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The Importance of Universal Design for Learning

Eliminating barriers in the design of the learning environment to make curriculum accessible for all
3 boys in a classroom

When a student struggles in the classroom, questions usually focus on the student: Does she have a learning disability? Is this student's reading skill not on par with the other children in the class? Does he not pay enough attention when sitting in class or doing homework? Until recently, there has been comparatively little focus on the role of the curriculum in these struggles. Thanks to work by Harvard Graduate School of Education Lecturer David Rose, the chief education officer of the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), researchers and educators alike are now examining how the curriculum, not the student, may be disabled, and how curriculum disabilities can be overcome.

The idea of curriculum disability arose when Rose was working with other neuropsychologists at the North Shore Children's Hospital (near Boston) to evaluate children who were performing poorly in school. Rose and his colleagues often felt discouraged, because their recommendations offered teachers little practical guidance to help their students. Eventually Rose formed a group to see what might make the reports more useful — leading to the creation of CAST.

UDL is the recognition that a standardized learning environment is no longer productive; it is vital — and, with today's technology, possible — to acknowledge differences among students.

CAST researchers gradually realized that the core issue was frequently not students' learning problems; instead, the problem lay with the curriculum. Instead of fixing the students, time would be better spent fixing the curriculum. This insight sparked a new goal: eliminating barriers in the design of the learning environment. To fix the problem, Rose proposed the idea of a Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which promotes supporting every child in the classroom.

Defining principles of Universal Design

To implement this goal of UDL, CAST has defined and adopted three main principles:

  1. Multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
  2. Multiple means of expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know.
  3. Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners' interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.

These UDL principles are applicable to every student in the classroom, according to Rose, because there is a fundamental mismatch between today's student population and the curriculum: While diversity is now the norm of classrooms across the country, the curriculum remains standardized. The uniformity of the school environment — a leftover factory system from the Industrial Revolution — means that students all receive standardized textbooks, learn from standardized course plans, and sit at standardized desks, despite individual differences. UDL is the recognition that this kind of environment is no longer a productive one; it is vital — and, with today's technology, possible — to acknowledge the differences among students.

Research by Rose and others has uncovered three key insights that explain why multiple representations are essential in the classroom. First, developmental studies have revealed the unmistakable diversity in our nervous systems; that is, the nervous system “wires up” differently for each person. Second, a person's nervous system does not approach all learning tasks in the same way; rather, it assesses the task and how much experience the individual has had with the task, and adjusts its resources and strategies accordingly. There is no single style of learning, even for the same person; students' levels of expertise on different problems will influence how they tackle each one. Finally, research has demonstrated the importance of emotion to learning. The nervous system can easily gauge how valuable a certain experience may be, and the differences in students' responses to a lesson depend on varying levels of motivation. In short, everyone is different, and that means a standardized school system will only work for some — perhaps only for a few.

Using technology to support access and ability

Operating under the principles of UDL, Rose and his CAST colleagues have created a variety of technology programs designed to bolster students' abilities and motivation. CAST products assist students by embedding content in varying ways, and by enabling parents and teachers to create new, customized learning materials.

WiggleWorks, for example, produced and distributed by Scholastic, is a software program that contains children's books with many built-in tools and activities to support the reading and writing process. Book Builder, available online, allows teachers and parents to design story books with similar kinds of supports. 

Although technology is undoubtedly a useful tool in the classroom, Rose emphasizes, it is not essential to carrying out UDL principles. UDL refers primarily to how information should be represented in the classroom. For instance, there are many ways to understand Shakespeare: teachers can lecture about the Bard's plays, have students read the plays on their own, ask students to read scenes aloud to the whole class, or help the class put together a performance. The key question that a teacher following UDL principles should ask is: How do I present this information so that kids will really understand, and learn how to show me what they have understood?

Additional information about Universal Design for Learning, including guiding principles and a self-checklist for curriculum developers, is available on the CAST website.

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