Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to teaching and learning that gives all students equal opportunity to succeed.
You may be confused by the word universal. You may think that UDL is about teaching everyone in one, universal way. In reality, UDL is quite the opposite. It is based on the understanding that each learner is different, with a unique set of strengths and needs. The goal of UDL is to design a learning experience and a learning environment that makes the learning accessible to all regardless of variation – hence the term universal.
It is based on the universal design approach now inherent to building design. Architects plan for all members of the public to be able to access a building regardless of size, shape, mobility, ability, or language. Designers predict the variation in the population and then remove possible barriers to access. You’ll see ramps next to steps, escalators, and elevators. You’ll see wide doors and hallways. You’ll see signs that are alphabetic, numeric, and in Braille.
Much like this, the goal of UDL is to use a variety of teaching methods, resources, and classroom features to remove any barriers to learning. It is about creating flexibility that can be adjusted for each individual learner’s strengths and needs.
Another parallel to the architectural universal design process is the goal of having people operate independently within a space, without assistance. Universal design for learning also has a goal of moving learners toward independence. The objective is for them to understand how they best learn, organize their thinking, and make their thinking understandable.
This approach to teaching doesn’t specifically target people who learn and think differently. But, it can be especially helpful for learners who have traditionally struggled to have their learning needs met, including students with disabilities, English learners, and highly capable learners.
We know more than ever about the brain and how it processes new learning. We know that each individual has a dynamic and unique learning profile. Learning designed to support the “average learner” actually does not well support any learner.
In light of the pandemic’s impact on the time that we have had available to teach our students, we must leverage the most recent and most relevant research to accelerate student learning.
We must seek to meet the needs of each unique individual learner within our schools and classrooms.
While we have much to celebrate in the Lake Chelan School District, including high graduation rates, high post-secondary enrollment rates, one of the state’s highest percentage of Nationally Board Certified teachers, a long history of athletic championships, and a rich set of course offerings, we also understand that we can always get better. Areas that we aim to improve are:
regularly serving students with disabilities amongst their peers in general education classrooms
helping multilingual students to acquire English and demonstrate academic proficiency more quickly
helping all students to demonstrate academic proficiency and beyond
helping all students to be prepared for their next steps as a learner, including both college and careers
helping all students to have a strong sense of wellbeing and connection to the school community
We are not one of the top school districts in the state when it comes to serving and supporting multilingual, highly mobile, or low-income students. We aim to be!
The Lake Chelan School District is engaged in a grant supported project called the Inclusionary Practices Project. The project is being administered by the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) with support from the Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) and the Washington Education Association (WEA). We are also partnering with the Special Education Technology Center (SETC) at Central Washington University, the Haring Center at the University of Washington, and the North Central Educational Service District (NCESD). We are also receiving support from Novak Education, a premier national consulting firm that supports UDL implementation and professional learning.
Our recent efforts to Universally Design Learning for our students include:
hiring two UDL Consultant Teachers to provide professional learning and to support instructional planning
funding teachers to lead Lab Classrooms — innovation spaces where UDL can be implemented and modeled for others
convening a regular leadership team of administrators, teachers, board members, and teachers to provide visioning and strategic planning
The school district recognizes this to be a 5-7 year project commitment, requiring the involvement and investment of all stakeholders. We are excited to engage in this work in order to better meet the needs of all learners and all families within the Lake Chelan School District.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a critical step in meeting our aims for improvement, but won’t be enough for every student. Even when all instruction is universally designed, there will still be students that need additional support. As a result, an important part of this work is to develop a system to support these students. In the world of education this is called a Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS). MTSS is meant to help schools identify and intervene early with struggling students. In other words, it is a comprehensive model that supports every area of a child’s development, not just academics. These include behavior, social and emotional needs, and absenteeism (not attending school).
Universal Design for Learning is based on the fact that human beings have three major network centers in their brain to support learning: the affective network, the recognition network, and the strategic network.
We need to know why we are learning something. We need to be able to access, explore, and discuss the facts and concepts of what we are learning. We need to know how we can demonstrate our new skill or understanding, and how we should use the information or skill that we are learning.
Each learner is unique in each network of the brain, requiring varied options for support and challenge. By knowing our learners, we can prepare options to support learning in each network.