Making Connections: Intercultural Learning & Universal Design for Learning

Dec 14, 2018

One of the things I enjoy most about my work—especially about facilitating the ten-week online Foundations of Intercultural Learning & Teaching program—is that I get to develop relationships with amazing educators, help them explore connections between their own work and intercultural learning, and then watch as they go on to apply what they’ve learned in unique, intelligent, and transformational ways.

This past fall, I was honored to be invited to co-facilitate a session at the POD (Professional and Organizational Development) Network conference with Lillian Nave, an alum of the very first cohort of the Foundations of Intercultural Learning & Teaching program. When I heard more about how she’s not only integrating intercultural learning into her teaching, but also making connections between intercultural learning and another important area of her work, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I knew I wanted to interview her for this blog.

Lillian Nave, originally an art history instructor, is now a Senior Lecturer in the interdisciplinary First Year Seminar program at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. She is also the UDL Coordinator in Appalachian’s Center for Academic Excellence (CAE), which means she is responsible for introducing UDL to the faculty.

Here’s my interview with Lillian…

Tara: First of all, can you provide us with a basic explanation of what Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is?

Lillian: Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a set of guidelines that helps an instructor design and implement a learning experience that will fit all of the learners. It takes into account—before anyone even comes into the room—that there is difference: that people come from different backgrounds and have different types of previous knowledge.

UDL is not a set of rules, but a way of thinking about how to reach all students by offering various ways for them to interact with the material, various ways for them to demonstrate their knowledge, and various ways to engage and motivate students.

Tara: So what led you to sign up for the Foundations of Intercultural Learning & Teaching program?

Lillian: I signed up for a couple reasons. One was that, as part of one of my first-year seminars, I took students to Belgium and the Netherlands, but I felt like I was missing an opportunity to develop intercultural competence. We were having too much of a tourist experience. We spent too much time sightseeing and not enough time processing the experience, but I didn’t really know how to help students do that. I felt like I wasn’t leading that trip in the way it needed to be done. I didn’t really know what was missing, but I sensed I was missing an opportunity to foster deeper learning.

The other reason I signed up is that, in working in the area of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), I’m really interested in learner variability and the differences in what learners bring into a classroom, and how we design and implement learning opportunities to take those differences into account. And I think that one of the really important differences that we don’t sometimes name in the UDL world is the intercultural part, our different cultural backgrounds.

UDL first started with accessibility or disability, and learning differences. Now it’s also moved into equity and social justice. And I really think that, at its core, UDL is really talking about how people are different and how to meet them in their difference. And one of those differences is cultural—now, that doesn’t have to mean a different country; it could be rural vs. urban or any number of differences that might be less visible.

So I thought, even if I never go abroad, the Foundations of Intercultural Learning & Teaching program would be helpful in thinking about how I can bridge the gaps and bring all students to this equal playing field.

Tara: Tell us more about the connections that you see between UDL and intercultural learning.

Lillian: What was really interesting to me about taking Foundations of Intercultural Learning & Teaching program that fall is that at the same time I was teaching a challenging first-year seminar course about arts for peace with a very diverse group of students. We discussed things like the confederate monuments and really hot-button issues. I wanted to make sure that all the students—who came from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives—were invited equally to learn, were heard, felt confident, felt safe—like this was an equal playing field for everybody’s ideas to be expressed. And the combination of some of the things from UDL about learner variability and the intercultural competence training I was getting at the same time—which increased my own self-awareness, especially around my own teaching—helped me to disarm some of the really difficult conversations.

To provide some more background, there are three different parts of UDL—like a three-legged stool—that are equally important. They are: (1) engagement, (2) representation, and (3) action and expression. The Engagement part is the ‘why’ of learning, and that has to do with the affective networks of the brain. Representation is the ‘what’ of learning, and is related to the recognition networks of the brain. And then Action and Expression—the ‘how’ of learning—has to do with the strategic networks. (For more information, see the UDL guidelines in the resources section at the end.)

So, where I think UDL and intercultural competence really overlap is in the area of Engagement—the affective networks and the ‘why’ of learning. Specifically, one aspect of that is self-regulation. That has to do with motivation—optimizing one’s motivation to learn, facilitating your own coping skills and strategies, and developing self-assessment and reflection. Those are UDL principles. And, come to find out, that figures prominently in intercultural competence. The similarity is in that awareness of difference and teaching and designing to allow for that difference to be a positive, rather than a negative—a positive that adds to the discussion, not a negative that needs to be overcome.

I saw those really connect quite well in how to go about something really difficult (facilitating challenging conversations in the classroom). And also understanding that there are a lot of identities in the classroom—and in that particular classroom—and therefore many ways that someone might perceive a work of art very differently than somebody else, depending on their own identity and background.

It was important to ask, ‘Well, what do you think and why do you think that?’ and for everybody in the class to hear someone else explain where they get their understanding and perception of the art, and a lot of them were quite different from what our assumptions were. That was really interesting.

UDL really comes out of this idea of learner variability, learning difference. It originated around dyslexia, dysgraphia, and having multiple ways of seeing or doing assignments, and things like that. But I think we need to widen our understanding of UDL to account for seen and unseen differences that may have nothing to do with genetics, but that have something to do with culture, sociological background, how one was socialized, etc., and account for those things—that that’s just as important.

