Episode 10: Talking leadership and curriculum for inclusive education with Dr. Richard Jackson

In this conversation Richard Jackson talks with me about his educational experiences as a person with a disability and how this has informed his work to create inclusive curricula and learning environments, and to support the next generation of leaders for inclusion.

Resources from this episode

Book recommendation: Transforming Higher Ed Through UDL (Bracken and Novak, 2019)

INCLUDE website

Transcript of this episode


UDL, disability, inclusion, curriculum, competencies, special education, leadership, variability


Richard Jackson, Margaret Flood

Margaret Flood  00:00

A podcast where I get to meet and learn from people in the field of inclusion in its broadest sense that inspire me. I hope they’ll inspire you to. Today I’m talking with Dr. Richard Jackson. Richard is internationally recognised as a pioneer in the Nason field of Universal Design for Learning. He first brought the UDL framework for an inclusive curriculum to Boston College in 1999. Over the years he has worked with students and colleagues to identify teaching practices that support access to general education curriculum. Examine assistive and universally designed technologies that facilitate student learning, and prepare teachers and leaders in inclusive education. Most recently, Richard has sought to expand UDL leadership preparation and support beyond the United States by CO founding includes a centre without walls that functions virtually as a community of practice among stakeholders committed to advancing inclusion worldwide. Richard a serendipitous email from Cass brought us together in 2019, when you kindly offered to host me in Boston College as part of my Fulbright Awards, two years and a COVID pandemic later, we finally got to share that office in BC, where your passion for inclusion and collaboration was infectious. I’m so delighted to have you on the podcast today to speak with you more about this passion and where it’s leading you next.

Richard Jackson  01:21

Oh, I’m so happy to be with you today. Max, thank you very much for joining us for inviting me

Margaret Flood  01:29

off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background. And what inspired you to explore UDL as a framework for inclusive curriculum in Boston College and beyond.

Richard Jackson  01:39

I think it’s important to start with defining myself as a person with with disabilities, because it really has had everything to do with how my life has formed over the years. And what I do in my career and what I’ve done at Boston College. I was born with severe visual impairment legally blind, and a condition called corneal dystrophy that also has connected with it sensory neural hearing loss. It’s an extremely rare disease. It’s genetic. And in my family, it just very interesting that my brother and my sister also had the same constellation of vision and hearing problems. So we all grew up, went through special education programmes. And with with severe visual impairment, legal blindness, we kind of would see at 10 feet what typically sighted people see at 200 feet. And then the hearing loss came on in our mid 20s. And progressed, it’s a sensory neural hearing loss. About 15 years ago, I started wearing binaural hearing aids, that really, really helped my hearing. And then I also had corneal transplants and lens implants that restored my childhood vision sounds really complicated. The big, the big message is that I was born with severe visual impairment. Over the years, it progressed to nearly total blindness. With the corneal and lens surgery, I could get my childhood vision back, which allowed me to read print with magnification. And then the sensory neural hearing loss progressed over the last 15 years or so. To sort of weave this into what it all meant to me educationally. I was born at a time prior to the special education law in the States. So I went to a special class just for visually impaired students, sorted my brother and sister who followed me. And then following the special class, there was a resource programme and middle school grades seven through nine. And then there was full immersion in public high school. In my case, the special class was a very isolating experience. One teacher for 1618 students on multi grade levels, a wonderful teacher with an impossible job. And when I was integrated gradually in seventh, eighth, ninth grade, I had a tremendous, tremendous difficulty at acknowledging my impairment and trying to fit in academically, I resorted to expressions of misbehaviour. I guess I struggled severely through through school. In my, in my high school year, I had two junior years, repeated mice, my 11th grade. And

