At the beginning of this school year, Superintendent Kevin Smith led the entire faculty in a screening of a documentary called Life, Animated. It’s a relatively short film, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind’s book that details the experiences of his family with his son Owen’s autism. The film has been critically acclaimed, received a 10-minute standing ovation when it was premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and is certainly well worth your time.

But the reason Dr. Smith felt strongly that our faculty should see this film, was because of the message it holds about how learning can come in the most unexpected ways. Specifically, the film details how Owen’s silent world is transformed by the characters and dialogue found in various animated Disney movies. As Owen’s dad explains, “It suddenly becomes clear–he’s using these movies to actually make sense of the world he’s living in…”  From that point on, the family communicates with Owen using Disney dialogue, with remarkable success.

It’s a terrific illustration of the transformation taking place in education today, which emphasizes individual learning over the rigid lecture-based lessons that dominated not too long ago. Today we understand that while every student has the capacity to learn, not all learning tools work with each student.  The key is to unlock each student’s passion, and find the best possible way to deliver learning in an enjoyable, exciting format.

Which brings me to a concept called “Universal Design for Learning (UDL).” I have mentioned UDL before, and I promise you will be hearing about it in great detail in the coming months. And if you happen to find yourself in a conversation with either Superintendent Smith or assistant superintendent Dr. Chuck Smith, I guarantee the topic will come up because both administrators are passionate about the implications of UDL for the Wilton schools.

As Dr. Chuck Smith explained to the Board of Education at last week’s Board meeting, UDL is based on three key premises:

  • Content should be available to students in a variety of modes.
  • Students must have multiple means to demonstrate learning.
  • The learning environment must include multiple means of stimulating and engaging students.

And the key to everything, according to Dr. Smith, is understanding how the brain processes information, and understanding that everyone’s brain is different. Clearly that’s no small undertaking, so what exactly does this mean for instruction in the Wilton schools?

In the short term, it means very little change for our students. Right now, work is going on behind the scenes with our teachers and staff, instilling in them key principles of UDL, and getting their “buy in” to this new approach to teaching.  For most of our teachers, UDL will require a dramatic change in how instruction is delivered. Beginning last summer, teachers and administrators began to explore all aspects of UDL by taking advantage of expert speakers, written materials and professional seminars. Leadership teams have been identified to share and model UDL principles with colleagues during staff meetings.

The next step will be to develop a strategic plan for what UDL will look like in our district. Assumptions will be tested and revised. Teachers will be trained and will collaborate with each other to ensure exchanges of best practices.

Finally, within the next two years, we will begin to see changes in how instruction is delivered. Each student will have an individualized learning plan, and will know exactly what is expected of him/her. Students will learn at their own pace, and assessments will be designed to measure individual achievement.

This is a lot, I know. But it is extremely forward looking, and a step that is necessary to align with the technology-driven reality of education in the 21st century. As I said, you will hear a great deal about this in the coming months because it will fundamentally change how education is delivered in our schools. The more we all understand what we are trying to accomplish, and how we will go about it, the more seamless the UDL integration will be.

As Ron Suskind said in discussing his family’s embrace of Disney’s animated films, “whatever it takes to get to Owen.” We need to keep that sentiment in mind as we move forward to help all Wilton students achieve their fullest potential. No two students are the same. But given the right tools, all students can thrive and discover a life-long love of learning.

Notes from the Board Table” is the regular feature contributed by Bruce Likly, chairman of the Wilton Board of Education.