How did Universal Design for Learning (UDL) come to be? On the one hand, it began with the work of CAST, the Center for Applied Special Technology, still the leader in UDL. On the other hand, UDL also mirrors Universal Design, a concept in design, architecture, and urban planning.
The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design defines Universal Design as follows:
Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.
In reading that definition, it’s easy to see the connection to Universal Design for Learning–after all, I, too, want to create an environment in my classroom that can be “accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability” so that the education I am intending to provide can be used by “all people who wish to use it!”
How does that come about? Returning again to the definition of Universal Design, we see that it happens by “considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process” to create “products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs.” On the design side of things, that leads us to curb cuts, large bathroom stalls that serve for both handicapped access as well as changing tables, multiple-modality signage, and so on.
In the classroom, Universal Design for Learning works the same way–as the teacher, my job is to consider the “diverse needs and abilities” of all of my students as I design curriculum and instruction to teach my curriculum standards. What are some of the barriers in education that I need to consider?
- The ability to maintain focus.
- The ability to hear instruction or see the board.
- The ability to decode text quickly and make meaning from it.
- The ability to overcome anxiety.
- The ability to recall information.
- The ability to make connections to previously-learned material.
- The ability to manage time efficiently and effectively.
The list goes on, but, once one of those abilities is compromised, access to the educational experience is compromised as well.
How do we design to overcome or remove those barriers?
I have heard Dr. Katie Novak say in her presentations on UDL that what is required for some is beneficial for all. When I am planning with UDL in mind, I look for tools and options I can create, generate, and/or provide for students to choose from. This might include vocabulary definitions on a test, an option for video instruction, flexible seating, flexible grouping options, notes sheets to bypass the need for note-taking, reference sheets available to keep the assessment focus on current material, access to fidget tools and other anxiety-reducing items, and templates during assessments.
I do not hand out these tools to students using some pre-determined metric of my own. That is NOT UDL. Instead, I teach all students about those tools and options, make them available to all when appropriate based on the material being assessed, and work with students to reflect on whether their use of the a given support was beneficial to them or not. In that way, students work themselves to bridge and close the gap between their performance and the expectations.