Richard Jackson  05:31

I was all set to quit school and work in a in a carwash where I had a job on weekends. And I got fired from the carwash because the The owner told me one morning that I couldn’t see those hubcaps well enough to keep them clean, and I was really of no, no use to him. At that point, I felt pretty desperate. And started trying to follow the advice I was getting from counsellors and my, my parents. And I really tried to apply myself in the public, fully inclusive system. But it was it was a, it was a struggle to catch up. I went to Perkins School for the Blind as a residential school for the last quarter of my second junior year, and then all of my final year in high school. So what that all really means in terms of my formation is that I had six years in a substantially separate classroom, I had three years in a resource setting with integration in the middle school years, and then full immersion in high school, and then full immersion in a substitute in a residential school for the blind. tremendous insight through all of the all of those years, I would say that my failures in school had everything to do with my own struggles with identity as a person with visual impairment. I believe that the experience in the substantially separate environment taught me that if you have a disability, you don’t belong and you’re not wanted, and you’re looked at very negatively by the broader society. So I sought a way to fit in with my peers and. And reject myself as a student with with disability. It really wasn’t until the Perkins experience when I met other students with visual impairments more severe than my own. And they were they were doing splendidly in school, but they were socially isolated. I barely got into college, after this experience, and encountered mentors, and that just made a tremendous difference in my life. So these, these were my early early experiences that kind of defined me as a person with a disability. I think, I think the learning there there’s today that I’m an avid inclusion assist, I think that we we have to find ways to include students with disabilities so that they have peer to peer contact in authentic classroom and school based settings. And the most valuable experiences of my childhood really were with my neighbourhood peers with, with my buddies, it was really school that made me stick out and look different than it was really school. That that caused my my challenges. That led me to my my philosophy.

Margaret Flood  09:03

And when you were in school, Richard, it would have been differentiation at the time, so would have been that deficit approach. And you talked about identities there. And the difference between owning your identity and having a category of need assigned to you, I think has a very strong influence on children and learners, and how included they feel are invited to feel in a learning environment

Richard Jackson  09:32

is there’s no, there’s a psychologist from Connecticut, Richard laboy, who talks, counsels parents and students with learning disabilities and he often talks about when when you ask a adult adults with learning disabilities if they could, if they could change anything in their own school experience, you might you might think they’d say I wish I got a better education. No, they they really say I wish I had better peer relations. I wish I had more friends I wish I felt more that I belong more, and school. With people your own age, it can it can make you feel welcome, or it can make you feel uninvited and different from every everyone else.

Margaret Flood  10:25

Did that change for you in college, Richard

Richard Jackson  10:29

changed in a radical way, because in college it wasn’t, it was a matter of didn’t really matter how you how you learned, you could learn with your own style. And but you had to pass the tests, and you had to write the papers. And there was very, very little very little frequent feedback. On top of that, I didn’t have daily work that somebody was checking on with you. In school, you know, you had to be able to copy from the board, you had to be able to write on narrow line paper, you had to be able to take tests within certain time limits, you had to be able to read what’s on the chalkboard. But if you had if you had accessible textbooks, and if you had the really good lectures and a good good system for remembering what was presented in the classroom, then really all you had to do is pass the test and do well. And this was an environment where I felt I could learn my own way. And then when I needed help, I would go individually to meet with professors. And that made a huge difference being able to accept mentoring and guidance from individual professors. And by the time I was a sophomore, I was on the Dean’s list, and I was doing very well. And that continued throughout. And I felt that I was at the upper quartile in all my courses. And I felt acceptance and a sense of belonging from my peers in college. Now, that’s, you know, that’s back in the late 60s. And I have to say that college was uniquely positive for me. I think students with disabilities continue to struggle in many college environments, although for most situations is improved enormously.

Margaret Flood  12:40

And Richard if we if we jump from the 1960s, where you had, up until then a mixed bag of experiences around your education and inclusion to 1999, you are a professor in Boston College. And not only do you believe in learning your own way, but from our conversations, I know that at that time, you believed in providing opportunities for learners to learn their own way. What brought you to there and and what was the impetus for bringing UDL, in particular to Boston College and designing or being part of that inclusive curriculum, campus philosophy.

