When we’re placed in the position of being a learner in a high-stakes moment, we discover our own biases toward how information is delivered. But what if we didn’t have to choose one way? What if options prevailed?

Recently, I had to visit one of those immediate care facilities attached to a national pharmacy chain. Feeling woozy, I entered the examination space with the perky nurse practitioner. After clarifying my symptoms and the purpose of my visit, she asked, “Do you learn best by hearing, reading, or seeing pictures of information?” I was momentarily silenced by the question.

I am an ardent advocate of universal design for learning which means I love when learners have the opportunity to choose which strategies and tools work best for them. Having choice helps them gain skills in identifying what supports work best for them as they journey toward becoming expert learners. Choice and preference can be misconstrued, though, to having our students identify individual learning traits, sometimes called learning styles. These sensory-based identifiers can narrow our perceptions of how the learning brain works, thus narrowing how we define our students as learners. Instead, a variety of options should be within the learning environment so we take advantage of the learning brain and so students can choose what is best for them at that moment. And learning needs are based on context.  How the student relates to that context speaks to the emotional aspect of learning. All learning is homed in our emotions, as is teaching. 

Returning to my care center visit, I didn’t want to make a decision; I felt lousy. I just wanted the information provided to me so I could understand it. Not being a medical professional, I’ve always appreciated when I receive supplemental information. I know where my elbow is, but ask me to point to my humerus and I am going to give you a blank expression. Sometimes that supplemental information can be in writing, but on that particular day and at that moment, I had no idea what I wanted. I didn’t have the energy to make that decision which made me think of all sorts of learners. Anxious learners, uninterested learners, unstimulated learners, and distracted learners. They probably don’t have the energy either. The good news is that these student descriptions are based on context. Learner needs shift based on the context. When environments are designed through the use of the UDL guidelines, multiple options are provided and students choose the supports they need within that context. With that access, they can move toward higher levels of learning and understanding. Learners can become comfortable, interested, stimulated, and attentive. 

While I appreciate the medical field’s evolution to asking my learning preference, maybe they will advance to providing information via several formats throughout the course of an appointment or therapy. That way, the patient can learn the information necessary versus narrowly defining themselves and potentially missing crucial information. In the school setting, I celebrate when instructional environments are designed to provide upfront options within and across lessons so all students can focus on learning. They don’t have to stress over how to access the knowledge; instead, they can focus on applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and creating. And while they are learning, these students can think about how they are learning and how different the act of learning can be in different contexts. This is the kind of thinking we want our students doing – the kind where they are getting to know themselves as learners.

– Loui Lord Nelson