Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
By David H. Rose, Ed.D.
Thank you Nancy for inviting me to put some thoughts about UDL on your blog. I hope I can reduce some of the misconceptions about UDL that appeared here, and then perhaps engage in discussion where I can learn more from you and your readers.
So, where did UDL come from? The framework of UDL was developed by a group of neuropsychologists and special educators who worked at a children’s hospital in Boston. Our job was to evaluate students who were having learning difficulties in school and to make recommendations to improve their progress. Around 1984 we began to think that modern technology had a lot to offer those students, especially those with disabilities, and their teachers. So, we formed a new clinic which we called CAST to learn what was useful (and what was not) so that we could make better recommendations. Eventually that clinic became a very popular service for parents and schools in our area and we split from the hospital to focus more directly on research and development to learn more.
At first most of our attention was focused on assistive technology – the use of specialized technology to overcome the barriers students faced in school. For some students that was astoundingly successful, but many students still faced barriers. Soon we discovered the architectural movement of universal design. In that movement, a small group of architects developed principles and guidelines for designing buildings that, from the outset, had fewer barriers and more options. Now almost all new public buildings in the US are universally designed – and everyone benefits from the ramps and elevators (etc.) that are there for all of us.
That gave us a name for the work we wanted to do: Universal Design for Learning. We wanted to develop principles and guidelines that would help curriculum designers, teachers, publishers, etc. reduce the barriers that typically existed inside our classrooms, and make those classrooms better for everyone. To do that we did a lot of research on what works for students with disabilities, practices that had often been developed in special education but that were largely absent in regular classrooms.
So. what actually IS UDL? UDL is a set of evidence-based principles and guidelines for helping teachers, publishers, curriculum designers, etc. create classrooms (and also museums, Boys and Girls clubs, universities, etc.) that would reduce barriers and expand opportunities for the widest range of students possible. The three main principles look like this:
- When presenting concepts or information to students, use multiple means of representation. There is no single medium of instruction that will be optimal for all students or for all kinds of information. Printed books are good for some people, but are dramatically inaccessible for others, and very poor at teaching many kinds of subjects. Three guidelines articulate how to design information to support students who have: 1) different perceptual abilities, 2) different linguistic abilities, and 3) different cognitive abilities.
- When asking students to communicate or express what they know, use multiple means of expression. Students differ radically in their ability to express themselves in different media and contexts. The guidelines focus on how to remove barriers to communication for students who 1) have physical limitations, 2) have specific expressive disabilities, and 3) have difficulty with executive functions (planning and organizing).
- When seeking to motivate and engage students, use multiple means of engagement. Students, especially those with emotional disabilities, are very diverse in how they can best be engaged and motivated to learn. Guidelines address how to use options to 1) recruit interest, 2) sustain effort and practice, and 3) develop self-regulation.
That’s a brief outline of UDL. For more, visit CAST.org or the National Center on UDL at udlcenter.org. I hope this helps.
Why does UDL often emphasize the use of modern technology?
New learning technologies have one potential advantage over older learning technologies (like books): they are more flexible and customizable in providing options for learning. While a printed book is standardized, one size fits all, a universally designed digital book can easily provide the options and alternatives that students with disabilities need: refreshable Braille for blind students, words that speak aloud for students with dyslexia, Spanish equivalents for English language learners, etc. With the barriers reduced, those students could progress in their science, history, etc. classes. Without such options, they face barriers and obstacles to learning that are unfair and unnecessary in the modern world.
Does UDL advocate for replacing teachers with technology?
Hardly. Both major teacher unions, the NEA and AFT, are charter members of the National UDL Task Force, the group of organizations that was largely responsible for getting the UDL language in ESSA. Like us, they recognize that human teachers are the very core of education and democracy. Like us, they also advocate that every teacher should have the best tools and supports available to succeed with every one of their students. UDL is part of that.
Who supports CAST’s research and development?
CAST’s work is funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Education (The office for Special Education Programs), the National Science Foundation (Programs in Education), and many local and national foundations with an interest in the education of ALL students, including those with disabilities.
David H. Rose, Ed.D. is the Founder and Chief Education Officer CAST.
Judith Yero says
The three main principles are very similar to several of the principles of the Reggio Emilia schools–they call it the 100 languages of children. The sad thing is that these principles are appropriate for ALL students, as you mention at the end of your post. They are also consistent with the information in Todd Rose’s book, The End of Average, which stresses that we are all unique–there is no such thing as average–and any system designed around the average (think one size fits all public schools) is doomed to failure.
