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When It Comes to Universal Design for Learning, Don’t Wait to Be an Expert

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Most teachers will agree that student brains are as diverse as their fingerprints. Each student is compelled by different interests, aided by different strengths, and hindered by different struggles.

Universal design for learning, or UDL, provides a framework for embracing the neurodiversity that exists in all our classrooms. It asks teachers to create flexible learning environments and practices to support a broad range of learners. It might seem like you have to be an expert to start employing UDL principles in the classroom—but in fact, you can start laying the groundwork as early as tomorrow.

What Is UDL?

UDL is predicated on the simple belief that designing lessons based on our conventional learners ignores the instructional needs of the outliers. Most importantly, UDL suggests a fundamental shift in how we understand learning challenges. It puts an emphasis on remediating the classroom rather than the student.

Think of it this way: When you put a wheelchair ramp in an airport, it helps people in wheelchairs, of course. But it also helps many other people, including those with roller bags and strollers and sore legs.

UDL is meant to work the same way—it helps lots of different students and in lots of different ways. With UDL, teachers can reduce barriers to learning by providing accommodations, different modes of instruction, and alternative assessments to help all students achieve their learning potential.

In order to design learning environments based on our students' diverse interests, needs, and abilities, it helps to know more about them. That might involve simply surveying our students—or talking to others who know them, like their parents and former teachers. This information helps identify our builders, poets, inventors, and illustrators. It is also valuable to know if our students think in numbers, pictures, or words. Maybe most importantly, knowing their history of problems at school: Identifying which students have struggled to read, write, or connect with their classmates will inform necessary adjustments to instruction.

Different Ways to Read and Write

My understanding of how UDL can work in my 5th grade classroom has been gradual but steady over time. Initially, my instructional shifts were attempts to develop singular strategies to help individual students. However, when I adapted the delivery of my content, introduced assistive technology for school work, or granted an assessment accommodation for one student, it usually became a helpful practice for many.

For example, I recently had an amplification system put in my classroom to assist a hearing-disabled student. But many more students with normal hearing reported that it made a dramatic difference in their ability to attend to instructions and explanations. This served as an important reminder that solving an issue for one student often becomes an improved practice for the rest of the class—which is a central tenet of UDL.

"In order to design learning environments based on our students' diverse interests, needs, and abilities, it helps to know more about them."

The growth of assistive reading technology has made it easier than ever for teachers to adapt texts for different learning needs. Students who struggle to read need to find a different way to access words and ideas. Many students can understand audio information that they are unable to consume and comprehend in text form. Providing subject content via audiobooks, podcasts, videos, and text-to-speech apps helps to address the gap between students’ reading ability and their intellectual abilities. Additionally, certain reading supports, like Learning Ally’s VOICEtext and the Voice Dream Reader app paired with Bookshare, allow students to read along with the audio content while the words are being highlighted on screen. This can help strengthen and support students’ decoding abilities while allowing them to consume information.

Lately, I’ve been trying to make written text in my classroom available digitally as much as possible. Students can enlarge font size and use text-to-speech apps to read digital content (Voice Dream Reader can vocalize text from almost any digital platform, including Dropbox and Google Drive). Digital material is also easier to locate for my less-organized students.

Meanwhile, dictation apps and software can help students who struggle with the mechanics of writing by allowing them to speak their ideas into a device instead. Students are often stunned when they can swiftly evolve from three poorly composed sentences to several thoughtfully composed paragraphs. And when the playback option is employed, students who struggle to edit their own work can catch mistakes they would have otherwise missed.

Steady Goals, Flexible Modes of Assessment

When our teaching objectives are clear, we can be more flexible about how we measure student understanding. For example, if I'm trying to determine whether my students understand the three branches of the U.S. government, I can have them write out an explanation, tell it to me orally, perform a rap, design an infographic, or create an iMovie. The mode of expression is not what I'm measuring. Furthermore, if I don’t set strict rules, some of their demonstrations of understanding will likely exceed my less imaginative assessment structures and make the task infinitely more personal and engaging.

Likewise, when I assign an essay, if my goal is for students to support a meaningful idea in a clear and organized manner, whether they speak into a laptop or type with their fingers is not relevant. For my students who do not struggle with dysgraphia, a learning disability that affects one’s writing, combining composition and keyboarding can provide helpful practice with integrating both skills. However, insisting on making my strugglers combine the task of writing an essay with keyboarding practice will certainly backfire when it comes to the quality of their output.

Oral expression can also be designed to be more inclusive of different personality types. I have recently committed to punctuating our full-class discussions with more frequent "think-pair-shares," during which students explain a concept to a partner. These more intimate conversations let my introverted, or less boisterous, personalities stay engaged and practice sharing their thinking with their classmates.

'A More Inclusive Learning Environment'

As with many educational evolutions, staying updated about the landscape of UDL best ideas, practices, and assistive technologies can seem daunting. But one does not have to personally do all the discovery and vetting. I recommend leveraging the existing (and generous) expertise that exists online and in our own school faculties. Creating ways of sharing instructional practices in your school community and allowing assistive tech experts to keep you updated on different apps are simple ways to offset feeling overwhelmed.

Ultimately, in the same way the wheelchair ramp also helps all passengers, I have witnessed how my own (inexpert) shift toward UDL has helped all my students, not just the ones with the quirky learning profiles. Allowing students to access and express knowledge in multiple ways has allowed all abilities to more effectively optimize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

Creating a more inclusive learning environment has involved no unique expertise, just a shift in instructional thinking and practice. Maybe you want to ease into UDL by rethinking classroom seating or discussion techniques. It may make more sense to explore alternative assessment techniques or simply make your existing ones untimed. Incorporating transformational assistive tech is another way to level the playing field. I guarantee that you will never regret time spent investigating how to get your struggling readers connected to Bookshare or Learning Ally.

Although—each UDL adjustment I have made has improved my instruction, I did not make these changes all at once. And, of course, I am not finished.

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