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Design for Divergence with Megan Kohler

Welcome to Episode 85 of the Think UDL podcast: Design for Divergence with Megan Kohler. Megan Kohler is a Learning Designer with the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at Penn State. 

Her areas of interest/research revolve around supporting neurodivergent learners. Megan and her colleague, Tracy Balduzzi offer a workshop on creating Neuroinclusive learning experiences called Designing for Divergence. She has also collaborated with Penny Ralston-Berg to develop a new learning design model called the Collaborative Content Design Model in which the processes are put to the side and the focus is placed on collaboratively designing courses with faculty.

Megan has presented nationally and internationally and relies on her training and experience as a professional actor to create a fun and engaging experience within her presentations and design work. Today our conversation focuses on how instructors can create inclusive educational spaces for neurodiverse learners in higher ed, creating community and supporting interpersonal connections.


Follow Megan Kohler on Twitter @mkohler26 

Here are the resources Megan mentioned during our conversation:

Don’t Let ADHD Crush Children’s self-esteem (this is the 20,000 messages article – if you click on the PDF you can see the whole article.)

Suicide risk five times higher among people with ADHD, study finds

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria 

New Research Suggests Social Issues are Down to Neurotypicals more than Autistics 

The Transformative Potential of Creative Assignments in Higher Education by Nicky Duenkel 

The Unessay


Lillian Nave  00:00

Welcome to think UDL, the universal design for learning podcast where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host, Lillian Nave. And I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding and facilitating, but how you design and implement it and why it even matters. Welcome to Episode 85 of the think UDL podcast design for divergence with Megan Kohler. Megan Kohler is a learning designer with the John A Dutton Education Institute at Penn State. Megan’s areas of interest in research revolve around supporting neurodivergent learners, Megan and her colleague Tracy Balduzzi offer a workshop on creating neuro inclusive learning experiences called Designing for divergence. She has also collaborated with Penny Ralston-Berg to develop a new learning design model called the collaborative content design model, in which the processes are put to the side and the focus is placed on collaboratively designing courses with faculty. Megan has presented nationally and internationally and relies on her training and experience as a professional actor to create a fun and engaging experience within her presentations and design work. Today, our conversation focuses on how instructors can create inclusive educational spaces for neurodivergent learners in higher ed, create community and support interpersonal connections. Thank you for listening. And a special thank you to the folks at the U dlhe. Or Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education Network for their financial support of the think UDL podcast. I’d like to welcome my guest today and my guess is Megan Kohler. And I want to say thank you so much for spending your time talking to me today.

Megan Kohler  02:20

Thank you so much, Lillian, and I’m so excited to be here and to be talking with you.

Lillian Nave  02:24

Yes, I found you on LinkedIn. And it was one of those cold call kinds of things. I really appreciate that you answered me and and that we get this chance to talk. So I’ll ask you the same question I ask all my guests. And it’s really important, I think for our discussion today. What makes you a different kind of learner?

Megan Kohler  02:47

I think the answer to that probably has to do with the fact that I was undiagnosed for basically my entire life. I actually only found out a few years ago that I have ADD, and it was actually through my child’s diagnosis. And that tends to be the case nowadays, I remember growing up and facing a lot of criticism and rejection as a child. And for me that constructed a number of mindsets that I know realize were not accurate. And I’m currently working to modify that. But they did end up shaping who I thought I was. But now that I know, I’m neurodivergent it’s really changed my perspective about who I am. And all of these negative experiences have become my motivation for designing learning experiences, where neurodivergent individuals can really feel safe to learn and to explore their own unique capabilities.

Lillian Nave  03:39

Well, there’s something we share there as well. And that is I have three children, they’re very different. And one of them is neurodivergent. And watching him blossom and grow and be so cool, in so many ways, has Yeah, really changed my perspective on neuro divergence. It’s really shaped who I am also as a teacher, so very similar stories there. And it’s just quite amazing how, how deeply that affects you. When you have somebody in your life like that, and you see how they’re treated, and how sometimes I’ve seen how unfair that can be when you’re looking at somebody you love in an environment that doesn’t bring out their best or that somehow changes how they’re able to succeed. I guess I could say,

Megan Kohler  04:30

yeah, absolutely. I think that that’s something that I’ve actually kind of become hypersensitive to with my own child and watching her interact with her peers. You know, there are moments where I just want to step in. But at the same time, I have to be like, no, no, no, she has to figure it out for herself and she will get through this and I will be there to support her however she needs. So yeah, it definitely definitely has an impact on us from a number of different perspectives.

