Introducing “Empower the Learner”

For over a year, I have been conducting research in the science of learning and development with a focus on Identity and Empowerment. I have also been collaborating with a colleague who is a mindfulness expert. We decided this past summer to form an entity that would develop programs for parents and educators to empower them with the knowledge and skills to help their kids support their own learning in a remote or in-class environment. We would like to introduce to you…

I extend an invitation to learn more about our mission and vision but most important, I want you to know that Empower the Learner is based on a single belief….

Please take a moment to review the Empower the Learner (ETL) Programs, learn more about the ETL Team, a trifecta of expertise in learning, technology and mindfulness, and discover why we believe that we need to empower every learner to thrive with skills, tools and practices to be lifelong learners!

And please join us for the premier of the Empower the Learner Masterclass on January 11th, 2021 where we will introduce you to the ETL Framework the share how you can empower learners to ..

  • develop a positive self-image,
  • achieve agency in their learning, and
  • self-advocate and lead their learning.

You do not want to miss this but if you are not able to attend on January 11th, please enroll and we will provide a link to the recording. 


Part 2 of 3: Empower the Learner – Building the Skills of Agency and Self-Advocacy using the UDL Lens

A core objective of personalized, competency-based schools that is described in the Teaching and Design Principle “Activate Student Agency and Ownership”, is to cultivate agency, “the ability to direct one’s course in life”. (See Quality and Equity by Design for an overview of the design principles.) Agency is the one thing that we should promise our learners as they walk through the schoolhouse door each day. If we are to realize a personalized, competency-based system that nurtures and develops agency with each learner, then we do need to look at how a school could achieve that. You see,

once a learner develops agency, he or she can self-advocate for the way they learn for a lifetime and lead their own learning trajectory!


Changing Perceptions: Every Child a Learner

Every child on the planet is a learnerHow do we begin to help every learner develop agency? For educators to think about how agency can be realized by every learner, we need to explore how children may be perceived currently in the classroom and how children may perceive themselves.

Schools have spent the last four decades labeling children with specific identifications based upon school evaluations. As a long time educator, it is evident that with these labels perceptions of these children’s learning capabilities evolve. On a daily basis in almost every school, we are often responding to children based on our perceptions. At the same time, many children are comparing themselves to other children. This is common behavior for children to compare themselves to others, all the time developing a perception that they are different and do not learn like other children. It does not take long for some children to develop their own perceptions that they are not learners, a stigma that sometimes lasts for years, if not a lifetime.

Recently I was having a conversation with a group of teachers when most of them agreed that not all children see themselves as learners. They shared that somewhere along the way these children had experiences in school that no longer validated or perceived them as learners. If educational equity is at the center of an inclusive learning culture where every learner is valued, then we need to change perceptions. The questions are:

  • How do we change our perceptions of learners and how do they change the perceptions of themselves?
  • How do we help every child develop the skills to achieve agency and self-advocacy?


Personalized Learning Starts with the Learner

There is so much confusion over the the term “personalized learning”. Some believe that it means that technology (adaptive) programs personalize learning for a learner; some believe that educators need to personalize instruction for each learner; and some believe that you need to have a combination of online courses and independent learning projects to personalize learning. Whatever you believe, we need to stop clouding the definition and decide what personalized learning means for the learner. Let’s face it, “learning is personal”, so let’s first all agree that “Personalized learning starts with the learner”; not the curriculum, not the instructional methods or assessments; not the standardized tests or the many technologies that can support learning.

Personalized Learning...


A Three-Step Process Designed for Agency and Self-Advocacy

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced you to the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express that is based on the learning sciences in the what, why and how of our learning.

If each learner is to achieve agency, then they need to know and understand how they learn.

