UDL: An Educational Opportunity for All!

I am continually fascinated with research about how learning occurs within the brain. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with partial-complex seizures (epilepsy).  For those of you unfamiliar with the different types of Epilepsy, I encourage you to educate yourself, since this is far more common than you realize, and if you work in education, you should know! My seizures are non-convulsent. You wouldn’t know that I was having a seizure if I had one, in fact, I can continue to talk right through it, though I would prefer to pause for a few seconds while the flushing feeling goes through me.  It’s all controlled by medication, but along with the medication comes some short term memory issues and sleepiness.  Why am I bringing this up? Because although not diagnosed until recent years, I believe that I likely was having seizures in my sleep for many years growing up and didn’t know it.  I also wonder to what extent these seizures may have impacted my executive functioning skills or organizational skills and the like? (maybe I have found a valid excuse for having the absolute worse organizational skills and difficulty finishing things I start?)  I likely will never know, but the brain is fascinating to me.

I have been reading about how we each learn.  How different parts of our brain are used to recognize, for instance, a word in writing vs. a word that is spoken, or attaching a word to a picture.  How we retrieve information and how we apply information learned.  What is also fascinating to me is how our approach to students in the classroom can focus on deficits (presenting barriers to learning) or focus on strengths and abilities (creating opportunities for learning).  By changing the approach to education – by taking a proactive approach to learning/teaching – we are able to reach more students during the first round of teaching.  In our traditional method of teaching, we often present information and then check for understanding and have a handful of students who because of skill deficits or learning disabilities we react to by creating one-on-one or small group instruction opportunities, reteaching our material to the whole class, etc.  But when we change our approach to teaching to begin by providing instruction for all students, regardless of barriers, we can greatly reduce the amount of reteaching we need to do. Furthermore, those students who “sort of got it” when we taught it in our traditional manner, likely really “got it” when presented in this new way!

And, so this makes me think about UDL and Transition. It also makes me ponder how to best use my knowledge and skills to help serve the students who I work with. One of the biggest complaints I anticipate with the “talk” of UDL in the classroom, once people realize that this is a concept that stretches beyond ACCESS to classrooms and curriculum, is the perception that incorporating technology and the like will be time consuming.  What I hope to be able to convey to others is how much time it will free up if you reach students on the first round instead of having to reteach and review with those who didn’t “get it” on the first go.  I envision a shift in thought from seeing students with disabilities as those who need the multi-modality of teaching to seeing all students benefiting from various methods of presenting, incorporating, engaging, and assessing.

I believe that over time, when more teachers understand the benefits of UDL in it’s entirety, students will begin to become actively engaged in not only their own learning but their own understanding of the learning process.  With this comes empowerment and self-determination!  It is my belief that transition personnel, whether in schools or agencies, can help to promote the broader concept of UDL by informing others that UDL extends beyond accessibility for individuals with disabilities.  It ensures accessibility and opportunity for all students.

Some great resources for teachers The UDL Toolkit

There is no “Average” student!

In a world full of standardized tests and labeling, where students are grouped and categorized and schools are judged on things like scores on tests given once a year at select grade levels, it seems hard to believe that there is no “average” student.  But think about it…how could there be an “average” student when we KNOW that we each learn differently?  Our brains, complex computer-like systems, are not all the same. We, in education, have known for a long time that we each learn differently….but I’m not sure we realized just HOW differently we learn. It’s not as simple as “I’m a visual learner” or “He’s a kinesthetic learner”.  (I always struggled when asked how I best learn – it always seemed to me that I learned SOME things through listening/talking, but other things by doing or applying what I was learning. And still other subjects I learned simply by seeing and visualizing.)  And, now, according to cognitive neuroscientists and research in education, it seems I am right! I learn different things differently!

