So you think you understand UDL?

A universal design for learning practitioner demystifies the framework

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.

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