Special Report
Special Education Q&A

Learning by Universal Design

By Anthony Rebora — June 18, 2014 10 min read
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David H. Rose is a developmental neuropsychologist and educator who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the founder and chief education officer of CAST, a nonprofit research and development organization that seeks to improve instruction for a range of learners through innovative uses of multimedia technology and research in the cognitive neurosciences. Rose is also considered to be the principal architect of Universal Design for Learning, a curriculum-development framework based on flexible instructional approaches that can be customized and adjusted to address the learning needs of individual students. While often thought of as a special education program, UDL is increasingly used in a wide variety of classrooms as a way to better calibrate instruction to diverse student-learning needs.

We recently spoke with Rose about developments in UDL, personalized learning, and classroom technology. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve written that implementing a curriculum that’s truly student-centered is difficult to undertake when you’re primarily using print materials. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Sure. Print is a fixed medium. It’s essentially one-size fits all, and it works really well for some people but usually not as well for a wide spectrum of others. With print materials every student gets the same thing, but what we know from learning sciences is that students are really, really different in how successful they’ll be in getting information from a print-only source.

So what are some alternatives? If you make that book digital, it becomes flexible in a lot of important ways. An obvious one, at the extreme, is that if a student is partially blind or has poor eyesight, you can adjust the font size dramatically. Or you could have the words spoken aloud for students who are blind or who are dyslexic. So that’s the idea: If a resource is available digitally, educators can take advantage of that flexibility. The delivery method is not going to look the same to everybody but that means that more kids are going to have access to the information in it and be able to turn it into useable knowledge.

Or let’s take another example: You might have kids who come from different cultural or historical backgrounds, so they’re going to have very different levels of background knowledge when they read a text. In a printed book, you can’t really have a lot of auxiliary material because it’s confusing and creates too much stuff on the page. But in a digital version, we can provide different students with different types or levels of background-information support in a totally unobtrusive way—so that just by clicking or looking at some interwoven supplementary materials, students can get help with particular words or topics they aren’t familiar with. So you have a text that is not the same for everyone, in the sense that students are taking different paths through it, getting different supports, negotiating different challenges—that’s the way things should be.

What advice do you have for schools or educators who are looking to use more multimedia or digital tools in their instruction to better cater to students’ individual learning needs? Where should they start?

As in any education initiative, you should start by asking yourself, “What are the goals here? What am I trying to do?” I think a lot of mistakes are made by schools thinking that technology is the solution when they haven’t clearly defined the problem. So they buy 4,000 laptops but without a clear idea of what they have them for. I’m a strong believer in the power of educational technology, but I’m definitely not an advocate of just buying all sorts of devices or programs without knowing their purpose.

So having a sense of your instructional goals is an essential first step. In that regard, it’s worth mentioning that one of the things that’s driving interest in UDL right now is the adoption of the common-core standards, because that establishes a clear set of goals on what students should know and know how to do. And teachers who have diverse-needs students who really understand the standards are realizing that they need better tools to reach those goals. If the only tool you have is a printed textbook, you’re not going to get there. And you don’t want to modify or lower the standards—you want all kids to be exposed to challenging texts, for example—but you need tools that can amp up the amount of support, so that kids who need it can get real-time help with decoding, help with vocabulary if they need it, help with English or background knowledge if they need it.

The second thing is to really understand the diversity of your learners. What are the things around which kids really differ and what are the evidence-based practices that can allow us to individualize around them? Answering those questions can help educators make informed technology decisions.

What does a UDL classroom look like in practice? What are you looking for when you observe a classroom?

That’s actually a big issue. We place a high value on teachers being incredibly adaptive in the way that any skilled professional is, so UDL is not going to look exactly the same for every kid or every classroom. We don’t want to “boxify” the whole approach or make teachers follow a script. We want teachers who are carefully watching their students and using their informed discretion about what’s working and what’s not.

David H. Rose

But that caveat aside, there are some common things we look for in a UDL classroom. The first is the presence of clear goals. The teachers know what they’re trying to teach. There’s also a very rich media set available in the classroom, so that the teacher can be flexible in the way information is presented to different students. He or she might teach a physics principle, for example, via computer simulation, video, or text as appropriate.

Along with a resource-rich classroom, the teacher should also have a range of instructional methods at her disposal, so that she works with different kids in different ways and tries various ways of teaching something to make sure all her students get the material, rather than just saying it more loudly and slowly the second time. So teachers in a UDL classroom are extremely adaptive based on their observations of their students and whether something has worked so far.

