Sprinkled throughout the newly reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are references to an instructional strategy that supporters think has enormous potential for reaching learners with diverse needs.
The next thing to do, those proponents say, is getting more educators to understand just what it means.
Called universal design for learning, or UDL for short, the strategy encompasses a wide set of teaching techniques, allowing multiple ways for teachers to present information and for students to engage in lessons and demonstrate what they know.
A universally designed lesson, for example, might include audiovisual components, illustrations, traditional lectures, enlarged print, or glossaries so that students can have easy access to unfamiliar terms. Universal design for learning also encourages students to use a variety of techniques, such as group projects, multimedia presentations, drawings, or music.
Within the Every Student Succeeds Act, the latest update of the ESEA, Congress said that states should adhere to principles of universal design for learning as they develop student assessments. The law also calls for states to create plans for comprehensive literacy instruction and to incorporate universal design for learning principles in those plans.
ESSA also says that federal money can be used for technology that supports the strategy.
Universal design for learning is for any student. But it is seen as particularly important for students with disabilities, English-language learners, and others who might struggle with more traditional methods of teaching and testing. It also makes an appearance in the Higher Education Act of 2008, which defines the term and provides guidelines for how its principles can be incorporated into teacher training.
The recognition of the approach in the new law is spotty, said Nancy Reder, the co-chairwoman of the National UDL Task Force, a coalition of some 50 organizations that are promoting more widespread adoption of universal design for learning methods.
But the group will take it, she said.
“What we had hoped for is that UDL would be something that could be mentioned, not just on the assessment portion [of the law], but on things you can do with the money. We didn’t get that,” she said.
But the organization sees the mentions as an acknowledgment of how important it is to embrace strategies to reach all learners, said Reder, who is also the deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
Sean J. Smith, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas and an expert in technology and universal design for learning, also supports the attention if it leads to a greater understanding of the practice. Though UDL has been a defined practice since the 1990s, Smith says that many people still don’t have a deep understanding of the approach and how it can work in their classrooms.
What’s important for educators to understand, Smith said, is that UDL is not a piece of technology, even though technology can support the practice. Universal design for learning is also not a pre-packaged curriculum, though curriculum developers are embracing new ways of presenting information. Rather, it is an educational process that weaves itself throughout a school, he said.
“The places who are doing it well, they’re looking at their textbooks, how to design their classrooms, how to design their day. You could go into a room and think, ‘Ah, this looks different,’ ” Smith said.
Drawing on Architecture
Universal design for learning intentionally harks back to the architectural concept of universal design, which proposes that products and the built environment should be accessible to the largest number of people, without the need for adaptation. Universally designed products and architecture include items such as automatic doors that are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, lamps that can be operated without switches, or automatic teller machines that provide audio as well as visual cues.
UDL operates under the same philosophy that lessons should be created so that they can reach the most children.
Universal design for learning, or UDL, is an instructional framework that supports flexible ways for educators to teach lessons, as well as multiple ways for students to demonstrate what they know. The goal: to reach all learners, including students with disabilities and English-language learners. And it’s making big inroads in regular education classrooms as well. Some examples:
- Instructional videos accompanied by scripts and closed-captioning for students who need those supports.
- Illustrations, simulations, images, or interactive graphics to support or replace information normally provided by plain text.
- Outlines and graphic organizers to help students organize key ideas and relationships.
- Key information presented in a student’s primary language, such as Spanish or American Sign Language.
What Students Can Do
- Develop their own goals for learning, broken down with teacher support into short-term objectives.
- Complete assignments that are alternatives to traditional essays and tests, such as illustrations, songs, or PowerPoint presentations.
- Use assistive technology such as spellcheckers, text-to-speech software, or calculators.
- Take part in self-assessment strategies such as role-playing, video reviews, and peer feedback.
Source: National Center on Universal Design for Learning
Often, teachers may be using elements of universal design for learning without recognizing it, said Michael Hodnicki, the instructional coordinator for secondary language arts for the Cecil County, Md., school district. But central office support is essential to making it a systematic practice, he said.
Cecil County, a district of 16,000 students northeast of Baltimore, was one of four school districts around the country that participated in a Gates Foundation-funded project funded to support UDL.
For Cecil County, that project came around the time that the district was embarking on a curriculum rewrite.
“It enhanced our philosophy on how we address learning variability,” Hodnicki said. “It gave us a mechanism and a set collection of principles and tenets of how teachers need to think about the learners in their classroom, all needing different pathways for learning.”
The Cecil County district uses the strategy to give teachers a “performance task” framework that offers students several different ways that they can demonstrate that they grasp a particular topic.
“Teachers are excited about those kinds of things because they are different. They’re not reading 100 essays,” Hodnicki said. “One thing I have heard is that submission of assignments has increased as an result. Some of this is going to be a novelty, but we know that we can’t assess a kid ... if they’re not submitting their demonstration of understanding.”
Plus, teachers are learning more about their students this way, Hodnicki said. “They get to see where students would prefer to put their energy.”
The Bartholomew Consolidated school system in Indiana is another district that participated in the grant to enhance UDL practices. George Van Horn, the director of special education for the 11,500-student system, said an essential element of universal design for learning is understanding what every lesson is supposed to be about.
Take, for example, a lesson on the causes of the Civil War. If a teacher requires a student to write an essay on the topic, then two outcomes are being mixed—demonstrating knowledge of the Civil War, and demonstrating an ability to write an essay. A student who struggles to write an essay, for example, could still have a deep understanding of the Civil War, but just needs another way to show that.
But it’s not always easy to talk educators out of believing that there are only a few best ways to teach a lesson and or deliver an assignment, Van Horn said.
“We’re still having those conversations,” Van Horn said. Teachers still wonder “if I don’t do a test or if I don’t assign an essay, am I really assessing?”
However, the district is not eliminating more traditional forms of teaching, he said. For example, one school has created a rotation where students get large group instruction. “We have to keep that built in, because that’s part of the real world,” he said.
Courtney Rushton, a 1st grade teacher in the Bartholomew district, said that universal design principles extend to the way her classroom is set up. Children can sit at regular desks, a standing desk, or on yoga balls.
“My high-energy kids may not want to sit all day,” she said.
Once, an administrator visited her classroom when a student was sprawled on Rushton’s desk. During the lesson she asked the student a question. He nailed it, Rushton said.
“The key part is letting go and knowing that it’s okay and they’re still going to learn,” she said. “I have found over the past three years that I’ve been here that the more that I let go and give control to my students, the more success that I see in the classroom.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as ESSA Spotlights Strategy to Reach Diverse Learners