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Universal Design for Learning: 23 Things You Need to Know

Last week, the EMC² Learning team had the distinct honor to travel to Orlando, Florida and present at the tenth annual Universal Design For Learning Implementation

The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework that can help teachers create inclusive and effective learning experiences for all learners, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds. At its core, UDL is all about removing barriers to learning and giving everyone equal opportunities to succeed. The idea is to design lessons and activities in a way that allows each individual to engage with the material in a way that works best for them.

So how does UDL work in practice? Well, there are three main principles that guide this approach:

Multiple Means of Engagement: This principle is all about making sure that learners stay motivated and interested in the material. We might achieve this by offering opportunities for collaboration, providing meaningful feedback, or incorporating gamification elements into our lessons.

Multiple Means of Representation: This means providing learners with various ways to access information and content. For example, we might offer written materials, videos, or audio recordings so that everyone can choose the format that works best for them.

Multiple Means of Action and Expression: 
This principle focuses on giving learners different ways to show what they know. For example, we might allow them to write an essay, make a video, or give a presentation so that they can choose the format that showcases their strengths.

By implementing these three principles, we can create a more inclusive and effective learning experience for all learners. But it’s important to remember that UDL is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a flexible framework that can be adapted to meet the needs of individual learners and contexts.

23 Key Takeaways from UDL-IRN 2023

Now that the dust has settled from the UDL conference and we’ve finally made our safe return from sunny Orlando, we wanted to take some time to reflect on the 23 most important things that we learned at this incredible summit — which just so happens to be the largest UDL event of the year! Whether you’re a longstanding UDL devotee or an educator who’s brand new to this game-changing framework for instruction, we hope you’ll find tremendous value in this countdown of tips and takeaways.

1. UDL is All About Intentionality
UDL emphasizes the importance of ongoing assessment and feedback, which helps teachers adjust their instruction to better meet the needs of their students. While this might feel a bit like creating an atmosphere where students are constantly shooting at a moving target, it actually is made possible thanks to a ton of on-the-fly calibration on behalf of the teacher in response to the efforts of their students. In Fully Engaged, we wrote at length about the value of an instructional practice that we like to call “variable based grading” — which echoes the wisdom of Doug Lemov’s famed maxim from Teach Like a Champion that reminds us “the reward for correct answers… will always be harder questions.” That’s the beauty of UDL.

2. UDL is a Perfect Fit with EMC² Learning
The UDL framework is all about removing barriers for students to access and learn in our classrooms, and thoughtfully-designed pedagogy that’s driven by high levels of student engagement (like the stuff we specialize in here at EMC² Learning). Moreover, UDL champions multiple means of Representation — which makes it an outstanding fit for the novelty and joy that’s intrinsic in many gamified instructional activities. And UDL is an ardent proponent of multiple means of student Action & Expression — which practically screams “different students learn in different ways on different days!”

3. UDL is More of a Collection of Lenses Rather Than a Singular Directive
It’s important to keep in mind that UDL is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a flexible framework that can be adapted to meet the unique needs of individual students. As outlined above, a big part of UDL is giving teachers the ability to “call an audible” on the fly — while at the same time presenting our students with multiple ways in which they can show what they know. The UDL Guidelines radically resets traditional “one size fits all” expectations and helps to remove barriers of learning across the board.

4. Traditional “Buzzer Style” Games Are The Exact Opposite of UDL
While some might argue that traditional buzzer battle guessing games have their place in the classroom, EMC² Learning makes it a point not to offer any such resources in our ever-expanding library of 500+ activities (and counting). The reason? For as fun as they might seem, games where students buzz in with the correct answer can actually end up creating situations where they are unduly biased against individuals who may be English language learners, those who require additional processing time, or those who might be doing their best to engage in spite of various learning disabilities — both visible and invisible (e.g. anxiety or dyslexia). Simply stated: we believe that the best games are inclusive for all learners. And competitions where the rich get richer and the poor get picked on aren’t our cup of tea. That’s why we’ve designed everything inside of the EMC² Learning platform through the lens of UDL, and provided on-demand scaffolding and support suggestions for each activity if you should ever feel the need to make further adjustments so as to create an even more inclusive space for play in your lesson plans.

5. UDL and Social Justice Are Eternally Linked
One of the things that we love most about UDL is how empathetic it challenges each of us to be. To quote Mahatma Gandhi: “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Sometimes, even those little things done so as to be more inclusive or respectful for those rare individuals who might not look or learn in the same way as most others might seem relatively minor in the grander scheme of things. But from providing closed captioning, to offering multiple ways to “breathe in” course content (podcasts, videos, textbooks) to allowing multiple ways for students to show what they know, by designing our classrooms with the most vulnerable populations in mind, we create a better system for everyone.

6. UDL Draws Its Inspiration from the World of Engineering and Architecture
UDL aligns with the architectural and engineering principles of Universal Design, which seeks to create products and environments that are usable by the widest range of people possible. Things like adjustable car seats, adjustable chinstraps on bicycle helmets, curb cuts to allow for easier wheelchair access, and elevators in place of stairs are just a few of the everyday features that can trace their roots to Universal Design.

7. The UDL Deck of Spaces Is a Great Conversation Starter 
We had the chance to attend a workshop with a team of architects and researchers who have been hard at work on the second edition of the UDL Deck of Spaces. Simply by flipping over a series of fully illustrated cards and mixing-and-matching them into a collection of hands, you can start to see the possibilities of using the intersection of form and function to create more inclusive classrooms.