Finally, we look for how well the teacher assesses what the kids have learned. We’re not big on standardized tests because they often don’t provide much in the way of actionable information—you can’t really tell why a student doesn’t know what you had hoped he or she would know. So we like to see other assessment methods—methods that can show how the student approached a problem that he or she got wrong and what parts of the lesson are working or not working for particular students. It’s not that you would never used a standardized test, but that you would never use only a standardized test. We want to see assessments that involve students creating rich products—for example, PowerPoint presentations, debates, or multimedia representations. There are all sorts of ways kids can demonstrate what they’ve learned.

What sort of training or professional development is needed to teach this way? Where do teachers generally need to improve?

There are a few different categories of things that teachers need to know in order to do this. I wish I could say it’s easy, but I know it isn’t. I think that good teaching is lot more like rocket science than people want to believe it is. So first, teachers really need to know more than they do now when they come out of education schools about the learning differences among kids. What are the actionable things you need to be looking for to know how you would approach whatever your instructional goal is? If you don’t know about the differences between kids, then you’re not going to be an effective teacher because you’re going to be successful with some but not with others. In general, I think teachers need to know more about learning sciences, about neuroscience—they need to have a better map of their terrain than many of them have now when they look out at their classroom.

Next, they need to have a better picture of the tools that are available to them, especially new tools that are much more flexible and powerful. They need to know what’s at their disposal and how to use those programs. Finally, to be able to engage kids across the spectrum, teachers need to develop strong emotional-awareness skills. People tend to see teaching as cognitive work, and it is. But there’s a great deal of emotional work involved, too. Really good teachers are able to read the emotional climate of the classroom, to recognize where each kid is emotionally. Teachers who don’t do that kind of emotional recognition are the ones who aren’t going to be very effective, no matter how well-versed they are in the subject matter. We see a large part of UDL as really focusing on the emotional work teachers need to do because it gives them more options for the cognitive stuff. This is hard work—which is why I also think that teachers should have time off more regularly. They need time to recover and process—emotional work is the hardest work of all.

Are there particular digital tools, maybe new programs, that you’re really excited about in terms of their potential to help personalize learning?

I hesitate to name specific products because of CAST’s role as consultant to ed-tech companies, but we’ve seen some really wonderful products lately in both literacy and math—products that have many supports built in. For example, we’ve seen some beautiful math tools that will show a principle in multiple ways—so you’ll have a formula, a graph, a chart, and a text description. And when you change one of them, they all change—so you can see the relationships. This is the kind of tool we like to see in classrooms.

We also have a large middle school literacy project in development with the U.S. Department of Education where we’re using the Web as a way to help kids develop their reading skills. The program is designed for kids who’ve given up on themselves as readers, so we want to give them content that they really want to read, as well as a lot of choice in what they read. So we’re developing a highly customized Web browser with literacy scaffolding built into it. This allows the students to get timely content that they really care about and to have access to supportive resources if they don’t know a word, for example. There are also some social media elements built in so that they can comment on articles and share preferences with their peers—so they’re building literacy in that way, too.

Looking down the road 10 or 15 years, what do you think classrooms should look like?

I haven’t thought about it in this way before, but I hope classrooms will have more emotion in them. That is, you’d see kids excited about learning, you’d see kids arguing various points, you’d see them questioning propositions. You’d see the stuff that really makes learning happen as opposed to the passivity we often see now. So many schools today are rule-bound, flat, vapid places. And everything we know about neuroscience tells us that that’s not a good way to learn.

Also, we’d see kids who are learning to express themselves in a wide range of media. Some might be writing, some might be making movies, some might be producing plays, some might be doing interesting activities on social media, galvanizing the whole world to care about an issue they’re working on. The range of media would be very large, and kids would become experts at knowing which medium is best to express what they want to get across—and then at knowing how to do it. So you’d have a much richer media mix than kids have now. Also, kids would be adept in knowledge acquisition as opposed to just knowledge storage. Nobody would be spending a lot of time having kids memorize things, because it’s pointless. Kids would be experts at finding and creating the knowledge they need.

As for teachers, they would be really amazing at recognizing and addressing the learning differences among their children. They’d have the skills to know what to do when a student is struggling and know how to develop lessons in a variety of ways. They’d be real artisans. And I would love it if they were very highly paid and respected to the point where people would come in to schools just to watch them work.


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