It seems that if we, as educators, approach teaching with the belief that there is variability among learners, not only in the method that they gain knowledge, but also in the methods that they interact with information and demonstrate their knowledge, that we can ensure that we reach each student to the best of our ability.  And, not only that we reach the student, which should be of primary importance, but we will also become proactive teachers as opposed to reactive teachers.  So often, we teach and then look around for the students who have missed something and we attempt to adjust our teaching in a one-on-one or small group setting to help that particular student or group of students “get it”.  Or, we change the method of evaluating for that particular student.  Instead, by approaching education with an understanding of systematic learner variability, we can prevent this reactive teaching. We can prepare our lessons and our instruction and our evaluation to become better teachers. We will no longer be presenting barriers to education but we will present students with opportunities to become actively engaged in their learning.

This concept of learner variability extends past the walls of traditional educational environments. Professionals working with individuals with or without disabilities can benefit from having an understanding of how our brain works and how we each learn and in remembering that the brain is a complex organ that varies from person to person.  When we change how we approach learning to consider learner variability, we eliminate or reduce the tendency to look at the disability, and instead look at the unique strengths and abilities.  This shift in thought allows us to focus on positives and reduce the tendency to compare to a nonexistent “average”.

Video: Learner Variability and Universal Design for Learning

Video: Learner Variability and Universal Design for Learning.

Active Learning

What is the difference between Learning and Active Learning? Isn’t ALL learning active learning? No!!!

Imagine yourself in a classroom, one that if you are my age you’ve experienced many times over in middle or more likely high school or even college.  You are sitting upright in your seat, likely a hard wooden or plastic seat attached to the desk portion, inseparable with a lovely metal basket attached underneath so you can fit whatever notebook or book you need on the little desk part.

You and your classmates are sitting in neat rows facing the front of the room, where most likely there is an expansive wall sized chalk board.  The teacher is likely up there and somewhere on the board it might say the date or the name of the class and the teacher’s name, in case you somehow forgot it.  Maybe, if you have a more progressive teacher, on the chalkboard might be an objective for the day or an outline of what today’s classwork might be about. Maybe it says “Algebra I, Mr. Smith, pp.35 odd questions 1 – 25”. Or maybe it says “Psychology, Mrs. Smith, Test on Thursday Chapters 5 & 6”. Or, in more modern times it may read “English 11, What are five examples of symbolism in chapters 4 and 5?”

Reflect on those classes.  Did you learn? Well, you may have. But did you learn all that you could learn? Did you learn the information to retain it, to use it, to understand it. Did you ENJOY learning?

Now, consider this.  You are sitting in your classroom. But, this time there are tables in a U-shape.  Students are sitting in cushioned chairs at these tables, two people to a table.  At one end of the classroom is a Promethean board (a white board interactive board that acts as a white board, a computer screen, a projector screen, and a touch screen). In the center of the u-shape arrangement of tables are smaller tables with three-dimensional sculptures of various shapes.  Hanging from the ceiling are a series of mobiles that other students have made.  Along one wall are tables with computers and ipads. The class bell rings. You look to the white board where a projector has video swimming across the screen with words like “triangle” and “trapezoid” and shapes rotate in 3-D on the screen. The teacher allows this to play for a few minutes.  Then a question comes across the whiteboard.  The teacher reads the question “What properties of a Trapezoid and a Triangle are similar?” She asks everyone to reach for their smart phones and text their answers to a listed number on the board. Within seconds results are displayed on the board.  The teacher instructs you to put away your phones and asks everyone to turn to their partner to discuss the answers that the class shared.  She asks you to write down any that you disagree with and why.  After 3 minutes, the teacher asks for volunteers to share their thoughts and for the class to discuss their findings. She then introduces a short you tube video showing triangles and trapezoid in nature. Homework she says is to log onto the classroom blog and post a comment about today’s lesson, including at least one thing you learned.

Did you learn during this class?  Were you ENGAGED in your learning? Did you remember the information you learned?  What did you learn? What, in addition to the right-there curriculum, did you learn? Hmmmm…communication? technology? teamwork? collaboration? problem solving? and of course geometry.

You were involved in ACTIVE LEARNING.  Not just learning. And, in all likelihood, you probably ENJOYED learning!