Lillian Nave  04:58

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. One of the biggest impacts for sure, in my life, so, and I didn’t realize how big of an impact it had on my profession on my teaching until recently, so, so this when I fell into Universal Design for Learning, I started thinking, Wow, all these pieces are falling into place like this is so important. And one of the UDL guidelines centers on minimizing threats and distractions for students in the learning environment. So my question to you, as you’ve spent a lot of time doing this is, are there threats that differ for Neuro diverse students? And why should we not only be aware of the great probability and I’m saying probability, not possibility that we have neurodiverse students in our classes, but also proactively create that inclusive classroom community for Neuro diverse students?

Megan Kohler  05:56

The answer is yes. neurodiverse students do have a greater set of challenges that they have to overcome. There are a number of health care professionals who actually estimate that by the age of 10, a child with ADHD will receive approximately 20,000 more negative messages than their neurotypical counterparts. Wow. Yeah. And those messages will largely come from their peers, yes. But in a kind of startling way, they can also come from both teachers and parents. So it’s really important for us to be learning more about neurodivergent individuals, and to better understand how we can support them. Another important consideration, and this is kind of a, an unfortunate topic, but it actually has to do with suicide rates. So there’s a research study coming out of the University of Toronto that found that neurotypical males were only 2% likely to attempt suicide, while their counterparts with ADHD, and this is just ADHD. This is an all neurotypical individuals, the counterparts with ADHD were 9% more likely to attempt suicide. Wow. Now, when we talk about women, those statistics are drastically different. neurotypical women had an attempted suicide rate of 3%. But the percentage jumps to 24%. Over ADHD. Yeah, that’s pretty startling, isn’t it really is Yeah. Now the interesting thing that the lead researcher on that project, and her name is SP, fuller Thompson, she indicates that education can actually serve as a protective factor. And I think that that speaks to the ability that we have, as educators to offer a safe haven of support and acceptance for neurodivergent individuals, we can create these spaces where they can feel heard and seen. And we can help them pursue things that they’re passionate about. And one of the things that I love the most is that we can help them see the value that they bring to the world, because they really do. They’re amazing.

Lillian Nave  08:01

Absolutely. This strength based approach is something I’ve really taken to, in interviewing several of my guests about that neuro divergence is a strength based talent focused approach is to counteract that what you say is 20,000 more negative messages to these really fantastic, amazing, unique, wonderful students, people. And they get so many more corrections, it seems. And I know of my three children, there was one who would get corrected from outside the home and inside the home, and there is a, I should name a step after this child because they had to sit on it a lot to just cool down or think about what happened. And we spent a lot of time, you know, on that step, as compared to the other, you know, the other children in my home. And that negativity, I started to think about that, how many times did I call one child’s name, you know, because of correction than the others? And what could that make that child feel like to continuously feel that way? And how can we kind of bring out those strengths is is really important. And so thinking about that in the classroom, and finding those strengths and changing that, or at least focusing on the positive is going to, you know, certainly help our students and help our teaching. You attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar is one of those old South Russians I’ve heard. And I think it that’s exciting. It’s exciting to hear you talk about it and have some strategies. So So in doing so fostering collaboration and community, we just talked about how those children hear a lot of things in community. And that’s another one of our UDL guidelines. And so how is it that we can create community, and especially include our neuro diverse students will putting students into peer groups work, which is something we often do? Or do we need to do more than that?

Megan Kohler  10:16

peer groups can work. But we have to structure them. The key is guiding students toward respectful collaborations. And that doesn’t happen if a faculty member assigned students to a group and then gives them the assignment that they all have to work on. That actually creates a dynamic in which neurodivergent learners can be rejected depending on the personalities of the other team members. And there’s a great article released in 2017, which supports this. So in this study, researchers found that the breakdown in social interaction actually comes from neurotypicals. When evaluating social interactions between neurotypicals, and individuals with autism, as they did in this study, they found that neurotypicals quickly passed a judgment on the others. Yeah, and a lot of the times it was based off of really superficial attributes. And because of that, the neurotypicals chose not to interact or chose not to continue interacting with the individuals who had autism. And this research really goes on to highlight the fact that those social interactions between neuro divergence and neurotypicals is really a two way street. Oh, wow. Okay. Yeah. And when we think about how this translates to the classroom, one thing faculty can do to support neuro inclusive classrooms is to simply make students aware, creating a set of guidelines, or a code of conduct for their course in which all personality types, all opinions, all of us have merit, and that they should be valued. And the great thing is, is that you don’t have to be an expert in neurodiversity, or UDL, to encourage students to simply learn to be respectful, and accepting of others. Yeah. Now another thing that we can do is we can teach students to really listen to one another. And in doing so we can show acceptance. So there’s a great game from theater. And I actually, I used to be an actor before I got into the world of education. And one of the games that I love from my time in theater was the game called Yes. And I loved that

Lillian Nave  12:18

game. So glad you’re talking about it. And I’ve played it in my class. So go ahead.