3 stepprocess to develop agencyHere I will introduce a three-step practical process that could provide equity, agency and self-advocacy for every learner. Starting with the Learner Profile, each learner can share their strengths, challenges, preferences and needs in how they access and process information, in how they engage with content and concepts and in how they express what they know and understand along with their interests, aspirations and passions. Here is an example of a Learner Profile of a middle school learner with qualities you may recognize.


Learner Profile

Strengths Challenges Preferences and Needs
Access · I can visualize what I hear

· I connect ideas quickly

· I have trouble decoding words

· I often do not understand what I read

· I need to use a text-to-speech tool for reading

· I prefer to use video for understanding

Engage · I like to lead and collaborate with peers

· I like to design and make things

·I put off planning and finishing tasks

· I have trouble organizing projects

· I need tasks to be broken down into smaller tasks

· I prefer to work with a partner

Express · I draw well

· I like telling stories

· I am a good presenter and speaker

· I have trouble putting thoughts on paper

· I find note-taking difficult

· I need to use visual note- taking tools

· I prefer digital graphic organizers for organizing my ideas.

· I prefer to present orally

Words that describe me: curious, imaginative, artistic, friendly, athletic

My interests are: soccer, baseball, illustrating, American History

My talents are: storytelling, drawing, crunching numbers

I am passionate about: fishing, trading baseball cards, having a business one day

I aspire to be: forest ranger, comic book illustrator, my own boss

This exercise in creating a Learner Profile provides a way for the learner to have a voice, to tell their story and to develop a new perception of who they are as a learner. For the teacher, a new understanding of this learner’s qualities can result in new perceptions and insights on the skills this learner could develop to be more independent and self-directed so that agency can be realized. This is where new conversations begin and relationships between teacher and learner are built. With this Learner Profile, a Personal Learning Backpack (PLB) can be created that will include the tools, resources, learning goals and skills that can support this learner’s challenges or enhance his strengths. Let’s take a look at this learner’s Access strengths and challenges and consider what could be included in his PLB.

Learner Profile (LP)
Personal Learning Backpack (PLB)
Strengths Challenges Preferences and Needs Tools, Apps, Resources; Learning Goals and Skills
Access · I can visualize what I hear

· I connect ideas quickly

· I have trouble decoding words

· I often do not understand what I read

· I need to use a text-to-speech tool for reading

· I prefer to use video for understanding

I would like to explore and learn how to use audio/text-to-speech apps for reading and comprehension to access my learning materials, online resources and digital books that I can use on my laptop/tablet.

In creating the PLB, notice that the learner with the teacher/advisor describes what he would like to learn and what tools he would like to use. This PLB statement evolved from his conversations with his teacher and represents the first step in advocating for himself. The next step is for this learner to describe a goal, a set of action steps to achieve new skills and the evidence of reaching his goal in his Personal Learning Plan (PLP).

A goal without a plan is just a wish. – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

My Personal Learning Plan Progress
Access Goal 1 I want to learn how to use text-to-speech technology and/or apps to support my reading and comprehension of learning materials and texts. Evidence of reaching my goal:

ᐧ Completing comprehension questions or an assignment (video/ poster/ paper) using technologies or tools independently from the backpack.


ᐧ Demonstration of independent reading using the tools.

Action Steps to meet My Goal 1. Set a schedule to work with my technology coach or a peer tutor to learn the text to speech technology and/or apps.

2. Read textbook, handout, assigned novel, or online content using text-to-speech technology and/or apps.

3. Learn and apply comprehension strategies using highlighting and mind-mapping and supportive writing tools.

When building Personal Learning Plan (PLP) that focuses on skill development, the learner with the teacher/advisor collaborate on the plan to outline actions steps along with the evidence of reaching the goal. Notice that the goal statement exhibits a statement where the learner is advocating to learn a skill and the action steps require the learner to take action. When the learner demonstrates evidence of achieving the goal, he or she is acquiring a skill that leads to agency. As each goal is achieved, evidence should be maintained in digital learner portfolio along with a reflection.

