CAST Symposium: Key Takeaways

The trailblazers at CAST recently held their 8th annual UDL symposium, centered around learner voice. If you missed it, don’t worry, we’ve summed up the most pivotal moments for you. There are some gems though, so you’ll probably want to take some notes…

Learner voice is: uplifting, authentic voices, honoring diverse experiences, replacing power with flexible structure, not passing the mic, but passing the power to students.”

Voice doesn’t have to travel through sound to be heard. It’s about recognizing variability, whether that’s in a tone, text, email, sonnet, or even an internal voice. Every voice is important and every learner should be encouraged to advocate for themselves and shown how to, because every learner deserves to be heard.

Learner voice: Student POV

A panel of students from all across the US,  discussed their thoughts on learner voice during the second part of the opening keynote.

Moderator Naomi Williams was joined by Kayla Dumas, Amir El, Jordin Durocher and Claire Robinson and here’s a snapshot of what was top of mind for them when it came to learner voice:

  • Teachers and administrators listening to student needs and encouraging self-advocacy - Kayla
  • Giving input into a school or safe space to better the curriculum - Amir
  • The importance of having people listen - Naomi

When learner voice isn’t heard...

When asked to think about times when their voices were heard or not heard, Claire expressed that as a high school freshman, her classmates locked her out of a school project. This was due to the stigma surrounding her learning disability, despite consistently scoring the same or higher than her peers in class.

Kayla was told by her high school case manager that she wasn’t ‘college material’ resulting in her switching to a private Learning Disabilities school in order for her voice to be heard. Despite the prejudices she faced, Kayla still went on to fulfill her dream of graduating high school and going to college.

These negative learning experiences highlight the importance of destigmatizing learning difficulties, so that all learners can succeed.

Individualize more

Learners are often ‘pushed into boxes’ making it difficult for students with learning difficulties to succeed. Instead, schools should ‘individualize’ more and open up the conversation with learners to find out about their individual learning styles and what accommodations they may need.

Open the conversation and make it accessible and not-intimidating: email, come to the students and create a partnership.”

Mindset + Methods = UDL

UDL is a journey with periods of development and progression. Many people like the idea of UDL but haven’t ‘emerged’ yet.

If a good method isn't established it can lead to educators being frustrated and abandoning the practice. If they don't have the right mindset from the start, they end up feeling like it's ‘just another initiative’. Some educators may struggle trying to implement their plan into a live classroom environment and need support to do that.

Take inventory

To navigate barriers and begin implementing UDL, making an honest and thorough inventory of teaching and learning environments is the best place to start. 

Think about everything through a student lens. What does the physical space look like? Do you have a personal bias or favorite things you like to teach? Consider that these might not work for all your students.

It's important to take the time to make changes within your control, so that all  learners can succeed.

We teach to the students we have, not to the students we wish we had."

Look back on your past with generosity

It’s easy to remember successes, but also dwell on the learners that weren’t reached, now that more and more options and tools become available.

Cast Co-Founder, David Rose advised if we didn’t take anything else away from the event, to look back at your past with generosity and to read the poem, Thanks Robert Frost by David Ray:

 “Do you have hope for the future, yes and even for the past” - Thanks Robert Frost by David Ray

Rising to equity

We must all strive for UDL to rise to equity - moving it away from disability and into UDL for everyone. We must address barriers with evidence based practice and get rid of standardized practices. We shouldn’t be assuming everyone learns the same way and we shouldn’t be assuming every educator teaches the same way.

Students are the experts of their own lived-experiences 

  1. Think about how learner voice informs our practice
  2. How to design for learner voice 
  3. Are we always doing the best? 
  4. Is there a learning/doing gap?
  5. When we do something well, what are the conditions?

Allow students to become co-owners 

By allowing students to play a part in lesson design it encourages them to engage more and deepen their learning. Whether that’s classroom participation, asking for feedback or showing them how to create their own lessons, their voices are important and should shape lesson format.

“Students are the primary stakeholders of our education and should be partners in shaping it.”

Create clear learning goals and support the development of expert, lifelong learners


  • Separate the means from the goal itself
  • Address learner variability from the start
  • Provide options in the materials, methods, and assessment

When the learning goals are clear, instruction and accompanying assessments should align, so that educators can teach and obtain a good understanding of whether learners have achieved the intended goal.

Will you be a launching pad?

Be mindful that you might be the only person in your learner's life that supports their humanity - something that carries beyond the classroom. Starting the dialogue with your learners is vital to understanding how they learn and how you can help them launch their success. This can be a personal success like improving their confidence, or an academic success - both will boost learner engagement.

The choice, voice, agency progression

  1. Choice: UDL checkpoint 4.1 - Varying the methods for response and navigation. By allowing students to choose topic, structure and options you introduce learners to choice. Learners grow up with teachers telling them where the boundaries are so if they are ripped away completely, they often will feel lost.
  2. Voice: UDL checkpoint 6.2 - Support planning and strategy development. By allowing classroom viewers or spectators to help the participating learner find a space that they can express themselves, allows them to challenge themselves further.
  3. Agency: UDL checkpoint 5.3 - Graduated levels of support for practice and performance. Learners wouldn’t have as much fun or success if you hadn’t already implemented the first two steps.
  4. Exercise choice, voice and agency through a graduated scale of steps rather than throwing them in at the deep end. 
  5. Without engagement, it’s difficult to move along to the next steps .
  6. When you ask students to respond to an activity or assignment: give them 1 or 2 options or ask them to design it themselves in partnership with you to make sure it fits the criteria. More students will opt to design with you, the more you’ve gone through voice and choice practices with them.

Final reflection

Think about the voices of those who may be the hardest to listen to. Whether they are disengaged, don’t speak the same language as you, or might not even be in your classroom or teaching space. Think about those who don’t trust that they have what they need to advocate for themselves because they see you as someone in charge.

I’ll take action because I learned_____, I will_____

Each day, or week, jot down something you’ve learned that makes you want to make changes to the learning environment or lessons. i.e., I learned how important it is for students to be active learners, I will create more activities for students to share their lived experience in class

UDL is the gateway to equity and inclusion

While UDL was born in special education, all students should have the supports they need to be the most successful in their learning journey. Variability should be the new 'norm’ and we all have a part to play in making that the reality.

Open to all

Finally, when learners share what they need, they are identifying barriers - there’s an urgent need for us all to identify those barriers and make education open to all.

“It will take all of us to design the world we want to live in.”

If you liked our snapshot of the event, good news, you can now get access to the CAST Symposium On-demand. If you’re all caught up, continue the conversation using #changetheconversation or #UDLVoice