What is UDL (And What Isn’t It)?

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on cognitive neuroscience.  The concept came out of researchers from Harvard University 30 years ago.  The term UDL was coined in 1995.  In simple terms, there are three networks in the brain that need to be activated to achieve authentic learning.  These three networks are explained in this short video if you are interested in learning more about them.

You may notice the term UDL being used by educators a lot lately.  Why is that you ask? One of the main reasons is that UDL is gaining national and state momentum due to the inclusion of it in our laws and regulatory guidance from departments of education.  For example, UDL was written directly in the new Federal Education Act entitled,  Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which Congress passed and was signed by President Obama in December of 2015.  This Act replaced No Child Left Behind. For the first time, the nation’s general K-12 education law defines and endorses Universal Design for Learning.

What you may not know is that UDL is well represented in countries such as Belgium, Singapore, New Zealand, England, India, Spain, Chile, Portugal, Malta, and Canada. It is believed that this work originated with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  This work set out to address the rights of people with disabilities to full participation in life. Article 26 specifically addresses the equal right of persons with disabilities to an “inclusive, quality, and free” education. UDL helps educators address the widest range of learner variability, reduce barriers, and improve access for all students to a full and rich inclusive education.

A lot of schools participate in International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. The IBO’s guidelines include references to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a framework that can be used for inclusive education. Here is a recent study entitled “UDL and Inclusive Practices in IB Schools Worldwide”. It concludes, “Instructional practices consistent with UDL are widely used at IB schools. With strong administrative support for inclusion, IB teachers and staff are encouraged to use effective 123 practices and integrate inclusive instructional strategies into their teaching. Participating schools regularly give their teachers PD opportunities and emphasize the need for teachers to be trained and proficient in creating classroom environments that include and engage all students. As a result, IB educators strive to use instructional approaches that maintain high standards and rigor, while concurrently creating welcoming and supportive instructional environments for all learners.”

If you are interested in learning more about UDL, below is a handout and  video that may be of interest.

I want to take a few minutes to clear up some misconceptions about UDL that I have heard.

1. One misconception is that UDL is only to support students who are struggling academically. While a lot of UDL literature is focused on students with disabilities, UDL is a Tier 1 approach, meaning it is used with all students. It is intended to meet the needs of all learners, those at, above, or below grade level.

2. One thing I hear is that we “purchased UDL”. UDL is not a set of specific textbooks or resources.  It is not one particular delivery method for instruction. There is no “canned” UDL version out there that all need to do. It is not easy to implement and even though many of our staff are working towards implementing UDL practices in their classrooms, it will take years to authentically integrate completely (and will always need constant refinement).  It is a time consuming process and staff need the support and focus to do this over multiple years.

3.  Another misconception is that UDL is “all fun” and reduces rigor in our classrooms.  When done correctly, UDL maintains rigor while addressing all students needs by reducing barriers. One misconception I hear is that because choice is a large part of UDL, that students are not challenged to do specific tasks (such as writing an essay). This is not the case. All teachers need to be responsive to the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. Some of these frameworks require students to complete specific skills. For example, in math, students are required to solve an equation or graph a line; in English, students are required to write informational text with a firm thesis and a clear introduction, body and conclusion. Students are still expected to do this in a universally designed class.

4. A last misconception that I will address is the concern that UDL will not challenge a student who lacks motivation as they will choose the “easy way out”. The choices we provide are intended to have similar levels of rigor. In addition, students are encouraged to have a “growth mindset” and are encouraged to engage in choices that may go outside their comfort zone. Mastery-oriented feedback is provided by the staff who will work with the students to ensure they challenge themselves. In fact, the student who lacks motivation is often not engaged. Engagement is one of the three main principles of UDL. This topic also relates to executive functions. The guidelines share the following, “Associated with networks that include the prefrontal cortex, these capabilities allow humans to overcome impulsive, short-term reactions to their environment and instead to set long-term goals, plan effective strategies for reaching those goals, monitor their progress, and modify strategies as needed…The UDL framework typically involves efforts to expand executive capacity in two ways: 1) by scaffolding lower level skills so that they require less executive processing; and 2) by scaffolding higher level executive skills and strategies so that they are more effective and developed.”  Building these executive functions includes UDL checkpoints in the areas of goal setting, planning and strategy development, managing information and resources, and monitoring progress.

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