Richard Jackson  13:22

While I was at Boston College, in 79, that’s when my appointment began. But from 79 to 99, I was essentially running programmes to prepare professionals to work with blind visually impaired and multiple disabled students. And I was at this always at the forefront of technology use for for working with blind children and, and and working trying to improve my own efficiency and productivity. So technology, I was getting a reputation in in the area of assistive technology and I was invited in the in the mid 90s 9090 a two to a meeting at CAST, where the where I was exposed to the Universal Design for Learning Framework, made a couple of presentations, it just resonated with my own my own training in about the affordances I really believe that the difficulties we experienced as people with disabilities has everything to do with the the affordances in the in our environment and curb cuts would be a great example. You know, the if you if you if you didn’t have curb cuts, people would with wheelchairs would never get out of their homes. And so, I was always one for looking at the learning environment and the physical environment and product design just to see well what are the what are the parts Essential affordances that could make life easier for people that that develop differently. So I just resonated, it was like magic. The way I came to, like many people like you mags, you know, people get exposed to the UDL framework, and they go, Wow, that’s a big idea. And so, in 1999, there was a law passed in the United States, that made all the difference for students with disabilities. It wasn’t just a law that required students receive a special education to target their special needs. But they also the law also required that they have access to the same benefits that all other students have. So it’s the general curriculum. So the law required that students no matter how involved they are with disability, they have to have access to they have to be able to participate with in rather, and then they also have to participate in assessment systems to demonstrate what they’re learning from their curriculum access. Well, it occurred to me and two colleagues had cast that there was only one way to accomplish this, and that was to adopt the UDL framework. At that time, the framework only had three principles that were no guidelines. And so we bought I brought Boston College into a partnership with Harvard Law School, the Council for Exceptional Children, headed up by Cass to found the national centre on accessing the general curriculum. And we spent five years developing guidance for the nation to implement the UDL framework with the sole purpose of increasing access to the general curriculum. So this was in 99. And I was teaching special education courses at Boston College. And I brought the framework into into Boston College and started preparing my students to adopt the framework. And then at CAST. We did training with our with my faculty colleagues on the UDL framework. In 2005, I got an award from Boston College on my course developments, following the UDL framework, and then in 19. In two in 2009. The the UDL framework was scaling up around the nation. And it occurred to me that to move the framework

Richard Jackson  17:54

into a mass implementation stage, it would require leadership, I looked at leadership competencies in the United States and the competencies for special education directors differ markedly from the competencies for general education, administrators like principals and superintendents and state directors and so forth. So I proposed a postdoctoral programme to prepare leaders to try to figure out what really how would we build a corps of leaders that that would, that would help lead education the same education one standard space education for all students, and I successfully obtained the most prestigious grant of my career. So I brought on over five years, eight postdoctoral fellows and also had, they also enjoyed residency at CAST. So they were working alongside cast researchers and policy makers, and they had access to professors at BC. My colleagues, that was an incredibly successful programme. They were talented people to begin with. Many of them are quite renowned. Now. They were talented to begin with, but their their work and accomplishments since 2009, have just been enormous. And it led me it led me to think that leadership, UDL was beginning to appear I was noticing it was beginning to appear in different parts of the world, and met a colleague and was invited to provide a chapter for a textbook on Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education from a global perspective. And I met Sean bracken and Katie Novak invited me to the submit a chapter. And that brought me to Dublin for a presentation a book launch at the at the head conference in Dublin. I met folks from all around Europe, who were engaged in implementing UDL and just enthralled with the framework, you know, much the way I was when I when I first went to cast in 19 in the late 90s. That this is there’s no other way to do it, that just sort of win wins you over. And I proposed to Shawn, that we established this international organisation that would be devoted to promoting leadership for broad scale implementation of UDL. I had been working on this collaboratory, idea collaboratory, as a as a centre without walls that would work virtually, and cut across many territories and many interests. I’ve been learning about community of practice, social learning theory from at the end, Wanger. And it just occurred to me that a centre without walls a collaboratory would help scale up this idea of national leadership from the states to a global level. So we have established this include the international Collaboratory for leadership and universally designed education. Now that’s a killer brand. Would you agree with that Max?

Margaret Flood  21:47

Momentum as well?

