Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an inclusive approach to instruction that eliminates learning barriers and provides students with many ways to engage with curriculum and show what they know. The principles of UDL can also be used to help students tap into their creativity and agency as artists, even if they have formed an impression of themselves as “not an artist.”
In her recent book, Art for All: Planning for Variability in the Visual Arts Classroom, Boston Public Schools visual arts instructor Liz Byron offers practical tips and guidelines to help art teachers transform their approach to lesson design. The goal, she says, is to help students understand the material at a deeper level — to help them become “expert learners by giving them opportunities to be goal-directed, resourceful, purposeful.”
Usable Knowledge sat down with Byron to talk about how to identify barriers, balance student agency and artistic expression with goal setting, and how to assess student work.
When you’re planning a lesson for your students, where do you start? How does having a specific goal help organize your planning without inhibiting student creativity?
I start by looking at the standards and then think about what I want my students to know and do around that standard. From there, I compose a goal. I always need to make sure there are options to achieve that goal. For example, in middle school students may be creating a collage that represents a social issue they care about. Collage is somewhat rigid — it’s a very specific media. But there are options around how they create their collage and what it’s about. It gives them some empowerment to make choices, but it’s also not a free-for-all. It’s still connected to a standard.
How do you balance artistic freedom and choice with a goal-oriented, rigorous lesson plan?
Earlier in my career, kids had a totally choice-based classroom, and I had a lot of kids floundering. The way to become an expert art learner is to have an understanding of art and what it is, have some skills, understand the materials in the room and how to use them, and know how and where you get inspiration, what you do when you get stuck. These are all things you learn over time. Kids can initiate choice but can get stuck. Then, I can’t meet all their needs [because their needs are so different]. You have to give kids options for action and expression, but it doesn’t have to mean you have 25 totally different projects happening. There’s a balance.