Megan Kohler  12:24

Yeah, it’s a fantastic game. And for those who are listening to this, and they might not be familiar with it, the idea is that you have to accept everything that someone else says to you, you can’t reject it. So whatever somebody says, you have to say yes. And furthermore, you have to build upon the idea that was shared. And this is a fantastic way to ensure that everyone in the classroom is heard and listened to.

Lillian Nave  12:49

I absolutely love that I, I came into Yes. And when I was able to work in New York City, from upstate, where I work, we have an apartment in New York City that we can take students to like you can have 20 students at a time. It is right above an improv theater. So I was the director there for a summer and I would go down and like you can go and see a show and you’d see all these improv comedy, you know, actors, and they’re really thinking on their feet, you know, all that sort of thing I thought was really interesting, although I have no acting background at all. And I started to think how could we use that in the classroom, so that everybody’s participating that everybody can, it doesn’t have to be really hard. And it doesn’t have to be like a super high level of, let’s say, critical thinking. It’s really just kind of a way to, to enter into the discussion. And so, yeah, so I’ve done it, where I asked them to kind of go around and talk about the reading that they brought in. And so some of them can talk about, well, it was a discussion between two of these characters. And that, yes, and they were mad at each other. And then next person, yes. And it didn’t go well for Jeremy, you know, or something like that. So they can add something. And it doesn’t have to be necessarily the right I’m doing air quotes on a podcast, but the right answer, but I found it was so fun to teach that way. And so fun to bring in the students. And after just a little bit, they love doing this as much as as much as we could. So I’m really glad to hear you, you know, give that as one of those options.

Megan Kohler  14:32

Excellent. Yeah. And I think that that’s something that some faculty may wrestle with, especially, you know, in some of the more sort of, shall we say, procedural fields, and making sure that they they do pull in opportunities for different ideas to be shared, because sometimes there are things that we do have to teach the students that there there is a right answer, right, right. But there can be thoughts. There can be opinions and views that accompany that answer it doesn’t have to be completely black and white.

Lillian Nave  15:02

Yeah, right. And so there are lots of different ways to get at these, you know, our issues or the coursework. And I really appreciate that we’re, that we’re bringing, you’re bringing to our audience here, some really good strategies. So I feel like I’ve talked a lot to people about neurodiversity, but I haven’t helped to provide strategies. And that’s why I was really excited to talk to you about that. But one of the things I’ve also learned about recently is something you mentioned a little bit earlier, which is about how neurotypicals might treat or disregard a neurodiverse student and then they don’t, they kind of shy away, they don’t want to participate. And that can happen in a lot of situations. And I’ve learned that there’s a name for it. It’s rejection sensitive dysphoria. Now, you only that was just like one example. There’s, there’s lots of examples. It could be feedback or any number of things. But yeah, could you explain to me and our listeners what rejection sensitive dysphoria is or RSD? And what instructors can do to avoid it? Is there a way that we can give feedback that is preferred? And that might be helpful knowing that there is something called rejection sensitive dysphoria?

Megan Kohler  16:19

Yes, so RSD is a condition in which a person has a very strong emotional reaction, or that they feel very strongly that people are rejecting them, especially when they are criticized or when we think about, you know, as you and I have been talking about our children, when we sort of punish them for doing something that we consider to not fall within a social socially acceptable norms. Yes. And I actually read once that, in some severe cases, people with RSD can simply find interacting with other people to actually be painful, because they’re analyzing and they’re, they’re sort of processing the inner, the interaction on such a deep level, that everything that occurs within that conversation, they’re saying to themselves, this person is rejecting me, this person doesn’t want to be talking with me, they don’t like me. And unfortunately, by the time a neurodivergent, learner reaches higher ed, they’ve probably already developed RSD. And I want to take a moment to say here that I’m not a clinician, and the recommendations that I’m sharing here, they’re really based on the research that I’ve done with my colleague, Tracy Bell, doozy, and my own personal experiences as a neuro divergent learner. To answer your question, there really is no way we can avoid it. But we can create environments which offer positive support to students, okay, if we do this, we can potentially reduce the feelings of negativity a student may experience while in the classroom. So one way of achieving this is through the UDL principle of mastery oriented feedback. Yeah. You’re gonna like that. Yeah. Okay, so let’s contextualize this with an example. Let’s think about a rubric. Okay? An analytic rubric typically has several layers of mastery, it presents to the learners, it will often use language such as excellent for high quality work, and poor as the term used to describe lower quality work. If we want to transition to this mastery oriented feedback, we would replace the term poor, and instead use the term novice or something along those lines, because novice describes someone who is at the beginning of their learning, it implies that someone has room to grow in their knowledge. It’s not just a flat label, like a failure. Yeah, right. Okay. And so if we make simple changes, such as that we can have a positive effect, and not just on neurodivergent learners, but it can also have a more supportive impact on everyone in the classroom.