Richard Jackson  21:49

Yes, it is. We’ve got a resort research activity. And we’ve got a monthly series of professional development webinars, and these are all done through zoom. We’re all getting quite good at zoom webinars, and we’re all getting quite good at engaging are those that those that attend the the idea, it’s important to to, to define really what to include is about it’s it’s not a top down organisation. It’s it’s not a bottom up organisation it is. It is a centre without walls, that brings together people that believe that all children, all people need to have an equal opportunity to learn all people this sort of internationalisation of the educational imperative, and carrying forward the belief that the only way for people to have an equal opportunity to learn is to turn to the environment and see well what are we asking of students? And what are we giving them as resources to support their learning? And how are we allowing them to engage? Well, those are all the three principles of UDL, how do we bring people together, but we have to recognise that in different localities all over the world, there are different contexts in different priorities. And people are at different stages of development in terms of how they how they bring people into an educational context. So we we propose the UDL framework as a guiding framework, but we help people look at where they are now. Where are they now in their in their learning text? And how can they get better at getting better in their world? Well, if they use the UDL guidelines, they’re going to they’re going to implement universal design for learning differently everywhere, but they’re going to be working toward wider participation for all members of their society. So but where the collaboratory kicks in is that they get to tell their stories, and exchange their contexts and learn from one another. So you’re going to envision this, this big circle with people on the periphery that are intrigued by UDL, and then people in the centre that are really highly knowledgeable and highly skilled with UDL implementation. And then, so this this interaction from the periphery into the centre, and then this is interaction all around the periphery where people find commonalities and they say, Well, you know, I did this in in Canada and, and this is something that would work in Sweden. And here’s something going on in Northern Ireland, Ireland, here’s something in the UK, Morocco. Brazil, we’re kind of all over the world now, and people are embracing Cygnus this, this, this inclusion, imperative, internationalisation of education and learning from one another. That’s that’s the big dream for include.

Margaret Flood  25:13

I think I like from working with you over in Boston I became very familiar with include and I think, like there’s two really important things that you brought up there was that it’s not just about the the people with expertise, it’s about those who are curious who want to learn more, but it is contextual. So we all know, we spoke about this, but like 95% of the UDL examples are based on the US standards and US curriculum. And what include is doing, by inviting in speakers is hearing what’s happening in India or Brazil or places like that. And I know you have very strong and proactive feelings around global perspective. So I got I had the pleasure of auditing and speaking on your Global Perspectives course in Boston College, where do you see those global perspectives and inclusion and general education aligning?

Richard Jackson  26:18

Well, that’s good general education, meaning like the idea of one curriculum for all. I, I’m committed to globalisation, but I I’m regard myself as an expert in UDL, and an expert in how people learn and how people learn differently. But I’m, I’m not an expert on language or, or translate language, or global global, how cultures come together. That’s where my include colleagues come in. So I often defer to Shawn bracken and and other colleagues in include about the global perspective at Boston College, we started the Global Perspectives programme for education. And I teach the models and theories of instructional design. ending up in UDL is the framework and that course, and I, I’m encouraging and promoting application globally to my students, but I, I I’m really still this guy from Boston from a working class family, continuing to learn about people from all over the world. So I guess, um, I see global citizenship ideas of global citizenship expanding, I see, the more we learn about one another, it’s almost like, we regarded separate nations as like special classes, then we’ve had them you know, these are developing nations or like underdeveloped nations, and these are poor people, or these are strange people that do things differently. And, and, and so now, it’s all like, including different cultures, including different modes of thinking and feeling, and so forth from around the world. Each culture each each nation has loves their children, and they have hopes and aspirations for their children. And when kids learn differently, or do things differently, they need, they need a framework that will will provide the flexibility and openness to bring them to bring them in so that they can fit into their society. So so it’s like, it’s just interesting. That’s, that just just kind of occurred. To me, that’s a great analogy that growing up in the States with special classes and special schools and pigeonholing people, that’s kind of what what we did in the world, you know, one country is better than the other. I think it’s I think we’re at a much better time to think of global citizenship, and why it’s in everybody’s best interest to be concerned about the well being of all people everywhere.

Margaret Flood  29:27

Absolutely. And that goes back to the whole, I suppose cycle of leadership and learning that you can’t have one without the other and it goes back to UDL and that journey to expert learning, or being the expert learner that isn’t about mastery of a subject or a skill, but mastery of how we apply the skills learning we have to inclusion to leadership to Global Citizen citizenship, and I think you’ve captured fashion include.

