UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

The two evils

Last week, I shared some observations about my father’s handwriting and the ways in which I suspect a lack of educational choices led to his handwriting challenges.  I received two comments from family about the blog post, including one from my father himself, both of which discussed the ways in which writing by hand has been of value to people.  These comments reminded me of the difference between implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and just replacing one activity with another.

In UDL, we seek to identify and maybe even anticipate barriers so we can offer options to work around (or over or through) the barriers.  Our work as teachers is to support students in learning to reflect and then advocate for themselves, to recognize when a barrier is preventing them from demonstrating their learning and to propose ways to work around it.  Our work is also to be open to hearing and seeing that our initial thoughts about our practice may be part of the problem itself.


When people begin to think about UDL, however, it sometimes gets confused with replacing one required activity with another.  That’s not UDL.  UDL is about having and making choices, while reflecting on the value and efficacy of the choices made.  For example, I, too, write both by hand and on the computer.  I write thank you notes and to-do lists by hand.  I compose professional text on the computer and/or via dictation.  I write in both printing and cursive, thanks to my mother’s early intervention and genetic input; my ability to produce legible text written by hand is privileged by our society.  I use email to communicate quickly and in a timely manner.  I have choices and options, especially in my adult world.

From reading my father’s comment on last week’s blog post, I learned he did not have those options on a regular basis and that the lack of options resulted in him feeling “unfairly judged” in school and in him developing a lack of academic self-confidence, an inaccurate sense of self.  It raises the question again for me–how are my choices as a teacher creating new barriers for my students?  What self-reflection and self-questioning can I do to identify barriers in my own practice, especially in a practice built on decades of doing the same thing?  One aspect of being a teacher that is unique to the profession is that we work in the same field that we all experienced as we grew up.  Just about everyone goes to school…and most of us go to schools that are very similar and that privilege a certain set of norms.  I benefitted from that privilege–I was organized, self-disciplined, able to write and type, addicted to reading, etc.  Our challenge remains identifying barriers and the ways in which our students cannot engage with our current practice, not to restrict the choices with new requirements, not to tell my father he can never write by hand, but to augment current practice with options that we value equally with the original practice.

This discussion of handwriting is resonating with me right now both because of a question raised during my presentation with a colleague at the MassCue conference, which led to my original blog post last week, and because of the needs of some of my current students.  In our classes, we are teaching algebra now, a topic that can trip students up on the content side of it and also on the handwriting/organizational side.


And I am guilty of not being able to provide as many options as I would like to my students, specifically in terms of offering non-hand-written options.  Typing multi-step algebraic solutions on the computer is laborious, but I don’t have iPads for all of my students.  Even with an iPad for a student with Assistive Technology needs, we’ve been struggling to find a program that correctly interprets the input.  While I might work hard NOT to make the assumptions my father experienced as a student, I still struggle while I wade through a sea of disorganized handwriting.

I have had students report on exam wrappers that they want to take exams on the computer.  It’s possible we can get that done this year, using some of our new software that makes is possible to do much more work on a computer…but it’s not ready yet.  And, of course, the biggest irony of it all is that our practice is measured by a computer-based, state-mandated test that offers NO option or alternative to answering all questions on the computer.  That’s a perfect example of the difference between UDL (working to give students alternatives to writing by hand) and replacement (requiring all students to do the test on the computer).  Replacement is not UDL.



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