Lillian Nave  18:57

Wow, that seems like such a really small change that can have an outsized effect. It is yeah, something that we really can do. And I’ve heard a lot of people who talk about a rubric that it’s it’s a not yet right, that you haven’t quite gotten it or you haven’t gotten a mastery or or you set just what the level or the standard is. So you’ve met the standard or not yet met and then you have options like, okay, you can try again to meet the standard. It’s not just a one and done. Yeah, but that’s depends on how you design and you as a learning designer would know this how you design that learning. Is there room for failure? Is there room to get from a not yet into Yes, you’ve met whatever their criteria. That’s really, really interesting, and I really appreciate that. You’re just changing from that negative, really negative sounding word poor into novel This really helps our students, I think, know where they are. Absolutely. And I’ve also talked with quite a few folks about non traditional grading on grading or competence, competency based grading, those sorts of things. And a lot of those discussions are on that mastery oriented feedback, like, I want you to get to this place, I’m here to help you get to this place. And I’m not saying that your poor poor doing it poorly. Now, I’m just saying you’re on the road. And, you know, yeah. Oh, gosh, that’s so much better than all those negative messages that make you would make me if I’m constantly getting a barrage of negative feedback. And, well, let me just say, as a parent, you do get that a lot, I have, you know, three teenagers. So you get a lot of negative feedback. does make you want to kind of stop for a few days, but you know, and then maybe, you know, pull myself back together and come back at it. But you know, think about how we are encouraging our students and what we can do. And that seems like a really simple change. Yeah. So you’ve made a distinction already, in thinking about community and how important community is, and also how we have to be very specific in making community like if we put students in a group, we need to give them roles. They know what they’re doing, they, they know what they’re not just figure it out, guys, but but rather, you know, how to work together. So what is the difference between community and something you’ve taught me in reading your work something called interpersonal connection? So can you give us an example and some ways that instructors can create interpersonal connections? And how does what does that mean?

Megan Kohler  22:00

Sure. So when we think about community, a community is really a group of people who come together as the result of having something in common, right, so maybe it’s a goal, such as saving a park or a purpose, such as supporting youth, or maybe they come together for a set of common beliefs. And a church community is a great example of that. interpersonal connections are different because they happen on a one to one basis, and they get at sort of those deeper, more individual levels. Okay, so if we think about this from a classroom context, instructors can find opportunities to allow students to be their authentic selves, right. So there’s a great article titled The transformative potential of creative assignments in higher education. And it’s by Nikki dunkel. Now, in this article, the author describes the experiences of a young girl with autism and the transformation that occurred as a result of offering an activity within the class that allowed students to be the their authentic selves, and to be vulnerable and to be human. And at the beginning of this class, the young woman seemed to be excluded for many of the other students interactions. Then the instructor implemented this creative activity in which the students had to create a picture or an artwork or some type of artifact, and then they had to present it to the course. Or to everyone in the class, this young woman decided to draw a picture. And on one side, it was bright and sunny. On the other side, it was black. And it had bright red eyes and sharp white teeth peering out. And in the, in the center of the image was the young woman, sort of a self portrait of her. Then in her presentation, she actually had the bravery to share with everyone in the class that she had autism. And a sunny side of her image represented her youth when she felt loved and supported by the people around her. The other side, showed what she referred to as the monsters that bullied her because she was different. And the image of her in the center, which I want to mention, was completely void of color. It resentment it represented how she felt now. So when this young woman shared her story, the other students in the class who had also been bullied, felt a connection with her. And then they started going out of their way to make sure that she was included in the interactions. Wow. Yeah, I mean, I absolutely love this story. I think it shows how important it really is for our students to be connecting on different and more personal levels. And it really shows the impact that those types of connections can have on someone.

