Spotlight on Universal Design Learning

Universal Design Learning (UDL) is an approach to curriculum design that can help teachers address the learning needs of students who come from a diverse range of ability, disability, gender, and culture. UDL provides a framework for teachers to customize and adapt curriculum in a way to meet a variety of learning styles and student needs, helping to create a classroom of equal opportunity for learning. The President of Novak Educational Consulting and author of UDL NOW!: A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design Learning in Today’s Classroom,Katie Novak shares her expertise in UDL and breaks down how curriculum can be adapted for more a more diverse student body and learning experience.

Why does UDL matter? 

When teachers design a lesson, oftentimes some students face barriers that prevent them from accessing or engaging with the material. For example, maybe they don't have the necessary background knowledge, or the curriculum is not linguistically appropriate or culturally sustaining, or maybe the curriculum isn't challenging enough. If we want to meet the needs of all students, we need to design curriculum in a way that allows students to get the support and level of challenge they need while working toward meaningful, relevant goals that will prepare them for their future. Right now, UDL is the most important initiative in education as it provides a critical foundation for multi-tiered systems, personalized learning initiatives, and equitable learning academically, behaviorally, and emotionally. 

How does UDL accommodate children's individual learning differences? 

UDL designs learning with "firm goals, flexible means." We have standards we want students to meet or exceed, but they don't all need to take the same path to get there. For example, if we want every student to describe the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement, starting with an examination of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a "one-size-fits-all" classroom may provide all students with a printed copy of the Civil Rights Act, a short lecture, and the requirement to write a five-paragraph essay describing the accomplishments of the legislation. That certainly doesn't embrace variability! With UDL, an educator will begin by thinking about possible barriers inherent in the printed text and lesson design: the lack of background knowledge students may have about civil rights, the linguistic appropriateness of the document, challenges with writing, etc. To ensure all students meet the goal, the teacher designs additional options and choices to eliminate those barriers. Students can access videos, audio text, or work in collaborative groups to build background knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement.

Additionally, there may be primary source photos, videos, testimonies, etc. to help students comprehend the accomplishments. Students can still sign up for mini-lectures and read/listen/annotate the document if that supports their learning, but not all students would be expected to follow the same steps or use the same materials. Students have options for expressing their learning through writing, videos, audio, multi-media tools, class presentations, etc. As they express their knowledge, they collaborate to provide feedback to each other, revise for content and style, and reflect to determine how the selected strategies supported them in meeting the goals and expressing their knowledge. In this classroom, all students can be successful, regardless of learning differences, and they all learn with and because of each other. 

What three things that teachers can do to begin to implement UDL with their students?

First, teachers need to understand that students are not disabled. Curriculum is. Once teachers see the inherent flaws in a one-size-fits-all curriculum, they can begin to identify barriers that prevent all students from learning. The last step is to think about which options and choices would help to eliminate those barriers. Once that is done, students can be empowered to reflect on the learning goal as well as their options for meeting the goal, and they can begin to personalize their learning, with numerous opportunities to reflect, re-direct, and learn how to be learners.