Illustration by James Steinberg
How a little idea called Universal Design for Learning has grown to become a big idea — elastic enough to fit every kid.
Lecturer David Rose, Ed.D.'76, hopes and believes that he and his colleagues are part of a revolution — a revolution called Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which is increasingly taking hold in schools and school districts across the country and seeks to design curriculum from the outset that can accommodate all types of learners, rather than retrofitting existing curriculums on an ad hoc, as needed basis. Rose and his colleagues at CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization, started articulating the idea in the early 1990s. It's a concept borrowed from the world of architecture and product design — that if you design a building, for instance, in a way that is accessible to all from the outset, it will end up being more elegant, more efficient, and more useful while being less expensive than if you have to go back in and add features after the fact. And many of the features you add for those with disabilities will benefit others too — think of the automatic doors that help those in wheelchairs, yet also make things easier for those pushing strollers or carrying shopping bags.
Rose defines the philosophy of UDL as "tight goals, flexible means, as opposed to the tight goals and tight means that schools tend to have." Key to UDL is the idea of engaging students by presenting information in multiple ways, so it can be accessed by people with many different learning styles. Giving students multiple ways to show they understand information is also essential.
Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Ed.M.'00, Ed.D.'07, one of many Ed School graduates who now work at CAST, explains it this way: "We want every kid to have that personalized 'just right' experience, so they can grow as a learner no matter what they bring to the table. Most education has been designed for a middle that doesn't exist. We don't want there to be any categories; all learners are on a continuum." To go back to the building analogy, with UDL, all students will arrive at the second floor, but some may choose the elevator, others the escalator, still others the stairs, to get there.
Over the years, while teaching at the Ed School and helping to lead CAST (originally the Center for Applied Special Technology), Rose has become the most prominent public face of UDL. Professor Howard Gardner, who has taught with Rose since 1986, points out Rose's unusual double trick of teaching while helping to create and move forward a field that has taken hold on both the state and federal levels.
"Few, if any, of us have had the impact he has had on national policy. He's very well connected in Washington; he testifies; he affects legislation. We're in an ivory tower; we don't have impact on legislation — it's very hard to do," Gardner says.
When Rose made the decision to go to Harvard to get his doctorate in education, he couldn't have imagined the confluence of technology and ideas that would lead to the creation of UDL. In fact, he returned to school out of anger, not out of a desire to learn how to reshape school curriculum. After getting a master's in education at Reed College, Rose chose to teach English at an inner-city high school in Boston. There, he and an art teacher joined forces to work with their students on creating books of poetry. After they'd created the books, Rose recalls that he was called into an administrator's office and grilled about them.
"What made you think your students actually wrote these poems?" the administrator asked Rose. Rose continues, "His expectation was so low for these kids that he didn't believe they'd written the poems. But I had worked with them. I knew every word. I just looked at him." At that moment, Rose determined he would get his doctorate, so he could come back and fire that administrator. Of course, life and work took him in another direction.
At Harvard, in the 1970s, long before MRIs could give a precise view of brain activity, Rose became fascinated by the emerging science of psychophysiology, based partly on trying to understand electrical activity in the brain through skin conduction tests.
"I wanted to understand how kids' brains are developing and how we can measure it. It was shocking how little we knew at that point," he says.
For his thesis, Rose posited, based on animal studies and slides of the human brain, that between ages 5 and 7, when children in most cultures start schooling, new cells are being developed in the hippocampus.
"The absolute orthodoxy was that in humans there is no postnatal neurogenesis. I was bucking that, saying that I thought new cells were being born," he says. His thesis created a small stir, and he was given an advance to write a book on the subject. But he found himself hesitating. "One of my advisers said to me, 'David, you have to decide whether this is going to become your career. This will upset the applecart; you are going to have to get into wet science and prove this. Is that what you want?' But it wasn't. This was a vehicle for me. I wanted to work with the kids that I used to teach; I didn't want to be a lab scientist." (Decades later the first study came out proving Rose's hypothesis.) Rose's decision to work with students rather than in the lab was another turning point.