Lillian Nave  24:54

Yeah, it’s transformational learning. Absolutely. Yeah. I I have I work in the humanities. And so this is certainly an assignment that can be used in a lot of, you know, humanities classes. And I used to teach I haven’t taught in a few years, but I taught a course, about art, religion and in society. And so we looked at various religions, and we looked how art was used, or in sometimes issued, you know, by in different forms by certain religions, and at one side looked at many different like five different and then it got to diffuse and so we kind of moved into three major, pretty much the Abrahamic religions, right, that most students had at least knew of right, or maybe participated in or knew of, and could could learn from each other. And part of that was talking about their own relationship with art, and own relationship with what a deity was to them. And it could be none, I had a great example an art project of the spaghetti monster, who is, so this was an atheist student, and there’s a great spaghetti monster that’s in that is a kind of a philosophical cartoon of atheism. So that that explains kind of what an atheist things, and I loved it, it was great. It was it was the student was able to bring their own understanding of where they are with these two things, art and religion. And so it was called self portrait with the Divine and there could be a certain time and, and but they could take it anywhere they wanted it. Right. So and atheists, atheists, Muslims, and any number of Christians, and Hindu, I mean, you could explore that, and who you are. And then we would have a gallery walk. But it was really a way to get into how the concepts we were looking at, reflected our lives, our lived experience, or our understanding of things, and then you really got to know each other. And many students who didn’t speak in class could explain a lot more with their artwork, right? Yes, yes. And, and could make a connection that they hadn’t made before. Or, you know, some were very outspoken. And some students were not at all, but they might have shared a similar belief system, or disbelief system, whatever it was, with somebody else, and it was a great way for them to make these connections, and be able to kind of shine in that way. You know, so much of what Universal Design for Learning is, is providing options and choices. So it could be a, it could have been in any medium, you know, they they didn’t, I didn’t say they had to make a painting, you know, I have no artistic talent, but I was trained as an art historian, and that’s the reason I was an art historian for a long time, maybe I still am, is because I’m so amazed that, you know, people who are incredible artists, and I’m just fascinated, but I can’t do that. And so it could have been, you know, a diagram, it could have been any some visual representation, it could have been a spreadsheet, you know, but just to tap into a really non traditional kind of way of thinking about something to allow the diversity of thought to make its way known. I wasn’t bargaining for that when I came up with that assignment. But yeah, it showed me through seeing how all of my students thought through it. And I had some students who really had a hard time I worked with first year students, it’s a lot of time when students are working through what do I believe in terms of my culture and or, or religion or lack thereof? Am I going to continue with what my family did? Or am I going to make a decision? Or hey, wow, I didn’t know this thing existed. I’m gonna go and find out a little more about it. Yeah, so it was this really interesting time to ask students to think about that. And it was so much about what the class was about, you know, it was it was tied into the class, that having those options allowed for this great diversity. And this is before I knew what UDL was. So it’s one of those things where I look back on and say, Oh, that was universally designed that allowed for student choice. It had these ways for students to play on their strengths if they wanted to. They also could write up you know, if they wanted to do more like a poem or something like that they could and and it looks like you know, anytime we can offer Are that variety? And offer connection or ways that students can connect with each other are ways that are going to help not just that community, but as you’re saying those interpersonal connections, right?

Megan Kohler  30:15

Yeah, absolutely. And actually, when you were talking, it reminded me of an assignment called the Unessay. Are you familiar with that? Yeah, yeah. So allowing students to create any type of artifact that they think connects to the material, and then just drafting a simple one pager to accompany it and present it to the class. That’s one of my favorite assignment strategies.

Lillian Nave  30:39

Yes. Yeah. And I’ve seen, you know, like board games, about social issues. I’ve seen quilts diorama has of poems, artworks, you know, amazing, creative ways to explain something that I never would have thought of. And I have found that when I’m the one who’s trying to explain things all the time, I don’t do a great job. But when I can allow another student to explain it to their fellow students, they sometimes well, I should say, more often than not come up with an even better explanation that hits home. So whereas my references may be dated. I was just thinking about, I bet none of my students had ever heard of a character named Eddie Haskell who was in an old TV show called Leave It to Beaver, which predates me, right. But I would see reruns of it. It was black and white, or black. And yeah. And Eddie Haskell was the older brother’s friend who was always getting everybody into trouble, like, but all the parents thought he was wonderful. You know, he would say, Yes, ma’am. And all of that, everybody. And so he made it look like he was always doing the right thing. But he was the one who was, you know, instigating some some sort of ruckus? I don’t know. Yeah. And so I was like, trying to explain an Eddie Haskell like character. And I’m like, they have no idea who this person is, right? And so I would need a student right to be thinking about it. So I often ask my teenagers like what, you know, can you tell me about this, and I would this run for you guys, and opening up to the class to other students to be creative to think about those ways to kind of flatten out the hierarchy or the power balance in the classroom where I’m not the know it all. But I’m asking for their input. And then that’s where our students can shine. Right? Yeah.

