How does the framework of universal design for learning (UDL) impact the way we individualized curricula?
Differentiation, as a strategy and buzz word, has existed as long as I have been in the classroom, and has existed as a real problem facing educators for much longer. For me, the issue has always been that no one has been able to accurately define or effectively model what differentiation in the classroom looks like. How does a teacher, with limited time and resources, maximize instruction and learning for children in classes that can contain upwards of 30 students, each with their own background, abilities, and interests? This is the million dollar question in education.
As the field of education has grown, we learn more about the unique and variability ways in which humans learn. These theories and findings come in many different packages, but one truth remains at the end of all them: there is “strong support for classrooms that recognize, honor, and cultivate individuality” (Tomlinson, 1999, p.18).
What has come to be known as common sense for educators in theory, that each child is unique and it is our job to meet the needs of all of these unique learners, has still remained elusive in practice. Universal Design for Learning seeks to bridge the gap between theory and practice by offering a framework with practical tools and solutions to providing opportunities that account for the variability in learners, henceforth reducing the barriers that a traditional, one size fits all education has created (Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014).
As teachers develop learning plans, they must consider the learners they have before them, instead of only considering the generic, or mythical average student. In this way, learning has changed little over the last century. Schools still group children by age and assume they are similar enough that they can all learn and understand in the same ways (Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014; Tomlinson, 1999; Wiggins & McTighe, 2012). Therefore, we must recognize the ways our learning plans continue to create barriers for students and use the UDL framework to systematically break down those barriers. Additionally, in the learning plan, teachers must shift their thinking from goals they have for a unit, and begin to consider the individual needs of students and their unique differences in order to create experiences that allow all students to achieve the long terms goals of understanding and transfer. UDL plays an important role in this stage of curriculum development.
As teachers develop the learning plans for their units, they must consider the what, how and why of learning. Using the UDL framework in our planning helps us “reshape teaching and learning by guiding design of an entirely new system with flexibility at its core” (Meyer, Rose & Gordon, 2014, p.50). Teachers can use the UDL framework to impact all parts of the learning plan, and in fact, all part of the unit plan. When unit planning, teachers must make clear the what and why of learning for students in order to guide learning as well as hook and hold students throughout the process. UDL helps teachers create multiple means of engagement specifically by providing options for recruiting interest and for sustaining effort and persistence (CAST, 2011). While the long term transfer goals, big ideas and essential questions should not be differentiated, we do find that variability will exist in the prior knowledge students bring in terms of knowledge and skills. Therefore, teachers must use variable methods of pre-assessment to determine where students are before a unit begins.
Broadly speaking, in the learning plan, teachers can use UDL in planning the engaging experiences that will equip their students to transfer understanding. UDL provides multiple means of representation and action and expression in order to account for learner variability. As teachers plan for presenting information to learners (input), they must consider the different ways in which students are able to perceive and comprehend new information. UDL provides tools and practical ways to account for these differences, through the display of information that account for auditory and visual differences, through options that account for language, mathematical expression and symbols and through options that aid in comprehension. By providing these options in the learning plan, teachers can help students make their learning and knowledge usable beyond the classroom (CAST, 2011). As teachers plan to differentiate process and product, they must consider the multiple means for action and expression provide by UDL. Process, how learners will make meaning, and product, how they will show learning, can be addressed through these guidelines so that teachers can account for the variability in the ways that learners “navigate a learning environment and express what they know” (CAST, 2011). When teachers begin considering the many barriers that are present in their current learning plans in this regard, they can use UDL to break down these barriers and make learning accessible to all of their students.
CAST (2011). Universal design for learning guidelines 2.0. Wakefield, MA: Author.
Meyer, A. Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.
Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The Differentiated Classroom : Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2012) The understanding by design guide to advanced concepts in creating and reviewing units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.