The Growing Case for UDL
How a movement that started with environmental and product design could revolutionize learning in your school.
By Kim Greene
In the past two years, Adam Deleidi has seen a dramatic improvement at his school—the kind of change that makes you do a double take. Both special education and discipline referrals are down by 50 percent. Out-of-school suspensions have plummeted by 70 percent as well, according to the assistant principal of Susan B. Anthony Middle School in Revere, Massachusetts.
Deleidi says it’s because of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). The school began to implement the framework in the 2012–13 school year. “There’s a misconception that this is a technology or special education initiative. It’s not either,” he says. “It’s about figuring out different ways to represent ideas and varying ways we allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.”
What UDL Is—and What It’s Not
The Center for Applied Special Technologies, or CAST, in Wakefield, Massachusetts, pioneered UDL in the early 1990s, drawing on neuroscience research to understand the needs of diverse learners. The term universal design for learning derived from the universal design movement in architecture. Ronald Mace, the architect who led the charge, sought to design products and environments that were “usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
You don’t need to look very far to find universal design in your everyday life. Take, for example, closed captioning on TVs. Though originally a feature meant to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing, closed captioning comes in handy for a wide variety of users. You’ll realize this the next time you’re watching TV at an airport or while on the treadmill at the gym.
UDL aims to do the same—to give the widest spectrum of students access to the curriculum from the outset. UDL is not a curriculum itself, but rather a framework for delivering instruction. Educators design lessons to align with three principles: multiple means to engage, multiple means to represent information, and multiple means for students to show what they learn through action and expression. In providing this variability, teachers will reduce the impact of barriers—such as dyslexia, ADHD, or limited English proficiency—to the learning process.
UDL in Action
When Deleidi walks into a UDL classroom, what he sees is far from the one-size-fits-all approach. In a history class, for example, he’s not likely to observe a teacher assigning a five-paragraph essay on the Roman Empire. “You might have a kid who knows a ton about the Roman Empire but isn’t a great writer. The teacher is bound to misassess the student’s understanding,” he explains. “You give the kids choices of how they can demonstrate their understanding. If the students put together a skit, you’re going to tap into a different part of the brain.” This approach, says Deleidi, promotes creativity and retention.
Deleidi also commonly sees students in UDL classrooms accessing written text in different ways. “We have a number of students who come to us not reading at grade level,” he says. “When they’re in a history class and the only mode for them to access the curriculum is written text, that’s a barrier. Reading and writing are of the utmost importance. We value that. But that shouldn’t mean that they are not learning in science or social studies.”
To reduce that barrier to learning, Deleidi’s teachers will give all students—whether it’s a child who is struggling or an honors-level student—options for accessing the text. One might choose to listen to an audio of it on an iPad. Another might stick with reading. A third student might use both methods.
Teaching students to choose which option is best for them is key, says Katie Novak, author of UDL Now! and assistant superintendent in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District in Massachusetts. And that means getting to know each student as an individual learner, she explains.
A textbook might tell her to differentiate by providing struggling readers with a graphic organizer and above-level students with a writing prompt. That’s not something Novak is comfortable with. “It’s giving different kids access to a stronger curriculum where other students only have the option of a more watered-down curriculum,” she says. “Why are we not providing the best tools for all students? I want to teach you whether you need the graphic organizer or not, regardless of your ability, background, or language proficiency.”
The Common Core Era
What place does UDL have in a school system in the age of Common Core? “We see the Common Core as the ‘what,’ ” says Grace Meo, senior director of professional learning and outreach services at CAST. “It lays out the goals and the expectations. It’s the destination. UDL provides the ‘how.’ ”
In fact, UDL is included in the standards’ supplement called “Application to Students With Disabilities” as a method to help students with special needs meet the standards. (UDL advocates are quick to point out that the framework, by its “universal” nature, is meant to benefit the entire student population, not just special education learners.)
Critics are bound to argue that the real world, filled with more rigorous expectations, doesn’t offer the kind of flexibility that UDL puts forth. PARCC and Smarter Balanced will require students to write developed pieces, like five-paragraph essays. There will be no choice in the matter.
Novak agrees, but she sees plenty of ways to embed choice and variability in lessons to prepare students for the expectations of the Common Core assessments. She recalls her time as an English teacher as an example. “Yes, they had to take the standardized tests, and yes, they had to respond in a certain amount of time,” she says. “Even though there’s not a lot of choice—as in, you can choose to write or not to write—you can choose to access these exemplars or choose to use this checklist to monitor your progress.” These skills, such as self-regulation and self-assessment, can be taught using the UDL framework and will lead to success on tests, Novak says.
Practice What You Preach
A growing number of school districts are putting UDL practices like these into action. But getting a program off the ground isn’t quick because it requires a substantial mind shift for many educators. Meo says implementation generally takes two to four years.
Because no one district goes about implementation in the same way, there is no set cost. “It’s not a shrink-wrapped box that says, ‘Here’s what it costs. Put it into place,’ ” Meo says. The largest financial investment is professional development, though the price tag will vary depending on the route you take. A course like CAST’s UDL Institute—an intensive, weeklong program at Harvard University—cost $2,645 per person last summer.
Deleidi’s district began by sending a small team of administrators to the CAST institute in the summer of 2012. During that school year, a cohort of teachers, coaches, and administrators continued to learn about the framework. They eventually formed the school’s UDL leadership team, disseminating the information in principal meetings and professional learning groups. “The goal is to get information in as many brains as possible. We can do that directly through CAST and Harvard or through a ‘train the trainer’ model,” Deleidi explains. “We’re doing a mixed bag.”
Once you’ve started implementation, Novak recommends shifting staff meetings and professional development to a UDL-friendly format as quickly as possible. In a traditional staff meeting about safety protocols, an administrator might rattle off a list of rules. “That’s the classroom that UDL is trying to get away from,” Novak points out. At her own meeting on the same topic, she would allow staff to choose from a few options—break off into groups to discuss the protocol, read about it on their own, or view a PowerPoint presentation.
For PD sessions, Novak has offered a menu of options to suit the diverse needs of teachers as learners, including small-group book studies, large-group workshops, and online modules. “Just as there is significant variability among students, staff have [varying] interests and ways they like to learn, as well as time they have to commit to learning about new practices,” Novak says. She has noticed that educators are more confident and willing to take on new professional development when it’s offered in ways that meet their needs.
Deleidi says that following this model of implementation has paid off for his students. He credits the decrease in suspensions and referrals directly to UDL.
“The best way to minimize classroom discipline issues is with effective lesson planning,” he explains. “When we have fewer discipline issues, that means students are engaged in learning.” He also believes that the drop in special education referrals is evidence that teachers are better able to help students who would otherwise be evaluated for special services.
“The big idea with us is meeting the needs of the kids,” he says. “Those are the ways we’re measuring our own success.”
Illustration: MIGUEL DAVILLA