Soon he found a job combining his interest in neuropsychology with his interest in working with children. He became a neuropsychologist at North Shore Children's Hospital in Salem, Mass., evaluating students who were having trouble at school. It was there, among his fellow clinicians, that he met the people with whom he would create UDL.
At the clinic, Rose and his colleagues would evaluate students and give them a diagnosis. Sometimes the students would then start to receive services. Yet when Rose or one of his colleagues would visit the school six months later, they'd find that not much had changed. Discouraged, a group of them — Rose; Anne Meyer, Ed.M.'75, Ed.D.'83; Grace Meo; Skip Stahl; and Linda Mensing — met outside of work, at a pizza parlor, to talk about ways to make their interventions more effective. It was during the early days of the personal computer, when Apple Macintoshes, with their graphical user interfaces, were first released. What if students with disabilities could use computer programs as tools in the classroom? The clinicians started asking students to stay after their evaluations to test out new computer programs, and they added a section to their evaluations suggesting programs teachers could use to help students build particular skills. The group decided to create CAST as a way to research and develop the best ways that computers could be used as tools to help students with different disabilities. (Rose and Meyer served as codirectors until last year, when Meyer retired.)
Early on, the team had dramatic success with a young boy named Matt who had cerebral palsy and could only communicate by blinking his eyes and opening and closing his mouth. The school system assumed he was profoundly mentally disabled and was going to pay to have him institutionalized. But his mother believed her son was intelligent — he just couldn't communicate it. The team decided to teach him Morse code and gave him a switch connected to a computer that he could direct with his chin.
"He learned Morse code in about 10 minutes," Rose remembers. Then they taught him the alphabet, and he was a ble to type out to his mother that he loved her. Eventually, Meyer digitized some books for him, setting up a program where he could have the book read aloud and could turn pages by clicking with his chin. "He was so excited to be enabled in this way. Sweat was just pouring off him as he was reading." Matt was a very dramatic case, but he showed Rose and his colleagues how powerful an intervention computers could be. "That kind of transformation was what we were after — something that could make everything change," Rose says.
They built a strong business with referrals from schools. Yet they still weren't satisfied with the extent to which the computers were helping the students at the margins. As Rose recalls it, the schools tended to view these students as "broken," and they paid CAST to help them use the powerful assistive tools of a computer to "unbreak" them. But the team at CAST started thinking that the problem was not with the students but with the school curriculums and the barriers they placed in front of anyone who didn't learn in a certain way. Most schools were asking students to adjust themselves, whatever kind of students they were, to a rigid system; CAST wanted the system to be elastic enough to fit all the kids.
Rather than providing different tools on an as-needed basis so that each child at the margin could access the curriculum, why not rethink the curriculum so that all children could access it, even those with different learning styles? With the help of computers, a literacy curriculum, for example, could by design include audiobooks for those with difficulties reading text, dictionaries where ESL learners could look up words along the way, and extra questions for those students ready to go on to the next level.
"Teachers used to think, 'Oh, I have this problem kid.' We wanted to change the thinking to, 'How do we make this curriculum so that it helps whoever walks in the door?'" says Meyer.
This was the fundamental shift in thinking that led to the creation of UDL, and it led to some difficult times for CAST. Referrals from schools plummeted as CAST began shifting from recommending ways to provide assistive technology geared towards individual children to recommending ways for schools to rethink their curricula to address a variety of learning styles. CAST started seeking out federal grants to replace the lost funding, but it took seven years of trying to get their first one.
"I think that's the period that we're proudest of. There was a choice point there of, are we going to be a successful organization, meaning that we grow and thrive through these school referrals, or are we primarily a mission-driven one where we're going to pursue what needs to be done, even if it's not working for us financially? There are a ton of people who have been here 30 years, 20 years, 15 years because they're here for the mission-driven part of it. It's not just a job," says Rose.
