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.