Richard Jackson  29:58

I think that’s That’s what we’re about where we all want to be expert at learning how to share what we know and do, and how to help other people get better at getting better. I’m stealing that get better at getting better from Anthony break here in the States. It’s an area of research called improvement science, where you, you decide what it is you want to do to improve your practice. So no matter where people are in the world, they’re teaching, and they want to do they want to teach better. They want to get better at what they’re doing. And UDL is the way to do it. But the way it will be implemented, locally will differ, like implementation of UDL, and Morocco will look different than the implementation of UDL and Canada will look different in Ireland will look different in in Brazil, but it’ll have the same result of widening participation from students and increasing opportunity to learn and grow and develop that expertise at learning becoming the best they can be within their own context.

Margaret Flood  31:21

Absolutely. And then just in terms, because you are a teacher educator, you you are spending your days in Boston College, bringing up the next generation of teachers. And I know you’re giving them all the opportunities to learn in a way that suits them best. But if you were to give them one piece of advice on your very first day with them on equity and inclusion, what would that be?

Richard Jackson  31:50

To an aspiring young teacher? Yes, yeah, I would say, set your expectations high. I love that I, you know, I, I work with students at Boston College, on a project about going back about 15 years, and they were frustrated about not able to really improve urban learners in their activities. And, and when asked why they would say, Well, some people just lacked the capacity. And I thought, at that point in my in my career, I said, you know, I’m going to take the word capacity completely out of my language. And I make the statement that UDL says nothing about capacity. The only thing we we say about UDL and individual differences is that human variability is so extensive, that that we can’t measure it well. We don’t measure you and in when we try to match practice with aptitude, we end up stigmatising and sectioning off people. So it’s this expectation thing. It’s like getting to know individual learners, having them relate to other age mates, and being open to what, what they can do when just given the exposure, the coaching the opportunity. So expectations, that’s what it’s all about. I went to I went to special classes, because I wasn’t expected to be able to function in in regular classes.

Margaret Flood  33:46

Absolutely. Goes back to that presuming competence. And if if you don’t know your students, so in your case, but I have a young boy in front of me who is deaf, who is blind, so I’m just deciding he’s not going to be able to read, write or learn. Instead of asking myself, What has this, this young boy got to give what’s inside of him? And I think if we just shift the way we think about that, we’re going to have happier learners in our environments. And we’re going to have and I’m going to use the words, high achievers, not in the sense that we use it here. But we see a lot more high achievers, if we give them the opportunity. And Richard, you talked about variability in the same sentence as talking about not talking about capacity. Not not. A lot of people find the word variability scary in that they’re going How can I plan for this?

Richard Jackson  34:53

Ah, how do you plan for variability? Well, I think it’s the it’s The the principles of UDL, that, that led to the discovery of the term variability and sort of like we, we have multiple means of, of accessing the curriculum, the content, you know, like getting at texts, getting at videos getting getting at demonstrations. And we do that because human variability is so great, we can’t prescribe it, we can’t say, Well, you, you have this class, so you’re gonna have to listen, you have this class, you’re gonna have to use your eyes. So it’s really a matter of having all these options available. And creating, it’s, I call it creating the affordances, opening up the environment, so that the engagement with learning is is possible. And then it’s the same with with other principles as well, you know, there’s many ways to demonstrate what you know, and can do. But if your curriculum dictates that you have to pass a true false or, you know, multiple choice test. And that’s the only option available that if that doesn’t match your, where you are on variability, you’re just out of luck.

Margaret Flood  36:21

Absolutely. And giving that giving that written test to you, when you were in school wasn’t going to show your competencies in any shape or form, if you weren’t going to be able to read the test.

Richard Jackson  36:35

No, in my experience, it was, I would often give up, I remember having to copy sentences out of the heat Handbook of English. And, and, and write these on down on a certain size paper, and then having to correct them. And by the time I would get a third of the way into the activity, my peers would be completely done and moved on with other other assignments. So it was just, it was just onerous, and a horrible punishing experience for me. And there were many other ways for me to learn how to learn grammar at the time. But those activities were just not made available to me.

Margaret Flood  37:24

And that is actually reducing engagement. I mean, there is no motivation for you to persist in that activity, if it if it’s creating a further gap between you and your peers.

Richard Jackson  37:38

Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. I think I think in the future, and we were starting to do this in many, many places, that we won’t all be following the same pace. And I hope that I hope that eventually we will move away from grade level expectations. And we’ll be working toward competencies in a learning progression. There’ll be a logical sequence and a developmental sequence to these competencies. But when we working with our peers, toward the attainment of these competence competencies in very authentic ways, it’s the grade level expectations that that really account for the feeling of failure and boredom in school.

