YouthBuild educators must use continual assessment and reassessment to determine whether or not their academic content and teaching styles are sufficient to create a learning environment that is accessible to all learners. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) are two strategies that have been shared with the YouthBuild field within the last three years with the goal of engaging and empowering learners so that they can successfully attain academic credentials.
Universal Design for Learning and Opportunity Youth
UDL is “a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn” (Lieberman, Lauren J., The Need for Universal Design for Learning, 2017). UDL’s guiding principles are:
- All people learn differently;
- The emotion behind learning is as important as the learning; and
- To support each learner’s needs, flexibility is critical in how content is represented and how learners are engaged and can express their understanding of content.
UDL’s principles are powerful supports for Opportunity Youth who have opted out of schools and learning environments that failed to meet their needs. Many Opportunity Youth have had traumatic experiences within the traditional school setting, and often these educational struggles are rooted in undiagnosed learning differences.
As a result, when they do come back to learning, usually through nontraditional paths like YouthBuild, these learners often are fearful of how they are viewed, wondering if they are valued, and hesitant to bring their full selves to the learning space.
Problem-Based Learning and Opportunity Youth
Through Problem-Based Learning (PBL), students are presented with a real-world problem, usually relevant to their community, and given open-ended questions with many possible solutions to provide a place for authentic application of content and skills. PBL is designed to build 21st Century success skills in critical thinking, problem solving, self-regulated learning, and effective communication while placing an emphasis on student inquiry and independence. The problems students are presented with are longer and more complex than traditional lessons or assignment, are often interdisciplinary and follow a specific problem solving process, similar to the scientific method. The end product is designed to provide a solution to the issue presented, and allows students the freedom to show what they have learned through a variety of means instead of traditional paper and pencil testing.
PBL works because it employs the Balanced Approach to Teaching and Learning model. This model addresses the three components to teaching and learning (student, teacher, and curriculum), the interactions between them, and the effect on learning outcomes. Additionally, the model develops student readiness by working with educators to understand the difference and balance between:
- A good student and a good learner - moving from answering questions to asking questions
- Teacher-centered teaching and student-centered teaching - moving from lectured instruction to facilitated learning
- Technical skills and employability skills - moving from content knowledge to application of knowledge
Much like UDL, the Problem-Based approach is an effective way to engage students who feel they have been disenfranchised by the system. These students have difficulty connecting with a traditional education system that does not meet their needs or engage them with material they see as meaningful. By affording these students the opportunity to engage with content they see as relevant to their lives, they can find success. For more information on developing real-world, problem-based projects in your classroom, see Problem-Based Learning: Collaborative, Student-Driven Learning in Real World Contexts.
UDL and PBL principles honor where our young people have been, who they currently are, and who they want to be. Both approaches recognize each learner as an individual and provide the foundation for building trust and partnership with a teacher or facilitator – key pieces in constructing a healthy, sustainable learning environment that makes learning student-centered and accessible for all while also creating the path to strong educational outcomes.
Our Upcoming DOL YouthBuild Webinar, Increased Learner Engagement: Strategies for Education Credential Attainment, will give you the opportunity to hear about UDL and PBL from the perspective of two YouthBuild educators. These two YouthBuild programs have implemented these concepts as a means of promoting deeper understanding of content while increasing learner engagement and education credential attainment within their respective programs.
Success Story: Universal Design for Learning at YouthBuild Omaha
From Michael Anderson, GED Instructor, YouthBuild Omaha:
As the only teacher for YouthBuild Omaha, I’ve been responsible for navigating the transition to the new GED exam over the last four years along with its increased level of difficulty. At first, I was as bewildered as most educators with the exam and my students’ poor results. The suggestions for teaching strategies and methodologies seemed sound enough on the surface, but the YouthBuild demographic I worked with daily was not responding as expected. They were increasingly disengaged and defeatist about their prospects. This lack of self-confidence class-wide affected my EFL results as well, which spiraled downward in tandem with their graduation prospects. I found myself acting as their cheerleader more than anything else.
In the midst of this demoralized atmosphere, YouthBuild USA exposed me to Universal Design for Learning through their Teacher Fellows Program during the 2015-16 class years. I began to experiment with its principles in my pedagogy, hesitantly in the beginning, with the 2016-17 class, and more fully with the current 2017-18 class. Central to my efforts were attempts to concentrate on expanding the means of engagement and representation. I fully endeavor to provide my students with as much choice as possible, so that they are, in effect, guiding our studies. Secondarily, I present pertinent information in multiple forms so they can access it in whichever manner feels most comfortable, be it visually, tactilely, audibly, or through a more traditional reading and lecture-based approach.
At first observation, the results appeared somewhat ephemeral and subjective. It seems obvious when watching the students that they have become more engaged, and attendance has improved as well. When I began to look at the statistical differences between the classes, the changes wrought by the UDL came into much sharper focus, however. Literacy and numeracy gains were demonstrated by 25 percent of the students of the 2015-16 cohort by the end of December 2015. That number increased to 65 percent by the end of March 2016. Once I began to experiment with UDL methods with the 2016-17 class, gains were demonstrated by 36.7 percent of the year’s cohort by the New Year, and we finished with 80 percent in EFL gains. This past year we were at 46.4 percent of this year’s cohort by the end of December and had achieved 78.6 percent by the 5th of February. We fully expect this number to continue to rise.
As for High School Equivalency Degrees earned by passing all four GED tests, we had two during the 2015-16 class. Last year, that number increased to six with several youth still working on it. This year we had two graduates by mid-December and have an additional five students having passed three of the four exams and four more with two exams under their belts. Not only is our ability to meet performance measures increasing, but it is occurring earlier in the program year.
This result is most important to our program in Omaha because it provides us increased time to address other barriers to their continued success during the time they are with us. These efforts include a six week Boundaries program run in conjunction with Boystown that addresses physical, emotional, and sexual boundaries. Also with Boystown, we offer a Common-Sense Parenting class. Bring Your “A” Game is a soft skills course run along with Time to Enrich, which addresses social skills. All courses offer certificates upon completion. Employers have let us know that lack of boundaries and soft skills can be factors that create difficulty maintaining employment after graduation, and these additional trainings directly address their critiques. We believe that, albeit indirectly, implementing UDL is leading to better job retention statistics as well.
English Language Arts and Literacy - This page offers easy-to-use lesson plans, classroom activities, games, and websites to help students become effective readers and writers. Most of these resources were provided by YouthBuild USA Teacher Fellows, a learning community of YouthBuild educators committed to providing quality resources to the YouthBuild network.
Instructional Shifts for Science, Social Studies and English Language Arts - There are six key instructional shifts to keep in mind when adapting science, English language arts, and social studies instruction to college and career readiness standards, as well as TASC (Test Assessing Secondary Completion) and other high school equivalency tests. These shifts entail helping students develop skills such as carefully reading short sections of complex, informational texts; answering text-dependent questions; and expanding their academic vocabulary. This document provides links to websites and worksheets that will support your efforts to incorporate these shifts into your classroom.
Mathematics - Recent emphasis on college and career readiness and changes in high school equivalency exams have transformed the way math is learned and taught. Instead of requiring students to memorize and compute a multitude of mathematical formulas, math education now emphasizes students’ deep understanding of a few mathematical concepts and the ability to flexibly apply these concepts to real-life situations. This page provides a link to a mathematics curriculum that applies these concepts for YouthBuild participants.