We should take into account that our students may be speaking a different language than we are and we don’t even know it. As instructors, we need to be very clear in what we are saying and doing, and explain the reasoning behind it.

I think UDL and intercultural competence really dovetail well together. In essence, they are trying to do the same thing, and that is to equalize the playing field for all learners. With UDL, you’re not just trying to teach to one type of student—someone who learns effectively through the traditional, lecture-based class—because you’ve got other students who learn differently. The lecture format is only going to satisfy one type of student, and yet we don’t want students to feel they have to change to fit a certain mold.

With intercultural competency, it’s similar in that it’s saying there’s not one culture that is the only—or the best—culture. It recognizes that there is value in understanding and bridging among multiple cultures. So both are trying not to fit everyone into one box, but to allow for the variability of humans so that everyone can learn, feel safe, and have an equal opportunity for success in the learning environment.

They both value recognizing the differences in people and not just trying to work with that difference, but loving that, and leveraging the difference in the room to make everyone better, smarter, and understand a more nuanced perspective. I think UDL and intercultural competence both do that—leverage the differences in people as a good thing, and make everyone in the environment better for it.

Tara: Has the intercultural lens impacted your teaching, and if so, how?

Lillian: Learning about the Intercultural Development Continuum (IDC), taking the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), and becoming aware of where I was on the continuum—that self-understanding was very helpful in thinking about how I enter the classroom.

As an instructor, I became more of a constructivist. It just provided a lot of impetus for me to ask the students to be more introspective. For example, when we went abroad, I didn’t want to just explain the art, but instead to let the students experience and then ask them introspective questions. So that was a big change that happened from the first trip—before I took the Foundations program—to the second trip, after I took your program.

Also, I’m more aware now of the various ways people can be different. For example, UDL wants to remove barriers to learning. I try to do that in a lot of different ways. One way is that I used to tell my students to call me by my first name. I didn’t want there to be some sort of false barrier that, because of a title or a power differential, caused them to be afraid to approach me or ask for help.

After taking the Foundations of Intercultural Learning & Teaching program, however, I realized that for some students, suggesting they call me by my first name—instead of lowering a barrier—could actually be raising a barrier. So, where I thought I was trying to help, I was actually creating a possible barrier for some students because I wasn’t thinking about all the kinds of difference there could be. And so now, instead of saying, ‘Just call me Lillian,’ I say, ‘Here are a bunch of options.’ I explain that I invite students to call me by my first name because I want them to feel comfortable and that they can contact me,  because that’s how we can learn together. But I tell them that if they prefer, they can call me Professor Nave, Ms. Nave, Ms. Lillian—whatever they are comfortable with. So it’s really given me a fuller understanding of potential learner differences.

Tara: To some educators, making the kinds of changes involved in UDL and intercultural learning might sound like a lot of work. Why do you do it?

Lillian:  Very good question! It can be work. Over time, it is a big change. But it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Each semester, I’ve changed one little thing. For example, changing how students address me started about two years ago, when I made the mistake of saying, ‘Just call me Lillian,’ and then learned that was off-putting to some students. So it’s been trial-and-error, a slow change.

I make changes one semester or one class at a time. So it certainly won’t change things overnight, but I have found that students have been more successful and are more likely to complete the course. I have students persisting longer, and I’ve had better work output with the UDL principles I’ve been employing because it’s clearer and more approachable for students. They feel they have a voice in the class, that college isn’t as scary as it could be.

So it’s worth it, first of all, for the students’ success. I have fewer students who are dropping, fewer students asking questions because they don’t understand. That’s a big thing—it’s much clearer to the students.

And the other reason it’s worth it is because it’s less work for me in the long run. Because if I have that clarity and multiple approaches to an assignment, I’m reaching those students before there is a problem. And a lot of times there could be a problem, they don’t tell me, it gets worse, and they end up dropping the course or it snowballs and they get in a hole that they can’t dig themselves out of. I’ve had a lot less of that since incorporating UDL guidelines and adding the intercultural piece.

Tara: What advice would you give to other educators who are perhaps interested in incorporating more UDL into their work? 

Lillian:  I’d say look at your stress points in your teaching—is there something there that UDL can help with? If you get a lot of questions about a certain assignment, maybe start by redesigning that assignment. Is there a lesson or topic that students often don’t understand? Maybe you can apply UDL to that. Start with just one small thing and see if it’s helpful.

I’d encourage people to go to the College STAR website (see resources below) and look at all the ready-made instructional materials there and see what might be helpful. A lot of people have done the work for you; you don’t have to come up with this all on your own.

But my answer is really to start small. Try one thing, see how it works, and see if it makes your life easier. It shouldn’t make life harder. It should make life easier for you and your students.

Resources Lillian Recommends:

ThinkUDL Podcast: (or wherever you listen to podcasts)

College STAR: (instructional materials and information on UDL)

CAST UDL Guidelines:

Tobin, T.J. & Biehling, K.T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal Design for Learning in higher education. West Virginia University Press.


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