These days, CAST headquarters, in Wakefield, Mass., is a hive of activity, housing more than 40 staff. Rose and Meyer set out to create a work environment both collaborative and egalitarian. Rose describes the layout as similar to a New England farmhouse, with parlors in the front where people can meet, and an area in the back where the work gets done. The workspace is open, with desk placement determined not by seniority but by an NBA-style draft.
Rappolt-Schlichtmann, now CAST's research director, sees the working atmosphere at CAST as fitting tightly with its philosophy that UDL is a discipline that can always — must always — be made better.
"Our big idea is that UDL is a continuously improving framework. And we work in this incredibly intense collaboration; it's a very horizontal organization. Everyone is expected to question everything and contribute big ideas. Everyone's thinking is considered at the same level," Rappolt-Schlichtmann says.
She first learned about UDL when she took a class on it from Rose at the Ed School in 1999. Rappolt-Schlichtmann is dyslexic, and as a young student she experienced firsthand the stigmatization that can happen for children with learning issues.
"I had a terrible time growing up in a system where if you're different in any way, it tries to put you in a corner and give you less. I just had this 'aha' moment when I took his class. I thought, 'That's the way education should be.' No one should experience public schools the way I did."
Rose has always had two jobs: working at CAST and teaching at the Ed School. For a while, he taught a class on neuroscience and reading, but about 15 years ago it became clear that what students really wanted to learn about from him was UDL. When Rappolt-Schlichtmann took Rose's UDL course, it was one of perhaps just a few in the country. "Students were desperate to take that class," she says, "both because of the force of David's personality and the convincingness of the work itself."
Now, many education schools in the country offer a course on UDL, and some offer whole master's programs. Each summer, the Ed School offers a professional development course for educators, taught by Rose and Professor Tom Hehir, Ed.D.'90. Several other factors have come together to raise UDL's profile substantially within the education community over the past half-decade or so. In 2008, for the first time, a definition of UDL was included in federal law, in the Higher Education Opportunity Act. It stated: "The term 'universal design for learning' means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient."
UDL was also included in the National Education Technology Plan, written in part by Rose and presented to Congress in 2010 as a means to boost the learning of all students, particularly those at the margins. Once UDL was defined in federal law, it opened the door for school systems to apply for UDL grants. Finally, UDL, with its attention to scaffolding concepts for different types of learners, is being seen as a way to help schools achieve the Common Core standards, which have been adopted in all but five states. While UDL was originally thought of as a way to help students with learning difficulties, today it is used as a way to tailor curriculum for all students, including, say, a student with dyslexia who may be talented at math but has trouble with word problems, or a student who needs an extra level of challenge to stay engaged.
Implementation of UDL is growing, but it varies school to school, district to district, and state to state. In 2013 the state of Maryland passed a bill that teachers must integrate UDL into their teaching practices. The previous year, the Gates Foundation funded a project helping four school districts implement UDL — two in Maryland, one in Massachusetts, and one in Indiana. And individual schools and teachers are figuring out ways to rethink their curricula using the UDL lens.
One of those teachers is Jon Mundorf, who teaches fifth grade in Naples, Fla. He first took a class on UDL from CAST in 2006 and went into it skeptically, looking for some solution, any solution, to the one-sizefits- all curriculum he was struggling to apply in his classroom.
"I was a teacher in a classroom with all kinds of different learners and was frustrated and having a tough time of it," Mundorf says. "The standard approach to the curriculum just wasn't working."
These days, he presents information to students in a variety of ways and lets them present what they've learned in ways that fit their learning preferences. For example, during the unit he teaches on the U.S. Constitution, he gives his students a choice of reading or listening to an audio recording from the textbook, watching an explanation that he has prerecorded, viewing a video on BrainPop.com, or listening to a musical explanation of the Constitution on Flocabulary.com. The difference in his classroom has been stark. Discipline problems are "almost nonexistent" because, as Mundorf sees it, each student is engaged with learning. "Once you think about it, a one-size-fits-all approach to the curriculum becomes kind of silly," he says. "We need to help students understand their own learning and give kids their own path to explore. I have no control over the standardized curriculum, or who's assigned to my classroom. What I can control is the flexibility of my goals, my methods, my materials, and my assessments."
