Why is UDL the Way Forward?

This is an experimental audio post for the Work In Progress blog.

It will be no surprise to those who know me or follow this blog that I am an advocate for Universal Design for Learning.  The first question most people ask is “What is UDL?” Today, however, I want to address a far more essential question – Why is UDL the framework needed to transform education?

I see three underlying values that call for UDL:

The first is that we value each and every unique individual.  We are each a unique collection of assets – our experiences, our talents, our interests, and our approach to understanding and interacting with our world.  We need to value our differences or variability, not see them as a deviation from a mythical norm or average.

The next is that, as educators, we believe in equity, that every student deserves an equitable opportunity to reach their full potential.  In order to provide equity to every student, we need opportunities that are as varied as we are. Our current interpretation of teaching and learning is what is flawed, not our students.  We need to check our own privilege and make room for all students.

Finally, providing equity, access, and education to every student elevates the common good.  We all do better as a community when each and every one of us does well as an individual.

In education, Universal Design for Learning is how we implement those values.

Affect

We all have unique experiences, innate skills, and interests.  These impact what we enjoy, find compelling, and are willing to work hard to learn.  Teaching content and skills that students find uninteresting or unimportant, or where they cannot imagine themselves being successful will cause them to be unengaged or even defensive. By focusing on students, we can teach content and skills in a context that highlights the importance of the goals, provides them with the support they need to persist when they have difficulty, and builds the self-regulatory and independent learning skills to be lifelong expert learners.  

Imagine teaching the water cycle from a textbook or diagram.  Now, imagine that same content provided through a classroom terrarium, connected to the rainfall or lack thereof happening in your region and the impact on students’ lives.  For some, the impact of human behavior on the environment may be a powerful motivator to learn about the water cycle and fresh potable water.

Recognition

We “see” things in different ways.  Sometimes, this has to do with how we physically perceive things such as a vision or hearing impairment.  Sometimes the way we recognize or derive meaning from materials is the result of how we process what our senses tell us.  Equity demands that we present content and skills in a way that every student can make sense of the presentation. Real access demands that we give students options that allow them to make sense it the best way possible for each student.  This is often the easiest place for us to dig into UDL as advances in technology, coupled with decreased costs, allow us to pull from a wide selection of ready made services and materials for presenting materials in auditory and visual modes.  It is equally important that we also remember the role of language in our education and the need to provide options for understanding not only vocabulary, but symbols, graphics, and more.

Action and Expression

We have our own ways of applying and demonstrating knowledge.  Here is where our obsession with high-stakes testing has truly failed our students and communities.  Let’s go back to the example of the water cycle mentioned earlier. It isn’t uncommon for tests to ask for a paragraph or other written test to determine if a student understands the water cycle.  For students who struggle with written language or who are English Learners, this becomes a test of their ability to compose and produce writing, not an assessment of their understanding of the water cycle.  Given opportunities to draw diagrams, create models, or photograph the terrarium and label the processes seen there, students (and assessments) can focus on the correct content and skills.

Over the years, our understanding of how students learn and the resources available have expanded greatly, but we still struggle to move forward with implementation of UDL.  More about why that continues will be addressed in a later episode.

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