Megan Kohler  32:51

I love that. And there’s, there’s so many faculty nowadays who feel like, because they are the faculty, they need to be lecturing in order for students to be learning. And we know that that’s not the most effective modality, right? And research has actually proven that. But so I love the fact that you’re sort of taking on a peer learning approach, and really engaging the students and allowing them to share their thoughts and perspectives, because it’s when they build on their own ideas. That’s when that’s when real learning occurs, right? I mean, like, we can share information with them. But there’s a difference between simply remembering information and understanding information, which I mean, we all know.

Lillian Nave  33:30

Right? Yeah. And applying that information. Absolutely. And so especially when a peer is trying to teach another peer, you know, that cooperation, that collaboration, that community that they’re making, I learned so much more. When I had to teach a lesson, I thought I knew you know what Italian Renaissance art was, but until I had to teach a class in it, and then I realized how much I did not know about this whole era. Until, you know, I thought I knew a lot I’d lived there. I’d studied it is amazing. I loved it. And then I go to teach and I think, oh, wow, I’m learning so much in order to teach. So when we can give our students that chance to give them themselves and show their strengths again, the strength base Yeah, approach. It seems like it’s really helpful for everybody’s learning, including my own as the instructor. Yeah. So this is really great of all, already, there’s been some really great things that I think we can take forward and easily change or add to our classrooms in order to help our neurodiverse students, but what advice then do you have for someone who wants to make their course an inclusive place for neurodiverse students?

Megan Kohler  34:53

Yeah, so we’ve talked about a number of different strategies today, but I think the most important one to keep in mind, is simply to meet people where they are. And you can encourage everyone in your classroom to do the same. I remember a class that I actually took in college many years ago. And I remember the professor asking everyone in the classroom to stand if they wouldn’t change anything about themselves. Hmm. And guess what? No one stood up. And that really speaks to the notion that we’re all sort of working with what we have. And we’re working from a point of where we are, we’re all works in progress. We’re never, we’re never done, right. And the reality is, we’re all just trying to do the best that we can. And sometimes we do great. And sometimes we don’t do great. But the fact of the matter is, we have to keep trying, right? And I think if we can offer each other, a greater degree of compassion in our interactions, and how we encourage our students to go about demonstrating that same type of compassion within the classroom, then I think it’s, we’re all going to be better for it.

Lillian Nave  36:07

Oh, yes, absolutely. And recognizing, I mean, what you’re saying is recognizing that we’re all human. And we’re all different. And that’s great. Absolutely, we want that diversity, and we want it in every way possible. And our neuro diverse students bring incredible strengths to our classrooms. So what are we doing that we can bring that to the forefront or highlight that or allow for those students to shine? At the very beginning of our conversation, you talked about those 20,000, negative interactions. And that, yeah, that has really stuck with me. When I talk to other kinds of neurodiversity experts are the people I’ve, you know, started to talk to you on the podcast. I hear that, though, either neurodiverse? Folks, adults and students, or they talk about their loved one who is neurodiverse will say, you know, I don’t feel disabled, except for when I’m at school, in, and that’s the place where they have some sort of label, or they’re told that they’re different, or they don’t conform, or they don’t live up to the standard, or they shouldn’t be doing that. And that was really sad and fascinating and telling. And tells me that it’s a, it’s the environment that is creating so much of this negativity and kind of telling students that they’re not good enough. When I think we really need to be looking at the barriers. That’s what UDL does. We look at the barriers that we’ve placed? Oftentimes, we don’t know why, like, we don’t know why we timed tests for a humanities project, right? Or we don’t know. Yeah, there are some times where we need to have a timer on some things. But there’s also other times like, why do we even have that? Or why do we sit the desks in rows? Or why did we do you know, why does everyone have to sit and listen for an hour and a half, rather than working in small groups and coming up with, you know, something else, they’re just these traditions, these other things that have become barriers. And I see it when we have that diversity. And the neurodiverse students especially, but just when we have different ideas, and different people and different energies coming in, and they start bumping into these barriers, and it’s, it’s hard at first, I think when when I, you know, I used to get the accommodation letters and then think, okay, now I have to change what I’m doing or I have to bend over, I have to do something different. And it was strange and weird. But I’ve learned that when I take those barriers away, and my students who were bumping up against those barriers, they don’t have a hard time and neither did the other students. Now they have a much better learning environment, where they’re more freely able to, to learn and interact with each other. So this seems like we’re the negativity is because of those barriers. Yeah. We really need to think about what those barriers are.

