own curricula and ask ourselves questions such as Why study this? So what? What is the Big Idea implied in this skill or process? or What larger concepts or issues are involved? By understanding our own motivation for teaching particular content, we may discover diverse paths to the curriculum and activate learner agency.

In the studio and in the classroom, Luna faculty has witnessed the power of students naming their own goals, collaborating to solve a problem, making individual choices and reflecting on their learning. In our professional workshops we’re almost always asked questions like: How do you get boys to dance? What do you do about kids who don’t want to dance? and How can I ‘handle’ kids who have learning delays or autism? At the end of the day, it is less about a technique or strategy and more about a point of view. We assume that dance is a good thing. We assume children learn by doing. We assume that all students have ideas and opinions to express in multiple ways and we assume that it is part of our job, as teachers, to provide options that manifest those ways.

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of In Dance.

Patricia Reedy is the Executive Director of Creativity & Pedagogy at Luna Dance Institute. A lifelong learner, she enjoys sharing her inquiry process with others.