David Rose says
Thanks for the connection to Reggio Emilia schools, and to Todd Rose (who used to work at CAST). I don’t think the good ideas incorporated in UDL are entirely unique: good teachers typically follow many of the principles of UDL even if they don’t know anything about it. UDL mainly gives a framework for “stretching” good practice into great practice.
Thomas Ultican says
Is this the universal design for school reform? Start with good intention and create some reasonable ideas. Then have your work bastardized by profiteers.
Máté wierdl says
I dunno what to say. From the description above, I got nothing concrete. So I go to the cast.org website and I am greeted with lots of kids staring at computer screens, and more generic descriptions of stuff I cannot hold onto.
Can YOU guys tell me what is going on, what we need to pay attention to?
Here is a perfect example
” CAST’s Implementation services enable any educational organization to work closely with CAST UDL experts to identify needs and challenges, develop goals and action plans for sustainable change, build capacity for systemic change for UDL implementation, and infuse UDL into classrooms in a systematic and data-driven way. Using our implementation guide and resources, CAST guides educator teams in the process of UDL implementation.
“CAST’s Customized Solutions enable any educational organization to work closely with CAST UDL experts to identify issues and challenges; develop goals and action plans for sustainable change; facilitate discussions around how to build consensus among teams and cohorts; and implement professional learning solutions that make a difference. Through our customized solutions we guide educators as they consider how to benefit from the UDL framework, whether you are developing awareness of UDL or are ready to implement.
This is just plain business talk and management jargon. I can’t tell one sentence from the next: challenges, implementation, solutions, framework, … I am trailing off.
With some hope left to find something I can relate to, I can identify, I try to look at the pictures in search of something different, something that would tell me, I am at a place where real education is going on. But no. Even the pictures are the same as elsewhere in edreform land: kids sitting around clean tables looking at screens, clean cut adults helpfully leaning over well dressed, clean cut kids who are carefully selected from all the races in the planet. It’s how managers imagine education: in their modern office environment with designer lamps and well ironed shirts and the latest gadgets.
I almost hear the market photographer’s instruction “OK, guys lets loosen up, let’s make look like a real learning environment. Go and take off the neckties.”
What I can clearly identify is “online courses”, “data-driven”, “individualized learning”—pure reformist stuff.
I x-out the page. Wasted yet another hour on the same old stuff: high tech solutions for kids with messy lives. Yup, that’ll work
Máté wierdl says
This is good stuff, though.
David Rose says
Thanks for the both the critical comment (the first one) and the complimentary one (the second one, with the video). I must admit I agree with you on the first one – it does sound jargon-y and maybe even boring. It is intended to “market” our professional development programs for teachers. I think you are right that we may need to do a better job of that. (But I want to say that our professional development itself is extremely highly rated by teachers,) Thanks for the critical feedback.
On the video, I am glad that it has some “good stuff” for you, I can’t help thinking of the irony that both the good (the video) and the bad (text on the website) illustrate one of the UDL principles in action: using multiple means of presentation. For some people, and some kids of teaching, oral presentation is far better than anything done through text or online (and sometimes vice versa). To me, the online video seems much less engaging than the same presentation was for the live audience. On the other hand, a much wider audience gets to see the presentation when it is online than only live. That is the usual mix: using multiple means of representation, and letting people have more options, is the best thing to do, and the most UDL.
Máté wierdl says
And then this pitch for online learning raise the usual questions about computer aided instructions
Here is what Lakoff says about this (I put the link here with the time, but if the video starts in the beginning of the his talk, just jump to 35 minutes and 15 seconds)
Kids don’t just learn because something is interesting for them, or well presented to them, but because of their relationship with the teacher—not to mention the physical and mental effect of the other kids in the class.
Where is the caring, empathizing teacher in online learning?
Judith Yero says
Can’t agree more, Mate. A year ago, I drove 9,000 miles around the U.S. visiting “learner-centered” schools (only one was a public school). In summarizing the key factors that were common to the most effective of these schools, the number one factor was the relationships between and among the adults and younger learners. And by effective, I mean educational environments in which students were actively and joyfully engaged in their own learning. When asked to describe their favorite teacher, people almost always talk about the teacher’s personal qualities, rather than the number of degrees they hold or the amount of information they transmitted. And I’ve never seen anyone name a computer as their favorite teacher! Maya Angelou said it best. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”