Skip to main content

A Curriculum for Every Student

Illustration by James Steinberg
Illustration: James Steinberg

In the early 1990’s, education curriculum was a one-size-fits-all model that demanded students contort themselves within a rigid system. David Rose, Ed.D.’76, imagined something different, a model he called Universal Design for Learning (UDL) — elastic enough for all types of students to thrive. Today, that idea has sparked a revolution, taking hold in schools and districts around the world.  

Universal Design for Learning helps teachers recognize — and celebrate — the full range of human diversity.

UDL “encourages teachers to recognize, and even celebrate, human diversity,” says Rose. “Rather than pushing teachers to standardize their students, UDL encourages them to find new and creative ways to individualize their students.”

Rose didn’t set out to reshape school curriculum. At HGSE, he became fascinated with the technological possibilities of early computers and the emerging science of psychophysiology. He found a job that combined his interests, as head of the Medical and Educational Evaluation Center at North Shore Children’s Hospital. As he worked with children who were doing poorly in school, it dawned on him that maybe students weren’t the problem. 

“Our job was to find out what was wrong with the children, give them a label, and offer recommendations for accommodations,” says Rose. But those recommendations rarely led to sustained success for students. A change in perspective was needed. “Rather than focusing only on what was wrong with children, we needed to focus just as much on what was wrong with their schools.”

Along with colleagues Anne Meyer, Ed.M.’75, Ed.D.’83, Grace Meo, Skip Stahl, and Linda Mensing, Rose founded CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization where the fundamental concepts of UDL took shape. The idea was to engage students by presenting information in multiple ways for different learning styles while also giving students multiple ways to show how they understood the information. 

After three decades running CAST and teaching at HGSE, Rose has spread the gospel of UDL around the world. UDL featured prominently in the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act and the recent National Education Technology Plan; states, including Massachusetts, Illinois, and California, have adopted it in their standards; education schools now offer courses and even whole master’s programs on UDL; and, internationally, more than a dozen countries now feature national UDL initiatives and policies.    

Jenna Gravel has seen firsthand how the model can transform a classroom. “UDL supports educators and students to create a classroom culture where students feel respected and challenged and where individual differences are celebrated,” says Gravel, Ed.M.’05, Ed.D.’17, the director of research and curriculum for professional learning at CAST. “Students are empowered to get to know themselves as learners, and teachers approach their work as designers, identifying barriers in their instruction and applying UDL to increase students’ access to learning opportunities.” – Andrew Bauld

Learn More and Connect

Visit the Jeanne Chall Collection on the Teaching of Reading.

Learn about Reach Every Reader.

Hooked on Classics: Harvard Ed. magazine looks at the push to modernize reading lists — and the pushback.

Explore professional education opportunities for educators in culturally responsive literature instruction.

See all Stories