Megan Kohler  39:37

Yeah, I think that that is definitely a large part of it. So as you were talking, I was just sort of jotting down some additional notes over to the side because I actually think that I know the pandemic has not been a very favorable circumstance for a lot of people. But I think that the one thing that the pandemic has done is it has actually allowed for individuals to be more human. Yeah. Right. Like, all of a sudden, we’re engaging with our colleagues, and we’re seeing them at home and we’re having kids run in or cuts walk across the screen. And so having that sort of glimpse into one another’s lives, right, it sort of speaks to that interpersonal connection. Yeah. And just saying, okay, you know what, this is our circumstance. And we’re also going to be okay with it. We’re going to allow ourselves to be human, we’re going to allow our colleagues to show up to meetings in, you know, their their sweatshirts or T shirts, you know, as opposed to the formal dress shirts. And then you know, it actually, as you were talking about the value of UDL in the classroom. It also made me think about how we should be incorporating UDL principles into the workplace. Oh, yes. Because I can absolutely speak. From my experiences that, yes, I went through K through 12, and received a number of negative messages. And then I went on to college and same thing, and then it doesn’t stop there. Yeah, it follows into the workplace. It’s something that goes with you for your entire life. And I remember having very negative interactions with my colleagues. And I think that that’s one of the things that for a neurodivergent individual is kind of difficult to wrap their heads around. And I’m speaking from my own personal experience, but it’s like, somebody will get upset with you. And you have no idea why. Yeah, right. And it’s like, you certainly don’t mean for there to be any negative interactions like you, you end up being pelted with all of these negative messages throughout your entire life. And it’s almost like, you become overly empathetic, because you don’t ever want to do that to anybody else. Because you know how it feels. Yeah. And then all of a sudden, somebody is getting upset with you. And because you are different, because you think different because you process information differently. There’s just this sort of dynamic that happens it and I hate, I hate to say it, label it this way. But it’s kind of like groupthink. Right? So it’s kind of like all of the neurotypicals, they get along really well, right. Like they all they all understand one another, I liken it to sort of being on the same type of wavelength or radio, or radio wave. And it’s like, because they all understand each other on levels that I don’t necessarily have the ability to tap into. It’s kind of like, you’re always on the outside. Right, and you can be very well intended, and you can be a very pleasant person. But for some reason, people just see you differently. They see you negatively. And I would love, love, love love to see us incorporate more of those UDL principles, not just into the classroom, but also into the work environment so that we, as professionals, can support more inclusive work environments as well.

Lillian Nave  43:16

Absolutely. You know, when we talk about this pandemic that has been going on for two years, it changed the way we do so many things. And so many things are better. Like we don’t want to go back to the normal. I’m using air quotes here. Because now we see how commuting can be a big waste of time for many people, if all you’re doing is let’s get on a zoom, and let’s you know, let’s make these conversations happen. Using technology wonderful. Or I’ve noticed in the classroom, those students, I used to preferentially treat the students who would raise their hand and speak verbally quickly, right? I want an answer. The first person that gives her answer is, is preferred. Right? I want to hear that. But what about the five other thoughts that are happening? And if if we’re on Zoom, and you everybody writes it at the same time, and we all press return? Wow, we get five different answers. And we can look at those at the same time. You know, it just works differently. And I’ve and people who process things differently if they process slowly. If they’re really deeply thinking about it, they might come up with a really wonderful, nuanced, thorough answer that we might not have gotten to if we were in the kind of old traditional face to face and then the talkative folks, the the people who process really quickly, I was one of those and I would kind of put my hand up and want to talk. And we lose out when we don’t allow for that diversity, of thought of processing of ways to add to the conversation and the same thing in work right. Let’s think about a mobile team like when you can wow I can work with somebody who’s across the state, like my producer Tanner, who’s we were to different universities and, and so we’re never together but but it works so much better. Then because of our, you know, the ability, the technology, those sorts of things. And it makes me think, what else have we missed? Right? We have all these traditions and barriers up there. And certainly the last two years have taught us that there’s a lot more out there, there’s a lot more diversity, there’s different ways of doing things. And they can have a great positive benefit to our students because of how diverse they are. They’re just wildly incredibly unique. And how do we, you know, harness that and see the positive as we go forward?

