New Article: UDL is the What, Design Thinking is the How

During the summer of 2020, Kara, Rachel and Heidi taught a virtual course on the integration of Design Thinking and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Mathematics classroom teachers and professional development providers in California, who were in the midst of preparing for an uncertain academic year due to COVID, participated in the course.

We wrote, “UDL is the What, Design Thinking is the How:” Designing for Differentiation in Mathematics, in response to the work and ideas that came out of this class. We wondered, what happened when educators merged the principles of UDL with the process of Design Thinking? Did more accessible designs for mathematics curriculum, routines, tools, and spaces result? How did the course provide teachers with a process to: enact UDL in the classroom, design from the margins, and see themselves as designers?

Here’s a snapshot of what we found. 

Following the course, educators…

  • Shifted their knowledge of UDL from passive to active. We noticed that many responses on a pre-survey defined UDL as a framework or approach to lesson planning and teaching. Defining UDL as a framework alone suggested that participants may have interpreted the practice of UDL as a passive practice, rather than as a process in which mathematics educators actively engage. In the post-survey, participants used the term “framework” less frequently, applied UDL, and often used verbs to describe the term. For example…
    • A pre-course definition of UDL: “UDL is a framework for planning & delivering instruction that intends to teach to ALL students.” 
    • A post-course definition of UDL: “Designing for the jagged profile of each learner; designing learning opportunities that remove potential barriers for learners.” 
  • Viewed empathy as a guiding principle. In response to the post-survey question, “What connections do you see between UDL and Design Thinking?” one participant wrote, “I now see over and over again people designing learning experiences from their perspective without being able to see how the user might experience it. I can’t unlearn starting with the user and what they need.” When asked, “How might this course impact your work as an educator?” participants noted how focusing on the user, beginning with empathy interviews, could impact their practice: “I think I will be a better listener-and have more curiosity about my student’s ways of knowing.” Educators also linked empathy to Design Thinking in the school context: “It has helped in giving me the lens of starting with empathy. Of course all educators empathize with their students, but I loved the idea of really sitting with students and problem solving based on their individual perspective instead of just my own and patterns in data. It is going to give my work more heart.”
  • Recognized the potential of using Design Thinking as a process to practice UDL. Some participants described Design Thinking as the how behind the what of UDL (inspiring the article’s title!). One participant wrote, “UDL is both the Why and some How, where DT is a How for me and for systems.” Educators made connections between the Design Thinking process and the application of UDL, such as: “UDL is designing from the margins. Design thinking is a process that we can use to design from the margins if we are intentional about the process.” A few teachers wrote about the relationship between Design Thinking and UDL by suggesting that Design Thinking “allows UDL to concretely be done.” That is, Design Thinking is how we achieve the goals of the UDL framework. When asked about the relationship between UDL and Design Thinking, one participant noted, “They go hand in hand, you cannot have one without the other. To design for universal learning is to think outside the box and challenge traditional education methods.” Participants noted that in order to solve educational problems, you needed to radically rethink them. Design Thinking provided a means for doing so. 

Finally, here are some questions we continue to think about in our work:

  • If educators took up the notion of teacher as designer, and saw themselves as designers of things beyond curriculum, how might they rethink and re-imagine new spaces, experiences, structures, relationships, and systems for students with disabilities? 
  • If teachers began to see the power of empathy, not simply as caring for students but also as deeply understanding their experiences, how might they dismantle pervasive deficit models in lasting ways? 
  • If educators were reminded of the joyful and creative power they have, as many in our course expressed, how might they unleash this power to differentiate for a wider range of students? 

Our article was published in a special issue on Differentiating Instruction in Mathematics in Mathematics Teacher Educationand Development (MTED). You can find the whole article on MTED’s website

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