Embracing Variability with Universal Design for Learning
Principles for creating learning experiences that are accessible by all children
I always thought the term “special education” was a little misleading. Traditionally, special education services involve a team of family and professionals finding ways to modify the curriculum to make each child fit into prescribed grade level expectations. After becoming a teacher, I believed all people learned a little differently, and everyone would benefit from a team that drafted a specialized education plan for them. Why can’t we design schools and curriculum in a way that is more inclusive of learning differences so that 13% of American children aren’t labeled for supposedly being “disabled”?
After attending CAST’s Universal Design for Learning Institute, I was thrilled to learn that there are educators and neuroscientists researching this very idea. Their belief is that all children are exceptional because there is predictable variability in our neurology, meaning that all people learn and think in truly unique ways.
To demonstrate this, a group of neurologists at the Institute asked three people to tap their index finger and thumb together repeatedly. Below are the MRIs of three people completing the exact same task:
As seen above, the three participants used their brains in observably different ways to complete seemly identical task. As educators, we observe a similar phenomenon in the classroom: all of our students are exceptional learners because each of our brains process information differently. These differences are only amplified when the task becomes more difficult and complex, such as learning to read or solving calculus problems.
With this understanding, CAST suggests we rethink instructional design using the three Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Principles:
Provide Multiple Means of Representation
Learning is impossible if information is imperceptible to the learner, and difficult when information is presented in formats that require extraordinary effort or assistance. To reduce barriers to learning, it is important to ensure that key information is equally perceptible to all learners.
Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression
It is important to provide materials that all learners can interact with. Properly designed curricular materials provide a seamless interface with common assistive technologies through which individuals with movement impairments can navigate and express what they know. This can be done by technologies like a single switch, voice activated switches, and expanded keyboards.
Provide Multiple Means of Engagement
Affect represents a crucial element to learning, and learners differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn. There are a variety of sources that can influence individual variation in affect including neurology, culture, personal relevance, subjectivity, and background knowledge, along with a variety of other factors.
In short, we should redesign instruction to be accessible to all learners rather than looking for accommodations and making modifications. Lessons should set clear goals with high expectations for all students, yet provide flexible means to accomplishing them.
The first two UDL principles can be applied to a Rubik’s Cube. With the Rubik’s Cube, the goal is to have alike squares on the same side of the cube. Traditionally this is done by covering the individual squares with colored stickers, and the player must align the alike colors on the same side of the cube. But what if a player were blind? The original solution was to produce special Rubik’s Cubes with Braille letters instead of colors on the sides. But rather than creating two sets of cubes, why not provide Rubik’s Cubes with both Braille letters and colors, thus changing the representation of the cube (Principle 1) and the action by which players can interact with it (Principle 2)? With this design, all players could use the same, universally accessible tool, accomplishing the same goals while interacting with it in different ways.
Affect (Principle 3) is equally, if not more important. In order to learn new information, we have to feel emotionally safe and motivated in our learning environment. All stimuli in a classroom first filters through our nerves and spinal column, then through our emotion centers, thus coloring the information that our frontal cortex then uses to process learning. All information carries a physical and emotional context which can aid or hinder our integration of knowledge. Thus, culturally relevant pedagogy and using technology to personalize the learning experience is paramount.
Candace Walkington from Southern Methodist University illustrates the importance of affect in her research on using technology to personalize instruction in an algebra classes. In this study, the group of ninth graders who used technology that integrated students’ personal interests (e.g. sports, music) into the math problems solved the questions faster and with more accuracy. The students were able to apply the abstract concepts learned while using this technology in novel ways after the initial intervention.
With this understanding, we know that context and relationships within a school setting are paramount. Understanding Universal Design for Learning creates a mindset for us to design learning experiences for all individuals to gain knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm for learning. My hope is that as educators we can set the stage for a new generation who embraces variability over disability, especially in education and the workplace.