What is UDL? What is Design Thinking? Visualizing conceptual shifts

I am a first year doctoral student at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of Santa Barbara. I am interested in math instruction for students with language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. Before starting at UCSB, I worked as an elementary special education teacher. Prior to teaching, I worked in communications and design. For a while, it seemed that I had to make a choice between the two, teacher or designer. In the end, I realized that it did not have to be one or the other. I entered the field of teaching with the belief that teachers are designers.

This viewpoint likely underpinned how I read responses to the survey questions, What is Universal Design for Learning? and What is Design Thinking? Participants in the summer course on UDL and Design Thinking (add link to course page) answered these questions as part of a survey taken before and after the course.

I wanted to see how teachers’ understanding of UDL and Design Thinking shifted over the course of the summer. So, I used a super fun tool, Voyant, to generate frequent word counts and word clouds. Here’s what I saw and how I interpreted the results.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

As I read through the pre and post responses to this survey question, I noticed a shift in the language teachers used to define UDL. Pre course responses frequently defined Universal Design for Learning as a framework or approach to planning.

The top five most frequent words used in the pre-course responses were:

  1. learning
  2. students
  3. learners
  4. approach
  5. framework

The top five most frequent words used in the post-course responses were:

  1. learning
  2. students
  3. access
  4. design
  5. designing

The responses written after the course used the verb, designing, in their definition more frequently. I wondered if participants viewed UDL as a structure or a curriculum to follow prior to the course, and viewed UDL as an active process in which to engage after the course.

The following responses from one participant highlight this potential shift:

Pre Course Response: “Universal Design in Learning is a flexible learning framework that can be accommodated to individual learning differences.”

Post Course Response: “Universal Design in Learning is designing learning so that the needs of all students are met.”


What is Design Thinking?

The next question asked participants to define Design Thinking. I have found that the word design is used in a variety of ways, particularly in education. We hear this term used not only in UDL, but also instructional design, lesson and curriculum design, and the engineering design process for students. The pre course responses reflected the multiple ways that Design Thinking can be interpreted in the context of learning and teaching:

“An engineering process that starts and centers with the needs of the user. It is cyclical/iterative, where we are always testing our solution to ensure that that the driving needs were met and continuing to modify to better meet those needs.”

“The purpose of Design Thinking is to use our creativity to solve problems.”

“I am not sure of what is, however, I believe it is designing learning opportunities with the audience in mind, thinking of what problems they may encounter in processing information and designing a way to intervene and support their learning.”

The top five most frequent words used in the pre course responses were:

  1. user 
  2. designing 
  3. needs 
  4. process 
  5. learning 

There was not a major shift in the top five most frequent words used in the post course responses. User, process, and needs were top in both.

  1. process 
  2. user 
  3. design
  4. needs
  5. problem

However, there did still seem to be a shift. In looking at the word clouds, I saw certain terms specific to Design Thinking in the post course cloud that I did not see in the pre course cloud. These include the following: prototype, interviews, understanding, test, and cycle. I wonder if participants gained a more specific understanding of Design Thinking as it us used and defined by IDEO(link), the model used in the course (link).


Why These Shifts Matter

While I see educators as designers and creators, we do not always view ourselves this way and we are not always viewed in this way. In reality, educators are constantly designing curricula, lessons plans, spaces, systems, and interactions.

These shifts in the responses are meaningful because they suggest that teachers can see themselves as active designers. UDL and Design Thinking, when practiced together, give us the tools to design for all students and learning with creativity and intention.

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