Personalize Learning: Partnerships and Ownership to Learning

No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship. – Dr. James Comer

A personalized competency-based system that is built on relationships, open collaboration and dialogue between teacher and learner often results in partnerships in learning. In the three-step process where the learner shares their strengths, challenges and aspirations in the Learner Profile, decides with the teacher on the tools, apps, resources and skills in the Personal Learning Backpack and then indicates in collaboration with the teacher/advisor what learning goals and action steps to include in the Personal Learning Plan, the learner begins to gain the knowledge and dispositions that will help him or her build the skills of agency and self-advocacy.

Remember that agency also provides a reason to commit, take risks, and persist in the face of challenges and setbacks.

As the learner applies this process over the years, challenges may even turn into strengths and the partnership with the teacher grows stronger. When this happens, the learner is on the path to becoming a self-directed learner with agency who can advocate for their own learning for a lifetime.

So let’s turn to the essential question in this series: “How can we create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center?” Here are some thoughts on where to begin to build skills of agency and self-advocacy for all learners:

  • Have a discussion about agency and self-advocacy with your learners.
  • Using the UDL Lens, have each learner tell their story so they can share their strengths and challenges and begin to understand and identify the skills they want to learn to be more independent in their learning.
  • With the PL and PLB, have each learner co-design their PLP with at least one learning goal and a set of action steps.
  • Discuss and set a goal and action steps for an extended learning opportunity (ELO) with each learner that focuses on personal interests, passions or aspirations.
  • Provide direct instruction and model ways they can monitor their own progress.
  • Include opportunities for your learners to reflect on their achievement of their goals.

Now that we know your learners and how they learn, let’s turn to how we can use this information to meet learners where they are and design effective instructional methods, materials and assessments for all the learners in the classroom.


Next – Part 3 of this 3-part series: Understanding and Meeting Learners Where They Are using the UDL Lens


Review Part 1 of this series: Understanding the Pedagogy of a Learning Science to Nurture an Inclusive Learning Culture


Learner Profile, Personal Learning Backpack, Personal Learning Plan and UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express are trademarks of Kathleen McClaskey



Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2017). How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Lopez, N., Patrick, S. and Sturgis, C., Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education, 2017.

Weibell, C. J. (2011). Principles of learning: 7 principles to guide personalized, student-centered learning in the technology-enhanced, blended learning environment. Retrieved Feb. 5, 2017 from [].




Part 1 of 3: Understanding the Pedagogy of a Learning Science to Nurture an Inclusive Learning Culture

The Essential Question for this 3-part series is:

“How do we create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center?”

Creating a culture of learning and inclusivity, a non-negotiable for competency-based schools, is a tall order for most K-12 public school systems. As schools move from a traditional system to a personalized, competency-based system we need to evaluate the tools we have used around learners and learning, teachers and teaching and learn about how a learning science can be used to nurture and build a culture of learning and inclusivity. One approach that is based on research in the learning sciences and that has been around for over 25 years is Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

This three-part series explores how Universal Design for Learning can strengthen teaching and reinforce a culture where every learner feels that they are valued, belong, and is learning.


Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can support the variability of learning in the classroom. Recognizing this variability in the way learners learn, the UDL framework was first defined by David H. Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s. It called for creating curriculum and instruction from the onset that provides:

  • Multiple means of representation to give learners different ways of accessing information and processing it into usable knowledge,
  • Multiple means of expression to provide learners ways to express what they know and understand, and
  • Multiple means of engagement to use a learners’ interests, talents, and passions to engage them in content and concepts and motivate them to learn.

These three principles noted above parallel the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky’s three essential processes for learning. These processes include “recognition of the information to be learned; application of strategies to process that information; and engagement with the learning task” (Vygotsky, 1962).

