Is Universal Design for Learning the Path to Success for All?
Universal design is a concept first articulated by Ronald Mace, who worked as a North Carolina architect at a time when conventional building design was being challenged by a growing awareness of the rights and needs of people with disabilities. In 1989, Mace founded the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as a means to study accessibility in housing construction, and his “pioneering work in accessible design” led to the passage of significant national legislation such as the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since the inception of universal design, the fundamental concept of making buildings accessible to as many people as possible has spread to other areas, including education.
Universal design is guided by seven core principles that were crafted more than two decades ago under Mace’s tutelage, and a quick look at these principles will undoubtedly strike a chord with many teachers even before direct application to the classroom is discussed. According to the 1997 document in which the principles were first published, these include:
Equitable use: The design is useable and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
Flexibility in use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
Simple and intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.
From construction to instruction
Moving away from the building and construction aspect toward the world of teaching and instruction, the value that universal design could bring to the classroom becomes increasingly apparent. Indeed, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) functions as a purposeful extension of Mace’s architectural focus, thanks to the work of developmental neuropsychologist and educator David Rose. In 1984, Rose founded a nonprofit called CAST that is dedicated to improving education for all through the lens of universal design theory, as well as facilitating “contemporary research in the cognitive neurosciences.”
In 2010, Rose produced a video offering a dynamic overview of UDL and how it can transform classrooms in which there are, he insisted, no “average” students. Indeed, Rose noted, the idea of the “illusory, average” student has only served to marginalize individuals who struggle to fit this mold—including English language learners and students with disabilities—along with advanced learners. Simply put, Rose’s video puts forward a practical application framework for teachers that includes the importance of assessing whether students are actually learning.
The website Understood.org, which grew out of Rose’s work at CAST, serves as another resource for those eager to learn more about the adversity faced by students with learning and attention issues. Moreover, it offers a clear introduction to what UDL is and what it is not. Understood.org contributor Amanda Morin phrased it this way: “The word universal may throw you off. It may sound like UDL is about finding one way to teach all kids. But UDL actually takes the opposite approach.”
As Morin explained, instead of focusing on a detrimental, one-size-fits-all mindset, UDL attempts to remove as many barriers as possible, with the ideal goal of giving all students the chance to succeed academically and socially. “It’s about building in flexibility that can be adjusted for every student’s strengths and needs,” she asserted, then went on to insist that this is “why UDL benefits all kids.”
Although such a framework is certainly likely to sound appealing to teachers and administrators, a key question remains: How, exactly, are the principles of UDL applied in the classroom? Fortunately, there are many good UDL resources available for educators who want to put the concept into action.
Universal design in the classroom
In a 2018 piece by Mike Marotta on the education news and resource site EdSurge that describes how to “build an inclusive classroom” with UDL, Marotta positioned UDL as a truly universal approach that “is not a special ed thing or even a general ed thing.” Rather, he wrote, “it is a way of looking at learning that is fully inclusive and promotes success for all learners, regardless of ability.”
As EdSurge is primarily focused on educational technology, much of Marotta’s advice for using UDL centered on tech-based strategies. For instance, he recommended using the Flipgrid platform—which Microsoft provides for free—to better engage all students, especially those who may feel more comfortable sharing ideas via video than in front of the whole class.
Marotta also pointed to the often-overlooked value in knowing when to back off. “One important thing to remember about engagement is that it’s OK for a learner to disengage during an activity,” he noted, then prompted teachers to think about how to “bring students back” to a place of being present in class. According to Marotta, this engages a UDL mindset because it emphasizes flexible, strategic thinking over a “have to” mentality. To underscore the idea of prioritizing flexibility in education, Marotta included a video demonstration of how to digitize a text as an example of making coursework and instruction accessible to those who learn differently or may struggle with traditional text formats. To this end, Marotta also advocated for a multi-modal classroom approach in which students can respond to assignments in many different ways, from drawing comic strips to using the aforementioned Flipgrid platform.
Beyond the writings of Morin and Marotta, there are numerous instructional UDL videos available online. For instance, a comprehensive video from 2017 produced by the educational technology company Blackboard Inc. provides a wide-ranging look at what UDL is and how to apply it to the classroom. A fundamental takeaway from the video is that UDL is intended to acknowledge and address the diversity—of backgrounds, needs, strengths, and challenges—that exists in any classroom, and ultimately to view this as a feature rather than a bug. More specifically, the Blackboard Inc. video demonstrates how to present lessons and coursework in a way that both considers the needs of all students and shifts the framework away from an emphasis on standardized assignments, expectations, or assessments. As the video posits, an important goal for teachers should be to help students “become aware of their own learning.”
This leads to another important UDL lesson articulated by Rose’s work. As the CAST founder has said, it isn’t just students and teachers who need assessment, but also the very classrooms where learning is supposed to take place. “We could see when we were in classrooms that the classrooms were in fact disabling,” he said of his own experiences while in the field, noting that physical classroom conditions often functioned as a barrier to student learning. It seems this is where Mace’s original theory of universal design most clearly connects to UDL, as successful teaching and learning is most effective when built upon a thorough assessment of physical space, curriculum materials and goals, student-teacher interactions, and—perhaps most importantly—the needs of each and every student.
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