Monday, March 10, 2014

UDL for All Learners

The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) was founded in 1984 at the same time the report A Nation at Risk was released about the state of education that expressed the need to provide all individuals with full and equal educational opportunities. CAST envisioned new technologies as learning tools for learners especially those with disabilities. Ann Meyers and David Rose from CAST developed Universal Design for Learning (UDL) [].

What they found out in the early years at CAST is that UDL was not about learners overcoming their barriers; it was about reducing or eliminating the barriers that keep learners from learning. CAST started with digital books for those with reading challenges; linked definitions for those with limited vocabulary; large buttons that talked for those with low vision and so on. In fact, each interface was customized for each learner. What they realized was that the curriculum, not the learner, was the problem. UDL is an approach to curriculum that minimizes barriers and maximizes learning for all learners.

UDL drew upon neuroscience and educational research to design learning environments based on the UDL principles:
  • Multiple means of representation 
  • Multiple means of engagement
  • Multiple means of action and expression 

UDL is the framework for personalized learning. We found this very helpful for the teachers we are working with to personalize learning. UDL made sense for all learners. If you look at the three principles from the learner’s point of view, it is all about access and how they process information, how they engage with the content and use what they learn, and how they express what they know and understand. To personalize learning, we recommend using these three terms: access, engage, and express to help teachers wrap their hands around the design of their curriculum and learning environment.

Schools have been teaching “one-size-fits-all” to the average learner for too long. Dr. Todd Rose, a Harvard professor, was a research scientist for CAST, and is co-founder of Project Variability stated that "even though we have the most diverse population in the world, we are unable to exploit this natural advantage in human capital." 

Four percent of dropouts in the US are intellectually gifted. That comes up to 50,000 minds each year who don't fit in the average model. 

What about those who dropped out who were not identified
as gifted but have gifts and special talents? How much of this is bad design? 

We have been taught to design learning environments for the average learner. We call our system age-appropriate, but it is not. Learners vary on many dimensions of learning. According to Rose, each learner has a jagged learning map. We adapted the learning map from Todd Rose's Myth of Average Ted Talk so it encompasses the information around personalizing learning. 

Read more and view the Ted Talk at:

We keep creating learning environments where we expect learners to do the same thing as everyone else. It is time to rethink how we design learning environments that support the full range of learners in our classrooms. Not only is there a variability in learners, there is variability in learning as a learner learns. The study of neuroplasticity of the brain shows that the brain changes in response to positive social-emotional experiences.

The core beliefs of CAST are to develop the theory of self-efficacy for learners to believe in their own abilities and competence. UDL informs the design of the environment so that it is flexible enough to address variability. UDL happens both in the design of the learning environment and in the use of the design to facilitate the appropriate, dynamic interaction between the learner and context.  

For so long the predominant instructional materials were printed textbooks and worksheets that were fixed and inflexible. Any learner that could not learn that way was labeled disabled, underachieving or failing. Classrooms became textbook-centered instead of learner-centered. Since there were no obvious alternatives, learners had to learn how to adapt. Now that can change. The idea of a well-designed learning environment, systematic variability is planned from the beginning based on the diversity of all learners.

Clear learning goals are the foundation for any effective curriculum. Designing UDL goals takes practice. In traditional learning environments, learners think narrowly about goals and how they meet them. Effective goals challenge and actively involve learners. 

“What we want are kids who are able to set good goals for themselves, to be able to regulate when things go wrong, to be able to sustain and handle frustration.”
David Rose

Using the UDL framework, there are materials and methods that support the variability of learners by offering:
  • Choices of content and tools
  • Adjustable levels of challenge
  •  Choices of rewards
  •  Opportunities to practice
  • Ongoing, relevant feedback
  • Multiple media and formats

UDL materials offer strategies like hyperlinked glossaries, pop-up video tutorials, and manipulatives to just name a few. UDL methods provide a flexible learning environment that encourages learner voice and choice. To build a UDL culture that supports all learners, there needs to be effective professional development (PD) for teachers and all staff.  Teachers are learners also and diverse learners just like those in their class. “One size fits all” PD does not build a UDL culture.

Since UDL is the framework for a personalized learning environment, then the focus needs to be on building a culture of expertise. That means expert learners and expert teachers. Expert learners believe in themselves as learners, seek new knowledge and know when to ask for help. Expert teachers know how to act on challenges and understand the variability of their learners.

Sounds simple, but all of this takes time, a flexible learning environment, and trust that allows for taking risks. That doesn’t happen overnight. As soon as learners have a voice and choice in their learning, teaching changes. This is where teachers need support and coaching. This works well when teachers are in a community of practice sharing ideas, lessons, what worked, what didn’t work, and what they might do different next time. 

We highly recommend reading “Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice” by Anne Meyer, David Rose, and David Gordon because the authors go into more detail and provide interactive modules and videos that are valuable resources. 


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