I thought I had a pretty good handle on universal design for learning (UDL), but after chatting with Katie Novak, Ed.D., I realize I didn’t understand the framework at all. Novak, author of UDL Now! A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning in Today’s Classrooms, Second Edition and assistant superintendent of schools at the Groton-Dunstable (MA) Regional School District, helped me truly understand what UDL is and, perhaps more important, what it isn’t.
Q: What exactly is UDL, and why does it matter?
A: Our classrooms today are incredibly diverse. As we embrace equity and inclusion, we have to meet the needs of all students. To do this, we have to change the way we “do” school. When I was young, we were tracked, starting in first grade, into “high” or “low” reading groups, gifted, etc. Now we know that’s not good for anyone. Classes have a wide mix of strengths and weaknesses, and a one-size-fits-all curriculum does not meet most children’s needs.
In 1990, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) renewed our national focus on the least-restrictive environment. As more and more students were educated with their peers, we started to realize that having all students read the same book and take the same test doesn’t work. We began providing accommodations through differentiated instruction and teachers figured out what to change or modify to accommodate “disabled” learners. Although this allowed students to access knowledge, they weren’t empowered to become learners and make choices for themselves. Instead, the curriculum was compartmentalized and decisions were consistently made about students without their voice.
The UDL framework starts with the belief that every student is different and that’s the norm. We call these differences “variability” and we embrace it. When students come to us differently, and they face barriers to learning, it’s our curriculum that’s disabled, not our students. All students have assets and strengths and goals and interests. UDL lets us offer them options and choices to create personalized pathways to meet very rigorous goals. Our job is to teach them as they come.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: Sure. In English language arts, students need to analyze how complex characters develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot. Ten to fifteen years ago, the whole class would read The Old Man and the Sea, analyze how Santiago develops over the course of the text, and write an essay. But that doesn’t tell the teacher if the students understand characterization; it only proves they can answer questions about that novel.
With UDL, you look at a traditional lesson and start by identifying the barriers. For this example, the barriers of handing out the same novel to every student could be that the reading level is too rigorous, or not challenging enough, the students lack necessary background knowledge, or visual processing is challenging. To eliminate those barriers, I would provide options like listening to the novel, providing visuals or supporting background knowledge through a video, reading with a partner, or choosing a different book. To teach about characterization, I’d provide students with the option to work individually or in small groups and offer resources and videos so they can personalize their learning and connect it to a text that’s relevant, authentic, and meaningful to them.
After that, I’d ask students to express what they learned about character development by either writing an essay, creating an infographic, doing a presentation, creating a vlog, working alone or with partners, and so on. In UDL, I start with the goal and consider which options and choices students need to achieve that goal. There are numerous pathways to reach the same destination.
Q: That sounds like differentiated instruction.
A: UDL empowers students to recognize their own interests and needs and personalize learning to their standard. Differentiated instruction is about what the teacher will do, based on her perceptions of students’ needs. With UDL, teachers proactively design the curriculum to eliminate barriers. Differentiated instruction emphasizes the teacher’s role to address students’ needs; the teacher constructs activities based on different groupings of students. UDL empowers teachers to design lessons for the broadest possible range of students.
Q: Wow; the two are really quite different. Tell me more about UDL.
A: With UDL, we let students make choices and then participate in a self-assessment. They learn how their choices allowed them to work toward their goals so they can make adjustments and learn about what works and what doesn’t.
Q: Why do you think UDL is the right framework for every district?
A: We have to get kids future ready. The old way—compliance—works really well for robots. If we want kids to compete, they have to be creative, reflective problems-solvers who can set goals and collaborate and solve problems as they work toward goals. If I can teach a child to know herself as a learner, to understand which strategies will help her achieve her goals, and the importance of trial-and-error and self-reflection, then that child will be successful. If we continue to teach in the traditional “know your facts” type of way, what will kids gain? We have apps for that.
Q: Are there any downsides to a teacher using UDL?
A: It requires an incredible amount of professional development (PD) for teachers. A lot of districts have invested in curriculum that dictates what page to be on each week. This style of teaching results in huge achievement gaps that have been largely unmoving. We have to do things differently, but that means un-learning almost everything we learned about how to teach.
With UDL, you need to give up a lot of control, which is very scary. Educators have to have faith that the kids can personalize and and they can facilitate that by continually walking around, providing feedback, and connecting students to resources. It’s much more organic. In UDL, teachers plan for variability. When this is done purposefully, students are all doing different things at the same time. It’s scary and beautiful.
We implemented UDL in our district’s elementary schools and are seeing that students grow up learning how to learn. In Massachusetts, only 52 of our 1,800 schools were recognized by the Department of Education in 2018 for high achievement, high growth, and/or significantly exceeding their accountability targets. Both of our district elementary schools were highlighted for this distinction, and UDL was an integral part of their success. We’ve been implementing UDL for four years and are starting to see the framework transform teaching and learning. We have two half-days of PD and curriculum work every month in elementary to ensure that we can support our educators. You have to do that to transform a district.
Q: Last question: What three things should administrators do if they’re interested in going down the UDL path?
A: First, educate yourself about UDL and how it’s different from differentiated instruction. Some good resources are the nonprofit organization CAST and UDL thought leaders such as Loui Lord Nelson, Liz Berquist, Joni Degner, and Jon Mundorf. Second, understand that significant growth doesn’t happen by making small changes. Create a long-term district strategy that measures the implementation of UDL over time. Plan for the long haul. Last but not least, build in a consistent cycle of self-reflection. Use data to evaluate and modify your practice just as we encourage students to do in universally designed classrooms. Survey students, families, and teachers to determine the level of engagement kids have, and refine the plan again. Keep repeating until all the barriers that interfere with learning are eliminated. I promise you, the investment is worth it.