Katie Novak is the districtwide coordinator for reading and ELL in the Chelmsford, Mass., public schools. For 11 years she was a classroom teacher. Five years ago she did a weeklong training in UDL at CAST and has been a passionate advocate ever since. "There is no teacher in the world who doesn't believe we have kids who are tremendously different, whom you can't reach using these standardized methods," she says.
As an example of how UDL is applied in the real world, she described an assignment she gave to seventh-graders to see if they understood the way point of view is used in the book The Outsiders. While traditionally all students would have been asked to write a paper on point of view, in Novak's UDL classroom, they were given a choice of how to do the assignment. Some chose to do a video, others did a painting, others did various tweets showing a shift in point of view. Of course students need to learn to become proficient in writing, but Novak's point, and one of the points of UDL, is that separate skills — in this case, writing and demonstrating an understanding of the concept of point of view — should not be lumped together. In her observation, students do better if they're allowed to break these two skills into parts and choose the means for demonstrating that they understand a concept.
"This is very different from how teachers are taught to teach," Novak says. Giving the students different options for learning can "look messy," she continues, but "within the chaos is real engagement." (An added bonus: Novak saw a measurable leap in her students' standardized test scores after she started teaching using UDL.)
Adam Deleidi, assistant principal at the Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Revere, Mass., is working to help teachers use UDL in all aspects of their teaching, partly through a tool CAST created called UDL Studio. In his view, it's a way to shift lesson planning from aiming at the middle to targeting the specific needs of all the students in the class.
Rose is the first to admit that implementation is an issue. Learning how to implement a UDL curriculum takes time — and it often takes a whole rethinking of both curriculum and teaching philosophy. Some potential users of UDL would like CAST to box up UDL, create a short and specific set of steps for teachers to follow, and, voila, there you have a UDL classroom. This clashes with CAST's philosophy that great teaching can't be ritualized and imposed from the outside. For UDL to work the way it's supposed to, teachers have to understand it in a holistic way, understand their students, and then figure out how to implement it themselves.
"We are wrestling with how can we support people with implementing UDL without turning it into a cookbook. We want teachers to be cooks, not recipe-followers," says Rose.
Yet while CAST created the concept of UDL, it has now grown much bigger than the organization, and other groups are putting out their own instruction manuals and checklists for how to implement UDL in ways that CAST would never do. Rose and the rest of CAST considered trademarking UDL, but in the end they decided this wasn't the right approach.
"Our job is not to fight bad things because you could spend your whole life doing it. Our job is to continue to create better and better tools that will win out in the war of ideas," Rose says. CAST approaches the issue of implementation from many directions, including by teaching workshops and institutes at their headquarters or onsite at schools or state departments of education, by creating online courses, by publishing books on the policy, research, and implementation of UDL; and by making guidelines and teaching tools freely available on their website.
While UDL has become much more visible over the past half-decade, Rose argues that much work remains, in terms of expanding its reach and improving the framework and the scientific grounding behind it.
"We're in the hard part. Often revolutions falter when going from early adopters to really systemic change," he says.
Meyer, Rose's longtime colleague, says that CAST has been built with the future in mind.
"David has always wanted to hire people who are smarter than himself and distribute the credit. The next generation is coming along and is going to take this to the next level," she says. Those hires are the ones who will try to carry on the revolution that Rose, Meyer, and their colleagues started. They share an ambitious vision, one that began 30 years ago in the computer lab of a hospital clinic.
"We want to see education changed," Meyer says. "We want to see this approach be the norm, we want these tools available to everyone. We want to see UDL as a reform initiative, one that we hope will really take hold nationwide and worldwide."
— Katie Bacon is a freelance writer and editor based in Boston who has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and other publications.