UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

A dirty little secret in lesson planning


When we use the Guidelines for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to design our lessons, assessments or projects, we are designing for the standards, not for specific students.  Dr. Katie Novak uses the analogy of preparing a buffet dinner for guests–rather than preparing specific meals for specific people, such as a gluten-free option for one guest and vegetarian for another, we put out options that everyone can use to build their own meals to meet their own needs.

buffet-2251676_1920.jpgHere’s my dirty little secret:  I have absolutely no idea what my students’ multiple intelligences are and I don’t care what they are.  That’s Differentiated Instruction.  In Differentiated Instruction, the burden of the work is on the teacher, which doesn’t help the students.  We need the students to become “resourceful, knowledgeable learners who are strategic, goal-directed, purposeful, and motivated” (Universal Design for Learning Guidelines).  They don’t become any of those things if the teacher is designing a lesson for each student.

Instead, using UDL, I design my lessons from the standards, asking questions like

  • What do I have to teach?
  • What information do the students need to learn?
  • What information do they have to have on command on demand and in a certain way (method standard) by the time they leave?

It’s only once I have clearly established for myself the what of what I’m going to teach–the standards themselves–and I understand what I need to present to the students, that then I can begin to think about the how.  For the most part, my colleague and I use notes and other support materials, targeted teacher instruction, and lots of student work time as a way to help students build capacity to find and use information.

students-377789_1280There’s nothing in this process that’s built on designing things around multiple intelligences or learning preferences or learning styles.  UDL allows us to design our classes without a single student in front of us.  We start with the standards and then think about options–I put the options for support out there and students choose what makes sense for them or they make their own options.  Nowhere in here is there anything about multiple intelligences or kinesthetic options or answering a question with a drawing or doing a dance.

We need our students to be learners, not to be “visual” learners or “kinesthetic” learners or whatever kind of learners.  The truth is that, in our adult lives, we do not always get to operate under optimal conditions.  There’s nothing wrong with knowing who we are and knowing how we best function.  However, that best functionality cannot be set as a limiting factor for us, it can’t be “I’m struggling because I’m a visual learner and you didn’t present the information visually.”  As a resourceful learner and an adult, I don’t limit myself and say I can’t learn __________ because it isn’t being presented in my learning style.

I think one of the quickest ways to turn teachers off from UDL is to turn it back into Differentiated Instruction where teachers spend hours and hours of time designing activities to match their perceptions of their students..and then are frustrated when the students don’t pick the things that we, in our all-knowing wisdom, designed for them.  This is a disaster in the making and it’s a disaster that many of us lived during the height of Differentiated Instruction.  I spend an insane amount of time working with my colleague and changing what we are doing, but we do it all from the perspective of “this is our standard and when we assessed the students on it last year, they were not as successful with meeting the standard as we would like them to be.”  I have never, ever once gone back and said “I need to rewrite this lesson because I don’t have a kinesthetic option in it.”  I have, however, rewritten lessons because the students didn’t understand it or the students couldn’t score well or the students got confused. That’s standard-based instruction and that’s what UDL is all about.


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