UDL & Permaculture Teaching

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

UDL (Universal Design for Learning)

This week I’m working on a video that summarizes UDL. I “discovered” it a few weeks ago as part of a discussion forum in a now finished PIDP course and found the concept fascinating.

Think about people: people (of all ages) are different and the same in many ways: we all need the most basic things (air, water, food, shelter, company, support) but we all have different stories and experiences, abilities and challenges, interests and expectations…some of us also have real barriers (some of us are blind or deaf or may struggle with certain processes and concepts or may have other physical, cognitive or emotional barriers)

However, we insist in educating everybody the same way: we run classrooms filled with children of similar ages, segregate adults from youth from children, make everybody sit and “pay attention” and deliver the same content over and over using more or less the same methodologies, strategies, activities and materials.

People are also different in other ways (unfortunately and thanks to the capitalistic world we live in): some may not have access to education, or to tools and resources such as books, computers and other devices, some may have families to care for and may need to work full-time while studying…some may not have enough to eat, enough rest or a safe way to travel to and from school…

UDL is not a silver bullet (they don’t exist), but it is based in something I love and comes from Permaculture ethics: People-Care.

UDL is based in three principles:

  • Use multiple means of representation: how do you deliver the “class” (use multiple strategies, methods, materials and activities so you can reach everybody). We need to provide options for perception, options for language and symbols and options for comprehension.

Rationale: things you can’t perceive you can’t learn: they don’t exist. If you teach using lectures but some of your students don’t catch all your words (they may be ESL as I am, or they may have a hearing impairment, or they may have a problem with attention, memory or the processing of auditive information) is like you are not teaching at all…this applies to anything you do.

Exposing your learners to multiple means (videos, podcasts, pictures, text, activities, team-work, individual journaling, etc) and providing them with the means to manipulate (adding captions to videos, enlarging fonts in a presentation, text translation for a podcast and so on) provides them with alternatives and the opportunity of repetition, if and when needed: those who come with the skills and some background may get to the point faster, those who need extra help can access the material in many forms without feeling discriminated or isolated.

  • Allow/encourage for multiple means of expression: provide them with diverse and alternative performance opportunities. They will have much more than a written exam or a quiz to show they have learned: they can create art, build something, talk about it, teach it to others, come up with a project, write an essay or whatever other media they want to use. In summary, we need to provide options for physical action, options for expressive skills and fluency and options for executive functions.

Rationale: people express knowledge and change in different ways, challenging and forcing people out of their comfort zone may not work for everybody and may convey that some of us are “right” and some are “wrong” or that there is only one way to do things…and we know there are many more!

  • Use multiple means of engagement: people of all ages come to learning with different motivation reasons and levels, the goals and the expectations may be very different so why to treat everybody the same? We need to provide people with different options for recruiting interest, sustaining effort and persistence and options to develop and execute self-regulation

Rationale: when students are not engage, the material (topic) is inaccessible: it is like they are blind or deaf, even if their sight and hearing are perfectly ok. Not all “motivational” strategies work with everybody because no one is exactly the same.

Now imagine a Permaculture class where you want to reach everyone of your students: not because you want them to earn a certificate (that is secondary and some may be interested), but because you want their learning to be holistic and transformational: you want these beautiful people who happened to be in your “hands” for a few days or weeks to be transformed by the learning, to go home and design their lives, households and if possible, their businesses, relationships and communities differently because you know in your heart that that may be the only hope for people to become resilient and survive the many predicaments we face (staring with climate change, resource depletion and the real possibility of biodiversity massive extinction)…this is serious stuff, you don’t want to just “teach”…you want them to learn so their hearts, heads and hands are completely transformed…

How do you do that? It is not an easy task…

Would you ask all of them to bike to your course? Would all of them have to bring a final design of their gardens? Would you judge them because they can’t leave their current jobs? Because they are struggling deeply with their commitments clashing with their new found values? Would you ask all of them to eat organic, local food they have cooked from scratch?

How would you teach a 75 year old who wants to learn Permaculture but can’t knee to garden? And what about somebody with hearing impairments but a huge heart? What about the shy one who doesn’t want to talk much or the ESL lady who barely understands your English but reads it really well?

A real teacher teaches because feels passion for her subject. She teaches because she believes that learning what she is trying to teach is important.

But the reality is that we don’t ever teach. We can’t teach anything to anyone. We can only open the doors and point to the horizon. The learning is not our job but theirs…we are just curators, facilitators, guides, coaches…

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Me with two of my students...circa 1998
Me with two of my students…circa 1998


UDL and my story with special education

One October day 20 years ago I started studying Psycho-pedagogy. It was a wonderful journey that would open many doors for me. I arrived to that journey with heavy baggage, as I had already travelled the world and worked in a completely different industry (tourism), an industry I had arrived to by chance and not by choice and where I was already “an expert”.

Being “an expert” had its benefits as airlines and private colleges started asking me to teach what I knew and so I did…my life was heading to a great, “successful” future filled with luxurious resorts and “fam trips” and I was already a well known and respected manager in the tourism sector (a million dollar one at that time in that Caribbean country)…I could travel for free to most Caribbean and US cities whenever I wanted…what else could I ask from life?

A lot more!

Travelling to so many “beautiful” (but empty and artificial) places had a toll on me…that was not who I was: I grew up in another atmosphere and struggled a lot to complete my high school. I had half dozen short certificates in my back (computer programmer, systems analyst even a few about accounting and management, ugh!) and a few languages (at one point in my life, I could sustain a conversation in German, French or Japanese!)…I had always dreamt of travelling the world around as photographer, journalist or anthropologist but could study none of that and had to work since I was 17.

Why psycho-pedagogy? I was not particularly into special needs children, but psychology and pedagogy always attracted me: they had a bit of anthropology and study of the human soul…the program was achievable and I made a crazy decision: I left my job almost overnight, without knowing much about what exactly I was getting into…

Fast forward to 1997 and a two-year old boy in my arms, still an entire year of practicum, case and thesis ahead and I’m called from this innovative school to work as a psycho-pedagogist. First day of school and the computer teacher doesn’t show up. The principal knows I’m a sort of computer geek and asks me if I don’t mind teaching for a couple of weeks…children got hooked (an I did as well), principal says: you’re too good, forget about psycho-pedagogy. Fast forward 1999-2004: I’m now the ICT coordinator with experience in three different schools, creating an entire inclusive system with Linux so children can access programs beyond licenses…I’m teaching “the source” to high schoolers who end up studying computer science at the best university of the country.

With the exception of that full year of practicum with my “cases” (little Andres, the most beautiful child in the world who happened to live with cerebral palsy and autism, a girl with emotional trauma and a boy who was struggling at school) I never got to use all my psycho-pedagogy learning…I did use some with “normal” children while “teaching” them about, with and through computers…without even knowing the name of it, I was using what is now known as “UDL” (Universal Design for Learning)

Underlying all my “career paths” there were always the same patterns:

  • Social justice
  • Curiosity for how things, systems (and people) work
  • Seeing things not everybody saw
  • Persistence and unorthodoxy
My last group of students in 2003, before moving to Canada...
My last group of students in 2003, before moving to Canada…


Steve Jobs said once that you don’t see the pattern when you are young…you only see the “dots”…it is with time and in hindsight that you start seeing the pattern of your life.

I can see myself in all things and all people around me.” ~ Sanskrit Phrase

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