Margaret Flood  38:24

Absolutely. For me, it’s like, you know, when you click on your, your GPS, and you want your end destination, what it gives you Route A, B, or C, and you can choose the route, whether you want to take the scenic route or whether you want to pay the tolls, whatever it is. And for me, that is what an inclusive pathway to curriculum is. And people getting there at their own pace at their own stage.

Richard Jackson  38:50

Oh, absolutely. That for me, I like to take I like to take the route that allows me to stop and reflect along the way. Somebody else may want to race through it and get there as as soon as possible. Get it done.

Margaret Flood  39:08

Yeah. And it may even depend on where it is you’re going how quickly you want to get there or stop and reflect.

Richard Jackson  39:16

That’s That’s true. That’s true. And I

Margaret Flood  39:19

think sometimes when we’re focused on that great element, it’s get there as quickly as possible, which reduces the act of learning that takes place.

Richard Jackson  39:30

Yes, it’s the difference between a performance motivation and a mastery motive, then, yeah, and mastery, working toward mastery at your own rate, feeling confident and feeling capable along the way. Yes,

Margaret Flood  39:48

absolutely. Richard, I know we could go on and talk about this forever. And I think we already have a second conversation to be had in the future. But for now we are Hold on to the end of our conversation. And I’m just wondering, do you have any resources for further independent learning that you would like to share with us today?

Richard Jackson  40:09

Yeah, so I have a chapter from the book that I did with my with Farrakhan for for Katie Novak and, and Sean Bracken, and its book on. It’s a chapter on how to develop blended learning courses following the framework. And this, this chapter was done with my, my last doctoral student cop Scotland, Pinsky, just a wonderful doctoral student colleague. And this was done before the pandemic. And in 2015, Scott and I began blending my courses at BC. And when the pandemic hit, the courses were all on our learning management system, and the courses were all in accessible media and accessible texts. And it was no, no difficulty at all to transition from in the room instruction, to to, to, to in to instruction on Zoom to remote learning. And the point to this was that many of my colleagues struggle when, when they were forced to go to remote learning, because their, their content was not digitised and it was not accessible. And this was just a wonderful thing. Just this publication appeared just at the right time, to help colleagues at Boston College and other people that were able to access this chapter to implement flexible designs and courses. So I’m happy to share that chapter. And then I have another passion of mine is audio supported reading, from an information processing point of view. And I think that we need to look carefully at what we mean by literacy and what we mean by reading and how technology can just just changed the game completely for student learning through text, and that this is a good chapter on how people in particular with visual impairment, process information and can benefit from bimodal learning, whether it’s in print and speech, or Braille and speech,

Margaret Flood  42:45

are super, I will make sure to get those links off you and put them up in the introduction that goes with this podcast. So thank you so much for that. And I also include include I will also include the link for includes Oh, wonderful, wonderful, there. Richard, before we finish, do you have an leave any final words or piece of advice that you would like to share with everyone?

Richard Jackson  43:11

Well, I think we all need to figure out who we are. I’m strongly influenced by the self determination literature, right? I’ve come to realise that there’s really basically three goals for us in life, to be competent, to be to connect with others socially. And to be autonomous, that is to to see ourselves as agents that we, we have control of our lives, and we have control over how others see us. And for me, it took me many, many years to accept myself as a person with a disability. There are social consequences for that. And but there are practical consequences when people understand you more in terms of your strengths, and your capabilities as a person with disability. So it’s a lifelong, I think, for all of us. It’s a lifelong conquest, a lifelong pursuit, to be authentic, to be who we are, and then see the CSS see ourselves is developing continuously and, and learning as long as we live.

Margaret Flood  44:38

Absolutely. That’s I like that. Be competent, connect with other socially and to be autonomous that that that is the perfect ending I have to say. And on that note, I will say goodbye to everyone listening and thank you so much for joining myself and Richard for talking about all things inclusion, and I hope you will join me again Soon Richard thank you so much again for sharing with us today

Richard Jackson  45:04

thank you so much thanks

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