From this early work at CAST on UDL, these three principles of UDL are used today along with a set of UDL Guidelines that can support schools and educators to universally design curriculum and instruction that addresses learner variability at the beginning of the design or planning effort. The UDL Guidelines are designed to assist educators to develop curriculum goals, methods, materials, and assessments that would guide the design of learning environments and experiences that would reduce the barriers to learning and maximize the levels of support and challenge to all learners.

In December 2016, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) defined and endorsed UDL as “a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice” and to personalizing learning—stating that it provides flexibility and supports for all learners and reduces barriers in instruction. ESSA calls on states and districts to incorporate principles of UDL in assessment design and technology adoption. As of September 2017, the majority of states have incorporated Universal Design for Learning into their ESSA State Plans. The question is:

Where do states and districts begin to use the UDL principles in practice to create an inclusive learning culture?


The UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express: Bringing Research to Practice

The UDL principles can serve as a framework for curriculum and instruction but how can we take UDL that is grounded in the learning science and use it in daily practice to create a culture of inclusivity? To develop an inclusive learning environment a common language needs to be used by everyone in the school. New terms were developed for the UDL principles in 2012 by this author who introduced the UDL Lens of Access, Engage, and Express*. Using these terms around the UDL principles would give everyone in the school culture a way to have daily conversations, a common language, about learners and learning, instructional methods, materials, and assessments. Above all, it would build an understanding and appreciation of the variability that each learner has in their learning.

What does it mean to use the UDL Lens?

UDL Lens of Access Engage and ExpressFrom the learner’s perspective, the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express in a Learner Profile would give him or her an opportunity tell their story of who they are, how they learn and what they aspire to be; in other words, their Identity. Each learner would…

  • share their strengths, challenges, preference and needs in how they Access and process information, Engage with content and concepts, and Express what they know and understand,
  • express their interests, talents, aspirations and passions,
  • set learning goals and actionable plans with teachers to support a challenge or enhance a strength,
  • have regular conversations about their learning with teachers, peers, and parents.

One important outcome of learners’ telling their story using the UDL Lens is that they feel valued. For teachers, understanding their learners can inform their daily practice so materials, methods and assessments are more effective. Finally, the UDL Lens becomes an essential tool to create an inclusive learning culture that supports a school’s values and beliefs where relationships are built on trust and respect.


Creating an Inclusive Learning Culture with Equity at the Center

educational equity defined

“Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.
– The National Equity Project

As defined in the Culture Design Principles, found in the seminal report “Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course For the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education”,

A school’s culture is the daily manifestation of its core beliefs; adults’ beliefs about themselves and their students; students’ beliefs about themselves and the adults around them…”.

With the first design principle of equity, the question is: “How can we create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center?” Here are some thoughts on where to begin:

  • If equity is to be realized so that it becomes the center of an inclusive learning culture in a competency-based system, then all the stakeholders in a school community need to lay a foundation of a shared vision and a set of beliefs around learner and learning, teachers and teaching and the learning community.
  • Empower each learner (including teachers and administrators) to discover who they are and how they learn (strengths, challenges, preferences and needs) using the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express so they can become “self-aware, effective learners”.
  • Create opportunities to have conversations to develop meaningful relationships between teacher and learner and between learner and learner.
  • See everyone in your school as a learner.
  • Value every learner!

To achieve equity in an inclusive learning culture, values, beliefs, and practices need to be understood and applied daily by every learner. The first step is to begin.


Next – Part 2 of this 3-part series:

Empower the Learner – Building the Skills of Agency and Self-Advocacy using the UDL Lens

* The UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express is a trademark of Kathleen McClaskey.



Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2017). How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

How Has UDL Been Defined? (2013, April 17). Retrieved January 10, 2018, from

Lopez, N., Patrick, S. and Sturgis, C., Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education, 2017.

Personalization and UDL: The Perfect Match. ASCD Educational Leadership, March 2017.

The Three Principles. (2014, September 18). Retrieved January 11, 2018, from

UDL in the ESSA. (2016, February 17). Retrieved January 10, 2018, from

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1934).