Active Learning is learning “that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing”. (*Bonwell, C., & Eison, J. (1991). Active learning: Creating excitement in the classroom (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1). Washington, DC: George Washington University, p. 2)

Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.” (Chickering & Gamson, 1987)

Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning in My Life

The suggestion was made to look around my place of employment to discover examples of Universal Design.  Next I was asked to look for examples or opportunities for Universal Design for Learning.  The difference between these two suggestions is the term learning.  The first, Universal Design is thought of in terms of accessibility for all individuals.  The second – specifically to the learning environment.

(If you missed my previous post explaining UDL…check it out here: https://engagedinlearning.wordpress.com/2012/09/09/what-is-universal-design-for-learning-udl/ )


I work at a school.  A school that also houses a dental office (open to the public), a small student-run restaurant (open to the public), and a cosmetology clinic (open to the public). So, looking at Universal Access is something we’ve done many times in the past.  Many modifications have been made just in the 10 years that I’ve worked at my school…additional modifications would be wonderful, but funding is usually an issue.

Examples of Universal Design:

  • ADA regulations are met as required by law (ramp entrances, lowered sinks in the restrooms, wider door entrances, and the like)
  • Strobe lights for fire-alarms are in effect (for Deaf)
  • Yellow reflective tape mark door frames that may be opened to the cafeteria, etc. as cautions to prevent injuries.
  • Flourescent lights have been replaced by energy efficient and less harsh lighting.

Needs for improvements:

  • Doors to some rooms (office, resource room, guidance) are heavy and no automated doors are found
  • Some of our “theory” rooms are on the second floor of the classroom (if we were to have a student with a physical disability, there is space to move a theory room to another location, however, this is a concern that is routinely discussed with our JOC who makes financial decisions).

The next part of the suggestion/directive was to look at opportunities or examples of Universal Design for Learning in our school  This is exciting for me…I work at a Career & Technical Center…by definition we tend to teach students in a combination of methods that include theory (lecture type format), demonstrations, and application to build skills.  While some believe this is, in itself Universal Design…I don’t believe that is true. If we teach in the same methods we have always taught, and we teach in the same method each day…we continue to teach to the same students.  Those who learn in that method will learn and those who don’t won’t.  So, I looked at the various programs and in our school in general and looked at methods of teaching, arrangements of classrooms, and technology availability and use.  I reviewed the 9 Principles of Universal Design for Instruction and made the following observations (in part…this list could be never ending).

Principle 1: Equitable Use: Instruction is designed to be useful & accessible by all &  Principle 2: Flexibility in Use: Instruction Designed to accommodate a wide range of abilities

  • Books on CD and downloadable to auditory format
  • Various simulation programs that allow those who for instance, can’t solder due to physical limitations, but who could complete the curriculum of the Electronics Technology Program, to use the computer to simulate soldering and demonstrate an understanding of the concept of soldering.
  • Availability of LiveScribe Pens (technology allowing students who struggle with taking notes to record lecture/theory)
  • Some teachers provide copies of powerpoints used in lecture so that students can add any of their own notes and listen during theory.
  • Some teachers use skelotal notes.
  • Some teachers have replaced diagrams and drawing of equipment with photos or actually have moved to using the actual equipment and tools for testing instead of drawings.

Principle 3: Simple & Intuitive: Instruction is designed to be straightforward & predictable

  • Some teachers write the daily schedule on the board each day so that students know what time different activites will occur throughout the day. They can plan and predict and prepare for transition time.
  • Some teachers have a board listing the deadlines for upcoming assignments and the test dates coming up.
  • Some teachers use and provide rubrics for grading.
  • Students at our school get daily grades…these grades are based on uniform, following safety requirements/procedures, work ethic, homework completion, behavior, etc.  Some teachers use a very clear rubric that clearly shows where their daily grade comes from.