Megan Kohler  45:48

Yeah, absolutely. And you bring up a great point. So in the workshop that I gave, with my colleague, Tracy Bell doozy, we actually talk about the fact that there is some research out there that supports the notion that let me see if I’m remembering this correctly. So I usually have my bullet points in front of me when we give the workshop just to make sure that I’m seeing everything accurately. But the research says that neurotypical individual can come up with a number of different solutions to the challenge that they face. Right. But interestingly enough, a neuro divergent individual might only come up with like one or two solutions. Yeah, but those one or two solutions are more likely to be more innovative, as well as more effective than what their neurotypical counterpart will propose.

Lillian Nave  46:41

Okay. Yeah. So we, I would love that on my team, right? Yeah, we love. Yeah. So there are just so many benefits of creating spaces where all of our students, all of our workers, all of the people in the room, or the, I guess, the digital room, wherever the people in this space, have the opportunity, have the choice, have a variety of ways to participate, where they feel, they can contribute ideas, all the things that you’ve mentioned, about showing one’s worth and accepting each other is really important. And I know there’s research about feeling accepted, and you know, feeling that you belong at a particular place in a particular school and a particular classroom really affects the ability to learn. And so the more we can do that, and talk specifically about our neurodiverse students and say, you know, you bring a lot you add value. And here are the ways I want to bring in your voice and your contributions to the class. So that and talk to the other folks that you know, you might have been in classrooms where people just raise their hand and talk, we’re going to do things differently, we’re going to have kind of a silent scroll, you know, or everybody’s gonna, you know, so that, so that you can understand that other people do things differently, and what they have to say, has value. And it seems like that it’s more and more the role of an instructor in a college, I think, is facilitator, then the sage on the stage, the lecture, right? Because it’s that, as you said, students kind of tend to tune out for a long lecture. facilitating those interactions is seems to be a much more important than distributing the information which they can often get in a number of places. So being that good facilitator seems to be really important.

Megan Kohler  48:49

Absolutely. And it reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to right. Yeah. So if we know if our most basic needs of safety, food, shelter, emotional security, if those things aren’t met, then it’s going to impact our ability to learn. Yeah. And I think that we as educators need to pay particular attention to whether or not we are creating those safe spaces for students. Yeah. So that they can be enabled.

Lillian Nave  49:17

Right, yeah. And safe intellectual spaces where everybody, yeah, can is fully valued and can learn. And, you know, you bring up something very timely. We were going to have this interview yesterday, and both of us had some things that made us push it off into today. And as I told you, some of the thing I was dealing with was something to do with neurodiversity, and changed and what, what one of my family members can or can’t do. And so we’ve had to mobilize and change everything and restructure our whole year because of news we got yesterday. And yeah, and I said, you know, I don’t know if I would have been able to it Don’t be in the right headspace to have this conversation because of this very, you know, world changing, or at least possibly world changing or a year changing news about just what to do how to handle the situation. And and it’s the same thing if you’re, if you’re not in the right headspace. How can you be in a learning situation. And so making it easier for our students to all be in the right headspace. By taking away those threats and distractions, we’re back to the beginning of our conversation and paying attention to those things is just so important. I really appreciate you bringing this to my attention and answering my cold call, like you didn’t know who I was, and just being able to talk to me and having some really great strategies. So thank you so much, Megan, for

Megan Kohler  50:49

Absolutely, yes. And thank you I’m, this is a topic that I’m really passionate about, and obviously for a number of reasons. But I just want to thank you so much for allowing me to share some of these strategies and hopefully, someone will hear this and you know, make some changes in the way that they’re approaching their classrooms so that we can we can really help support neurodivergent learners. So thank you.

Lillian Nave  51:13

Thank you so much, appreciate it. You can follow the think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the think website. The think UDL podcast is made possible by college star. The star stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aides based on UDL principles. If you’d like to know more, go to the college website. Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University where if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw in Appalachia. The music on the podcast was performed by the Odyssey quartet comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Falwell and Jose coach as our sound engineer is Tanner Jones and I am your host, Lillian nave. Thank you for joining us on The think UDL podcast.

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