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What is Universal Design for Learning?

Over the past few years, there may have been a heightened focus around Universal Design for Learning within your school or school district.  As time goes on, and it becomes more apparent to policymakers at the district, state, and national levels, that all students learn differently, there has been a greater emphasis on meeting the needs of ALL.  In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act defined UDL:

Universal Designed for Learning Defined

The term UNIVERSAL DESIGN FOR LEARNING means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that:

(A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and

(B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and  challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.

Universal Design for Learning is a set of three principles which provide all students with the ability to learn.  It is based on neuroscience, which indicates that our brains are wired to learn information through different pathways, which control the “What”, “How”, and “Why” of Learning.

Three Principles of UDL

In response to this brain research, the three principles of UDL were developed which are Multiple Means of Representations, Multiple Means of Action and Expression, and Multiple Means of Engagement.  Each of these three principles has three guideline, for a total of nine guidelines. This can all be found in a nicely organized graphic organizer which can be found here.

Inflexible Curriculum

What has been found when analyzing the typical curriculum that is used in today’s classrooms, is that they are often inflexible in nature.  We expect students to meet grade level benchmarks, but do not take into account that students are coming to us with differing backgrounds, needs, learning styles, etc.  The point of UDL is to proactively think through these learning differences when materials, assessments, methods, and learning goals are created.

Instead, we oftentimes try to retrofit lessons to meet the needs of our students on the backend.  While customizing lessons to meet the needs is a worthwhile planning activity, we may not have to do so with the same level of intensity, if we accounted for learning difference more so during the onset lesson development (or even better, during curriculum development).  

UDL is a Proactive Approach

Additionally, if we met the needs of more of our students during initial instruction, this could even result in less of a need for intervention and possibly even special education services.  Also, when teachers, both general education and special education teachers, plan with UDL principles in mind, they often find that there is overlap with many of the strategies that are outlined in student IEPs.

The National Center on Universal Design for Learning has many great resources around the history and theory behind UDL.  This website also has many resources to support with implementation.   

If you are looking for a resource that can help you get started with implementing UDL in your classroom, then I would recommend checking out this book: Universal Design for Learning in Action: 100 Ways to Teach All Learners.

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