Universal Design for Learning

“Sure,” they say, “with enough humiliation we can allow you to do things differently, as long as you understand that we’ll never consider you an equal part of the school.”

UDL wants to change that.

A decade ago the Centre for Applied Special Technology (CAST) proposed 3 principles that could be applied to the curriculum and set an agenda for inclusion, as follows:

  1. Provide multiple representations of content.
  2. Provide multiple options for expression and control.
  3. Provide multiple options for engagement and motivation.
    and these remain essential, but I want to add a fourth which must apply to them all:
  4. That these representations and options be available to all students on the basis of understood needs and/or informed preference, without the need for diagnosis.

And here is my example – which, again, I have used before:

I often hand out reading assignments to students. When I do I always deliver those digitally. They arrive as accessible text documents, delivered to their computer. Many students, as many as half of the students, print these documents out onto paper. They do this because they prefer it that way. Whether because of their eyesight, or their cultural training, or where they want to read, or how they want to take notes or highlight things, they prefer ink-on-paper.

That’s fine. I have never once said, “You can not do that. You must read that on the computer, or listen to it using text-to-speech software.”

But if I, as a dyslexic student, want to take my ink-on-paper textbook and convert it into digital accessible text, this gets difficult. I have to “prove” my disability to some campus bureaucrat. I have to beg for the accommodation. I need lots of time, special software and perhaps hardware, and sometimes special permission to bring that book into class (see all those profs who ban laptops or mobiles). I may need a copyright exemption. And look out if I want to carry that digital text into an exam!

This is not just privileging one media form over another, this is elevating the “how” over the “what” to an extreme extent. It not only humiliates those labelled with “disabilities,” it refuses to accommodate the very legitimate choices of all students. Choices which might significantly improve the comfort, attention capabilities, and learning opportunities for that 60%-65% who currently fall far behind, and might even help those already doing well to achieve their full potential.

UDL says scrap that system. Under UDL content would be fully flexible in delivery. Want that book on paper – here it is. Want it as an audio file – there you go. Want it as digital text – that’s easy – seen a book lately that did not begin as a digital file? Need it in some other form – pictures or braille or whatever? No problem – as long as the content can be delivered.

UDL should really go further – especially in recognizing that not all students benefit from following the same path to skills and knowledge. Any system which applies the same pedagogy to all students is clearly not a universal design (in my mind it is not even moral). Insisting on everyone using the same textbook, or doing the exact same assignments, or following the same schedule – those are all industrial practices which are based in the belief that students are a raw material which can be shaped by repeated stampings. Any claims to some kind of rational meritocracy within that “same requirements” argument are simply a mask for the essential anti-humaness of the system.

SpeEdChange: Considering Universal Design
What is anti-racist Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? feat. Tesha Fritzgerald

The moment we become an expert on someone else is the moment we allow our biases to rule in power, and it takes away honor.

What is anti-racist Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? feat. Tesha Fritzgerald – YouTube

She didn’t give him an opportunity to choose what intervention would work best for him. She chose it, she gave it to him, and then he felt shamed. When we make decisions for another human being, when we tell them you need this, when we say your deficit is this so i’m going to assign you this, then there’s that shame. There is a guilt that comes in, there is a message that is sent to the learner over and over again, that I’m not good enough, that i can’t learn like everyone else, and I don’t belong here.

What is anti-racist Universal Design for Learning (UDL)? feat. Tesha Fritzgerald – YouTube

Allow learners to be the experts on themselves and to have a menu of supports to choose from so that they will know that they can get what they need.

On Honor & Excellence in Education w/ Tesha Fritzgerald – YouTube

We can’t always prescribe the intervention or the support, but we have to have a menu that every learner understands that they can choose from it to see exactly what they need.

We think ahead for the predicted supports that would be needed and then we allow learners to pick and choose what they need.

And we would be surprised. I know I’m often surprised when I give a menu of support, and I think that some of my students would choose one, maybe. They choose three, where I would only think one would work for them. Maybe they go through all of the resources, when I would think that they would gravitate towards one kind.

And so that’s the beauty of a universally designed learning environment that thinks ahead to what would be the barriers for learners. And, as we learn them, as we listen to their voices, we learn more about what they need, and then we make those supports available to all the learners in the environment.

On Honor & Excellence in Education w/ Tesha Fritzgerald – YouTube

You know enough about you to make decisions for you.

The opposite of that is power.

On Honor & Excellence in Education w/ Tesha Fritzgerald – YouTube

But UDL is, for me, a litmus test. If you do not embrace the concepts and work toward it, you really do believe in education as an industrial process. If you do not embrace the concepts and work toward it, you really do not see students as individuals or those with disabilities as equals. And if you do not embrace the concepts and work toward it, you really are not interested in educational success for all, rather you believe in school as a sorting system which separates those pre-destined for success by family and/or luck from those pre-destined for failure.

SpeEdChange: Considering Universal Design

UDL can be likened to a learning expressway with multiple means of representation, engagement and expression serving as on-ramps, traffic patterns and off-ramps.When teachers provide multiple means of representation, they introduce information in a variety of ways. They may use visual aids, graphic organizers, videos and audio to make information easier for students to understand. “The information that students are supposed to be taking in or learning needs an on ramp,” said Fritzgerald. “It needs something to connect from where you are to where it is that you want to go.”Teachers may offer options for different modes of expression, such as written assignments, oral presentations or art projects and allow students to choose the materials they use to present information. Multiple means of expression are off-ramps, said Fritzgerald: “That’s when I am ready to show you what I know so that I can arrive at the destination that I’ve chosen and then move on to the next destination.”

How Universal Design for Learning helps students merge onto the ‘learning expressway’ | KQED

There are so many ways to honor our students and our learning community with the work that we do. We can lift our students with the honor that is embedded in the UDL framework, which recognizes and celebrates our differences and the need for flexible learning environments. If we are brave enough to call out the barriers in our system, fight actively to dismantle our system, and commit to being antiracist, we have the power to take action to design something better, something just, something that honors every child as the brilliant scholar they are.

Fritzgerald, Andratesha. Antiracism and Universal Design for Learning (p. 13).

The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

Jonathan Mooney

Further reading,