This week we got to explore the misunderstood world of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I say misunderstood because of the common misconception that UDL is solely geared towards students with special needs. However, in reality, UDL principles can be used for all types of learners, whether they have detectable learning disabilities or not. The key is that UDL addresses learners in general, who often differ in learning styles and abilities.
So what exactly is UDL? According to Eagleton, Guinee & Langlais (2006), it is “a philosophy that seeks to create tools and materials in which the content, means of expression, and balance of support and challenge are customizable to support individual learners” (p. 150).
In order to achieve this flexibility, a good understanding is required of how the brain learns. Rose & Meyer (2002) identify three neural networks of particular importance to learning; they are the recognition, strategic and affective networks (n.pag).
The recognition network serves “to receive and analyze information” including “patterns of sound, light, taste, smell and touch” (the “what” of learning) (Rose et al., 2002). The strategic network works “to plan and execute actions” ranging from playing sports, to writing an essay (the “how” of learning) (Rose et al., 2002). The affective network oversees evaluating and setting priorities when engaging “with the world around us” which in turn causes to “attach emotional significance” to our surroundings (the “why” of learning) (Rose et al., 2002). The interoperation of these networks varies from learner to learner, as some may be stronger in one area but weaker in another (and vice versa); this is what makes each and every learner unique (Rose et al., 2002).
Having established that learners’ brains operate in different ways, Rose et al. (2002) go on to mention that “learners’ capacities are not inherent; capacities are defined by the interplay between learners’ abilities and the tools they use.” This would lead one to conclude that educators take great care in the selection of materials they use with their learners. However, the reality is that the materials and media often used (e.g., books, lectures, etc.) are just recycled from year to year, usually due to convenience (Rose et al., 2002). Such forms of inflexible materials/media “operate on a one-size-fits-all mindset,” however “they do not fit everyone” which in turn hampers learning efforts (Rose et al., 2002).
In order to address this issue, what’s needed is greater consideration to be made on the part of educators in the selection of materials, including suitability for content/activity in question, as well as learners’ abilities (Rose et al., 2002). In addition, more emphasis should be given on the use of flexible media such as “digital text, sound, images” and the Internet which offer numerous instructional options for educators which in turn “can open the doors to learning” (Rose et al., 2002).
So how exactly does UDL play into the fold of all this? Based on the aforementioned brain research and prospects offered with flexible media, the goal behind UDL is to provide alternatives within instruction so that it is “accessible and appropriate” for all learners (Rose et al., 2002). However, the ‘universal’ in UDL does not mean “one optimal solution for everyone”; instead, it recognizes that all learners are unique, and that instruction needs to be differentiated in order to accommodate such differences (Rose et al., 2002).
There are three key principles within the UDL framework allowing for this desired flexibility, each geared towards a respective neural network (i.e., recognition, strategic and affective) (Rose et al., 2002). The first principle states that instruction should provide multiple means of representation in support of recognition learning. The second calls for multiple means for action and expression in support of strategic learning. The last principle requires multiple means for engagement in support of affective learning. CAST offers an excellent set of guidelines to consult when assessing a lesson for UDL compatibility; it can be found here: UDL Guidelines - v.2 (http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines)
In conclusion, I too must admit that I used to turn a blind eye whenever I heard any mention of UDL simply because I wasn’t teaching special needs students. However, after completing the readings this week, it’s clear that that this was an ignorant mindset to have. As instructors, we often find ourselves labeling students simply as “unintelligent” if they don’t understand the material we’re covering, but this obviously isn’t fair. It could very well be the case that our students learn differently from the approach we use. The question now is whether we as instructors are willing to change. This is what UDL addresses where the focus is on instruction, rather than learners (Rose et al., 2002). Using the UDL framework, we have a better chance of acquiring the necessary flexibility in order “to teach every student, not just some” (Rose et al., 2002).
Rose, D., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/teachingeverystudent/ideas/tes/
• Chapters 2, 3, 4
Eagleton, M., Guinee, K., & Langlais, K. (2006). Teaching internet literacy strategies: The Hero Inquiry Project. In D. Rose & A. Meyer (Eds.), A practical reader in Universal Design for Learning (pp. 149-161). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.