By Kailey Rhodes with Joseph Barone, Manager of Coaching – Teach for America, and Bryan Dean  – Oakland Schools

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to designing curriculum and instruction that prioritizes accessibility and inclusivity. At the heart of UDL is a belief that a classroom designed for students at the margins is better for all students.

A helpful metaphor often employed to explain UDL utilizes the example of a ramp in a street’s curb. Originally designed for users in wheelchairs and walkers, the ramp actually helps many users, if unintentionally: small children, those with arthritis, and parents with strollers. The curb was designed from the outset for a user typically designated as “in the margins,” and in so doing, helps many more people.

How is UDL different from differentiation?

UDL is not about just finding what works for one student and giving it to that student. Instead, we seek supports that work, we make them available to all students, and then we give students a choice on whether they want to use this, that, or take another direction all together.

One of the biggest differences between the two is that differentiation is a strong targeted intervention system for individual students. It is a way to react to individual issues with the learning environment that serve as barriers to learning and prescribe solutions to a single student.

UDL, in contrast, intentionally designs the learning environment upfront to account for the anticipated variation and needs of our students. By considering these barriers upfront, we make the environment more accessible for all students. UDL proactively plans around barriers and variabilities we know exist to create tiers of intervention that coincide with tiers of instruction and learning: “How do I deliberately design not only my lesson but my environment for students so that I can meet the largest number of variables first, and then we can differentiate from that?”

As opposed to what we typically see with differentiated instruction—with curriculum being retro-fitted to accommodate learners as their needs arise—UDL takes all learners’ needs and abilities into consideration from the beginning.

As you can see from the image below, UDL prioritizes and celebrates learners’ different modes of Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression.

What is UDL? Universal Design for Learning…

  • …is a way of teaching that views all learners as unique, and believes that providing accessibility for one learner’s needs actually opens the door for many others.
  • …creates multiple points of access in material/classroom for your students to learn and demonstrate their learning.
  • …calls to attention barriers in curriculum that may limit accessibility to all learners and encourages mindfulness in teachers and curriculum designers.
  • …is a mindset, not a one-off.  It’s not possible to “make one of your units UDL.” UDL is a philosophy through which you approach curriculum and instruction—it’s been around for years, and it’s working!
  • …prepares kids for the world now, not a world that used to exist. Many successful thought-leaders did not succeed in the traditional classroom (which prizes conformity to instruction) and flourished when they followed their own strengths, no matter how non-conformist.
  • …is best practice in a lot of classrooms without being called that name! If you reflect on many classrooms that you’ve been impressed with, you’ll likely notice that the teacher was employing many tenets of the UDL philosophy.
  • ….prompts learners to learn how they best learn.

What does UDL look like in the classroom?

The Universally Designed classroom provides multiple ways for students to interact with learning material (Representation), multiple ways to express themselves (Action and Expression), and multiple ways to engage with the classroom (Engagement).

This classroom emphasizes choices, options, and the opportunity for learners to self-identify their own pathway for success in learning. This might mean that if a teacher prefers to stand and deliver auditory instructions, they are also written on the board, which assists learners who are hard of hearing, those who may prefer to process visual instructions over auditory instructions, and even students who learn best when they’re able to copy the material and return to their notes after school.

This may also mean that we offer multiple modes of assessment: if the final project is a classroom presentation, we might offer an alternative where a student could film themselves at home and show the video in class.  This could be an option for those students with high levels of anxiety, as well as students who struggle with verbal speaking skills.

As students feel accommodated and understood in their individual needs, they become better at self-prescribing routes to success, and will likely feel more confident widening their comfort zones later in the year.  It’s important that we remember that many students struggle to define their most successful avenues of consuming knowledge and expressing it. As teachers, it is our job to help them know themselves.

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Examples of UDL in the Classroom

Involve Students in the “meta” of your teaching.  

Bring them into your process of trying to empower them in their own journey of learning.  Knowing your “plan” will hook them, and in the long term, they may become your biggest partners.

Do a learning style assessment and make it a visual part of your classroom. 

Make the assessment’s presence a physical one, whether it’s a bulletin board with students’ photos and learning styles or a wheel of styles with students’ names.  Encourage students to add Post-Its to their name as they discover more about the ways they learn (“Hand-writing information makes me remember it;” “I prefer to talk things out rather than writing things down”). Having a visual representation showcases that all students learn differently and prompts students to self-identify accommodations they might need.

Create a “menu” of options…slowly. 

If adjusting your classroom to suit all learners feels overwhelming, gradually introduce options. First, offer two ways for engaging with a lesson—either through traditional note-taking or sketch-noting. Then, introduce two acceptable assessments options for an upcoming unit.  Display these “menu items” in the classroom. Throughout the year, add more. It might break up the monotony of grading the same assessments, and students can grow alongside you with expanded choices.

Engagement is not entertainment. 

Entertainment is passive, with students sitting back and absorbing aspects of the classroom. It typically features much of the teacher and little of the students. Engagement, however, is very active, with students adding their prior knowledge, asking questions, and seeking answers; they are the center of the classroom. If you are involving students in the meta of your teaching (#1), and they know that you’re seeking to make them a better learner, students are more likely to understand that they are partners in their learning.

You don’t have to anticipate every barrier today. 

Universally Designed Learning values a flexible, agile classroom and curriculum that can adjust to the needs of the learners that arise.  Yes, attempt to accommodate everything you can think of now—adjust the layout of your room with an area for students who need a place to get out of their seat, encourage dramatizations of class concepts for kinetic learners (the kids most often perceived as “behavior problems” when, in fact, they need a hands-on mode of engagement)—but also understand that UDL is growth-minded. Celebrate your pursuit, not your perfection.

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