Principle 4:  Perceptible Information: Intsruction is communicated effectively regardless of sensory abilities

  • Because we are a public school, students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, have vision impairments, etc. have the necessary technologies and supports provided.  This year we don’t have any students who fit into these categories.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error: Instruction anticipates variation in student learning

  • This concept varies by program and program expectations…and teacher style…
  • Some teachers have students check in between steps of projects before they continue on to next step…this allows an opportunity to prevent an entire project from being wrong because of one missed step.
  • We have paraeducators who provide support for students and instructors to help anticipate difficulties and we attempt to modify instruction to gain the skill.
  • Many opportunities for practice naturally occur (welding techniques must be completed three times before grading – mastery, students take vitals in the health class each day when they start the day…eventually students will “get it” whether on the first or tenth of 15th try because of continual practice).
  • Use of smartboards, ipads, video, youtube, internet, project-based learning, etc.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort: Instruction designed to minimize physical effort for maximum learning

  • The opportunity for this varies by program area as we have some very physical programs and students must be able to become physically involved, however…
  • Ipad use of voice technology to record notes, live scribe pen use, computer use for typing out questions.
  • We have paired up some students with a good notetaker in the class to provide a copy of the notes or with a para-educator to provide notes if required.
  • Calculator use for math work.

Principle 7: Size and Space approach and use: Instruction designed for appropriate reach, approach, etc. & Principle 8: A community of learners: Environment promotes interaction & communication

  • Some classrooms have the desks arranged in a u shape with the teacher between them to help facilitate
  • Often students are paired or teamed together to complete assignments that mimic the work place.
  • Students will practice skills with each other (health professions, dental technology).
  • When working on the hands-on portions of the tasks (skills, projects, etc.) students are encouraged to use ‘natural supports’ (i.e. other students) to share knowledge and work together.
  • Some programs use email between or have a shared drive on the network system to share assignment lists, files, etc.

Principle 9: Instructional Climate: Instruction is designed to be welcoming & inclusive

  • We have a handbook that outlines our lack of tolerance for bullying, harrassment, etc.
  • Our resource staff who are assigned mainly to support students who have IEPs, actually enter each program that they work in (classroom) and work with any student who has difficulty. By doing this, it is clear that we are not pointing out any one student who has special needs but that we are including everyone in the learning supports provided.
  • Student photos are posted throughout the school showing their work in the programs…so students see their classmates and visitors see students working.
  • Examples of student work are displayed throughout the school.

Finally…areas for improvement….

  • We do not, that I know of, have a statement about inclusion or inclusive practices or accessibility.
  • I don’t believe individual teachers discuss or provide information about how to disclose disabilities to the teacher. (However we do provide all teachers with an IEP and all teachers attend their IEP meetings before the start of the school year).
  • Some teachers need more ideas, suggestions, tools to improve predictability, climate, etc.
  • Some teachers need more understanding of tolerance of learning differences.
  • Some instructors need to change old methods of doing things (writing in cursive, or providing tests that are hand written)

This is a long blog, and for that I apologize, but I encourage everyone to look around their place of employment…discover where there may be accessibility issues.  If you work in education, explore the 9 principles and see if there are places for improvement to help reach all learners in ways that perhaps you haven’t thought of before!

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

Let’s talk about Universal Design for Learning. The course I am taking right now is all about this UDL concept. I had previously thought about it in two forms – Universal Access (Thinking ADA regulations for accessibility), and another term for Differentiated Learning of sorts. I am quickly learning that UDL is SOOOOO very much more! And so much more science based.

In the context of Education, it falls under IDEA regulations…

“…an approach to teaching, learning, curriculum development and assessment that uses new technologies to respond to a variety of individual learner differences.” (IDEA)

This definition is so much broader and more encompassing than what I had initially believed it to be.

What I’ve discovered is that while UDL certainly includes the accessibility component, it also applies to the specifics of the learning methodology…acquiring information, using the information, applying the information, demonstrating knowledge, engaging in the learning.

And more importantly for those educators who believe it is just more differentiated instruction, a term that I think has been overused and sort of lost meaning for many, its foundation is in brain research.

Someone recently said “well why didn’t we know this before? This can’t be new.” And what I have discovered is with new technology comes new research and new knowledge.  Studies of the brain have revealed that we use different parts of our brain to both gain various types of information and to use this information and retrieve this information and interact with this information and apply this information to new contexts.  Our brain is so much more complex and learning is so different than what we once thought. Educators today, if they seek to educate their students, must understand this new concept of learning and understand the importance of implementing methods to UDL into their curriculum, their classrooms, their environment for all the stages of learning.

More on UDL: http://www.cast.org/udl/

%d bloggers like this: