Universal Design for Learning

by Jesi Sucku

I first stumbled upon the concept of Universal Design in a Ted Talk by Elise Roy called “When we design for disability we all benefit”. In the video, Roy describes different tools and architectural elements that were originally designed as a way to make the world more accessible for those with disabilities but were now commonplace because they benefited everyone. The one that immediately comes to mind is the dips in the sidewalk at street crossings. Originally designed for those using wheelchairs and walkers, they now make it a lot easier to navigate for parents with strollers, travelers with suitcases and bike commuters.

Out of curiosity, I did some more searching and came upon the topic of Universal Design for Learning or UDL. This takes the principles of Universal Design and applies it to curriculum and the learning environment. On the website cast.org they even break down the guidelines for UDL into three pieces. These are engagement, representation and action and expression. The idea is that we as teachers should provide children with multiple activities or means of engagement in learning to stimulate their interest and motivation, we should present information in a variety of modalities to make sure we reach each variety of learner and we should provide multiple ways for students to express what they’ve learned and what they know. In taking this approach to curriculum, we are not specifically altering our curriculum or teaching to fit one or two children, but rather we are specifically designing our curriculum in a way that offers each child what they need with respect for their unique interests and abilities. 

This topic has struck a very personal chord with me as a person with ADHD. I find myself feeling incredibly successful in this online graduate program whereas I have always struggled with school before. This program presents material in a variety of ways (videos, readings, discussions) and allows for me to present my knowledge in different ways as well. The flexibility and individualization is new to me, and has allowed me to be successful in a way I never have been before. It makes sense that this would be the case in studying constructivism, because that is essentially the theory itself. Constructivism is about individualization, respecting each child as a unique individual and providing learning opportunities that spark their interest and engage them in learning. In documentation we are able to assess a child’s skills through multiple means–we can see that a child knows their numbers when they count the blocks they are stacking, help set the table at snack time or play hopscotch outside. In traditional academia there is generally only a test and for those children who do not test well, it may come across that they do not know the information. Through UDL, they are able to be uniquely themselves and we can celebrate what they bring to our community without trying to force them into a box. 

I do feel that, as a whole, the early childhood field does much better with the concept of UDL than schooling in the older years. That being said, it does seem that there is a lot of research coming out that supports the field of education moving in that direction. I believe that if we can shift our mindsets to the idea that designing our curriculum with flexibility in mind from the beginning, we can not only break down barriers to learning for those with disabilities, we can create a more engaging and supportive learning environment for all children in the learning community. Everyone has their differences and unique needs in learning, after all, and by beginning with this philosophy rather than trying to modify standard curriculum for one or two individuals,  we can ensure meaningful learning opportunities for everyone.

After doing the research for this paper,  I have decided to create a brief introductory training to offer the teachers in our region next quarter. I believe that the simple steps presented in the research can help make the concept easier to implement for teachers who are already overwhelmed. In using these principles for Universal Design for Learning, teachers can focus on flexibility from the start rather than attempting to change a curriculum that is already in place. I believe this will relieve a lot of stress, particularly for those teachers who do not have a background in special education to begin with. I look forward to seeing the changes in their classroom communities moving forward and hope to hear feedback from them as they implement the strategies.

Is UDL something you’ve heard of or had experience with? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!

More Resources on UDL:

Authority, N. D. (2014, January 30). Retrieved April 30, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A88E4DH2asQ

Darragh, J. (2007). Universal Design for Early Childhood Education: Ensuring Access and Equity for All. Early Childhood Education Journal,35(2), 167-171. doi:10.1007/s10643-007-0177-4

Definition and overview. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2019, from http://universaldesign.ie/what-is-universal-design/definition-and-overview/definition-and-overview.html

Dinnebeil, L. A., Boat, M., & Bae, Y. (2013). Integrating Principles of Universal Design Into the Early Childhood Curriculum. Dimensions of Early Childhood,41(1), 3-14.

Gozdziak, A. (2014). Universal Design in the Kindergarten Classroom[Scholarly project]. Retrieved April 30, 2019, from http://idea.ap.buffalo.edu/idg/pdf/fall2014_arc558/gozdziak_a_fall2014.pdf

Harte, H. A. (2013). Universal Design and Outdoor Learning. Dimensions of Early Childhood,41(3), 18-22.

Mcguire-Schwartz, M. E., & Arndt, J. S. (2007). Transforming Universal Design for Learning in Early Childhood Teacher Education from College Classroom to Early Childhood Classroom. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education,28(2), 127-139. doi:10.1080/10901020701366707

Story, M. F. (1998). Maximizing Usability: The Principles of Universal Design. Assistive Technology,10(1), 4-12. doi:10.1080/10400435.1998.10131955

Talks, T. (2016, October 13). Retrieved April 30, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVdPNWMGyZY

The 7 Principles. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2019, from http://universaldesign.ie/what-is-universal-design/the-7-principles/the-7-principles.html

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