What is UDL?

Instead of tediously piecing together accommodations or modifications based on what we believe a learner can or cannot do (should or should not do), we design in ways that offer a spectrum of possibility. We structure our teaching always and already designed for the many ways that learners can engage learning, thus allowing opportunity to emerge in each new moment, in each new day.” (Baglieri et al., 2011, p. 272)

Video Introduction to UDL (5 min)

Roots in Universal Design

UDL emerged from Universal Design, a movement in architecture and product design that sought to find elegant and effective ways to maximize the use of buildings and products. Universal Design was pioneered by Ronald Mace, a disabled architect who demonstrated that insider perspectives on design for disability were more effective and innovative (Hamraie 2016).

Black and white photo of Ronald Mace. He is wearing a suit and tie. He is in a wheelchair.

When design begins with the users’ perspective, designs are more accessible and successful. Let’s take the common example of a vegetable peeler. What do you notice about these two peelers? 

A classic of modern design, the OXO peeler was designed in a collaboration between a designer and his wife, who had arthritis and assisted in the design. It has a much more comfortable handle, which is great for people with arthritis, as well as kids. The redesign of the handle means that more people can use the tool. 

on the left, an old-fashioned potato peeler. On the right, a newer one with a wide, rubber grip. There is an arrow between them.

Development of Universal Design for Learning

Applying these principles to education, Universal Design for Learning was developed at CAST in the 1980s, as a group of educators interested in technology were working to design for students with disabilities (see their free, online UDL-style text for much more detail). They noticed that classrooms were dominated by print, usually in the form of textbooks, and that made learning inaccessible for all those who did not engage easily with print, such as blind learners and those with dyslexia. UDL researchers put the focus on changing curriculum rather than fixing the child. 

This is in line with social movements such as the Disability Rights movement and neurodiversity. These disabled-led movements have shifted understandings of disability away from a focus on individual deficits (the deficit or medical model) and towards understanding disability as fundamentally contextual (social model). Disability Studies in Education is a field of educational research that seeks to understand disability from a political perspective, understanding it not as a individual deficit but as a complex social and biological construction. DSE scholars are trying to better understand how schools construct disabling systems, how classrooms oppress disabled kids, and how intersectionality matters for the experiences of disabled students who are BIPOC. 

Back to UDL! In UDL, learners are conceptualized through learner variability (Rose 2017). Learners vary in how they see, hear, move, think, remember and much more. UDL asks us to design across variability, designing from the margins rather than from the middle. The margins can be students with disabilities, students from underserved backgrounds, and BIPOC students. Instead of planning for the “average” student, in UDL, we seek to begin with the kids who are overlooked in the design process. We can center those kids as we design curriculum, interactions, physical school buildings, and instructional practices. 

Research on UDL

UDL is based in two interconnected research traditions. First, it is based on neuroscience. CAST researchers identified three networks of the brain that factor significantly in learning (Meyer et al, 2014). The interconnected nature of the brain can be modeled in many different ways; these three networks are the simplest model that accounts for complexity. 

Figure 1. Three networks of the brain [Image from CAST]

These three areas of learning form the basis of the UDL guidelines. The first network is affective, involved in how we process our emotions and affect. Researchers in UDL have focused significant attention on the critical role that social and emotional processes play in learning. The second network is recognition, involved in how we recognize objects and patterns in the environment. The third network is strategic, involved in how we plan and monitor our actions, including learning. These three networks work together in the complex process of learning in content areas such as mathematics. I find these three dimensions most useful when we use them as different lenses to look at learning. Too often,  learning frameworks focus only on content (or WHAT kids learn). That leaves out the critical dimensions of WHY and HOW kids learn (or chose not to learn).  The three dimensions in UDL remind us that learning is first and forgets emotional, and that developing students’ self-understandings is as important as the content we teach. 

The second research tradition that forms the basis of UDL is the learning sciences, an academic field that studies learning across multiple disciplines. A core tenet of the learning sciences is that people learn complex practices like mathematics through sustained engagement in those practices (National Academies of Sciences et al. 2018). People learn through talk and collaboration. Research in the learning sciences influenced the goal of UDL: expert learners. In the case of mathematics, rather than conceptualizing the goal as students learning a particular amount of mathematics, the goal of UDL is developing expert strategic learners across the life span. Research in education has long been strongly influenced by the learning sciences, which accounts for the overlap between many educational frameworks and UDL. They are designed based on similar research going back decades. 

Why UDL is radical

UDL is radical in four ways: 

First, learners are conceptualized as naturally variable rather than broken. Shifting the discussion to learner variability, rather than disability, allows us to design to build on learner strengths. This approach is closely connected to neurodiversity, a social justice movement developed and led by autistic people  that understands differences in thinking and being in the world—such as those found in people with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and intellectual disabilities—as naturally occurring differences across the population that offer both challenges and strengths (Robertson & Ne’eman, 2008). Because learners are naturally diverse, UDL asks that teachers create classrooms that capitalize on that diversity, rather than continuing to build classrooms that work for only a small subset of the population. 

text image: Learner Variability (Rose 2016): Kids vary in how they see, hear, move, listen, speak, pay attention, remember facts and procedures, remember concepts read, write, manage stress, respond to uncertainty.

Second, the goal of education is framed as developing expert learners, rather than producing content memorizers. This is a long-term goal, and can shift how we think about our work with students. While we want students to learn the grade-level content, we also want to develop students who understand themselves, who have metacognitive strategies that work for them, and can self-advocate. These goals are just as important as grade-level content. Perhaps more. Perhaps we should assess these habits, rather than just content knowledge. 

Finally, the solution is framed as redesign of curriculum, rather than remediation of the child. While most scholarship in special education is focused on assessing the child to determine what they do not know, and then prescribing remediation to fix those “gaps”, UDL is not. Instead, the curriculum is understood as broken. Efforts are focused on creating a more accessible curriculum, designed to create expert learners, rather than remediation. Imagine IEPs about our classroom practice, rather than individual kids. 

Baglieri, S., Valle, J. W., Connor, D. J., & Gallagher, D. J. (2011). Disability Studies in Education: The need for a plurality of perspectives on disability. Remedial and Special Education, 32(4), 267–278. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932510362200

Hamraie, A. (2016). Universal Design and the Problem of “Post-Disability” Ideology. Design and Culture, 8(3), 285–309. https://doi.org/10.1080/17547075.2016.1218714

Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. T. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Professional Publishing. http://udltheorypractice.cast.org/

National Academies of Sciences (2018). How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. National Academies Press. https://books.google.com/books?id=LsR9DwAAQBAJ

Robertson, S. M., & Ne’eman, A. D. (2008). Autistic acceptance, the college campus, and technology: Growth of neurodiversity in society and academia. Disability Studies Quarterly, 28(4). http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/146/146

Rose, T. (2017). The End of Average: Unlocking Our Potential by Embracing What Makes Us Different (Reprint edition). HarperOne.

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