8. Physical Classroom Design Plays a Major Role in UDL.
Have you ever encountered one of those heartbreaking parenting moments when you’re at an amusement park with your own children and you make your way up to the front of the line for a big kid roller coaster only to be told that your child is too short to climb aboard? This sort of thing can be an emotional nightmare for both parent and child alike. While in the case of an amusement park we can certainly understand keeping these sorts of procedures in place for safety reasons, there is far less evidence to suggest that we need to be so structured when it comes to designing the physical layout of our classroom. Case in point: this blog entry was written while seated on a comfy couch. But students simply learn better when they’re working from a standing desk. Providing flexible seating options is just one of the many lenses that puts the “U” (that is, “Universal”) in “UDL.” 

9. Learner Variability Exists Among Groups And Within Individuals 
One of the biggest takeaways we had from the UDL-IRN conference is that it’s not enough to assume that “there’s one in every group” in regards to how we think about learner variability. While it is most certainly true that great teachers can develop a keen sense for how to make accommodations in their lesson plans to account for individual students who might present with a physical disability or a documented learning disability or challenge, it is equally vital to keep in mind that learner variability can likewise exist within individuals on any given day. In other words: just because something worked with and for a particular student in the past, it doesn’t mean that it will necessarily work again or in the same way going forward. UDL helps teachers keep these variations in mind as they design meaningful, memorable lesson plans.

10. UDL Has a Lot in Common with Montessori 
Self guided learning? Check. 
Emphasis on the importance of providing students with opportunities to learn in ways that are suited to their individual strengths and preferences? Bingo. Recognition that learners are diverse and require different types of support to thrive? You betcha! UDL’s principles of providing multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement align closely with the Montessori method’s emphasis on creating an environment that fosters curiosity, exploration, and creativity. Both approaches promote active learning, with students taking responsibility for their own learning and engaging in hands-on activities to deepen their understanding of the world around them. Ultimately, UDL and Montessori-style learning share a belief in the value of student-centered instruction that honors the unique abilities and potential of every learner.

11. The Bartle Test is a Really Great Way to Account for Learner Variability
As teachers and facilitators of large-scale system change initiatives, we often say that it’s vital to remember that we’re not just designing for something… but that we are, in fact, at all times actually designing for someone. The challenge, of course, is that as classroom teachers it’s not uncommon to have 20 or 30 (or sometimes, even more!) “someones” under your care at a single time — and that can make it awfully hard to keep everything in order with an eye towards Universal Design. This is especially true when designing gamified lessons and game-based learning scenarios (because SO. MANY. traditional games simply reward speed)! In times like these, we’ve found that leaning on The Bartle Test as a starting point can be a lifesaver.

12. There Really Is No Such Thing as an “Average” Human Brain
Here at EMC² Learning we do a ton of reading. And we first stumbled upon this whole idea of “Universal Design” thanks to a 2016 book by Todd Rose titled The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. If you’re even the slightest bit interested in learning how we can — and MUST! — create systems, schools, and classrooms that account for the simple fact that learner variability is an undeniable fact of everyday life, we simply cannot recommend this book enough.

13. UDL Inherently Speaks to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging
Though the “official” latest edition of the UDL framework as published does not explicitly go into much detail regarding how UDL speaks directly to such important topics as Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, the team at CAST (the folks behind the UDL framework) are hard at work behind the scenes making some really timely adjustments to their published guidelines in order to help educato rs see all the more clearly how UDL is every bit at the heart of the ongoing work to make our classrooms more inclusive and aware of the need for increased emphasis on social and racial justice.

14. Project Based Learning is a Natural Fit with UDL
Jeff Horwitz is an Associate Education Consultant at Novak Education, whose mission is dedicated to 21st-century, personalized learning that focuses on the whole child. At the 2023 UDL-IRN, he delivered a fantastic presentation to help teachers get a better handle on the overlap between authentic project based learning and the myriad benefits provided when approaching our instruction through the lens of UDL. If you’re looking for even more on this match made in heaven, Jeff is a proud EMC² Engagement Engineer who is super active on Twitter and well worth a follow!

15. Every Conference Presentation Should Be Close Captioned
With the rapid advancements in next generation text to speech technology, there really is zero excuse for conference presenters *not* to enable closed captioning during their main stage presentations and breakout session workshops. Google Slides and Powerpoint make it very easy to enable this feature with the simple push of a button — and built-in AI technology even enables at-home attendees to keep up with any real-time presentation while reading closed captions that are automatically translated into different languages.

16. Conference Speakers Should Always Use The Microphone
While this might feel obvious or excessive (especially in small rooms), the truth of the matter is that providing presenters with microphones isn’t just a courtesy — it is an ADA requirement. And while it’s a kind gesture if a speaker asks “can everyone hear me alright?” and the entire room agrees to proceed without the need for a microphone, this can make it virtually impossible to transcribe real-time closed captioning or translations to other languages. When we design our classrooms and presentations with the most vulnerable populations in mind, we model empathy and create a safer space for everyone to learn.

17. The UDL Framework Challenges Us to Confront Harder Questions 
Sometimes, the hardest part about confronting a problem is simply naming it aloud and acknowledging it in the first place. And sometimes, unpacking our own invisible knapsack of privilege can feel incredibly uncomfortable. But it’s important to remember that the purpose of exercises such as these are never to call people out for mistakes they’ve made or implicit biases that they might have unknowingly held. Instead, we have the opportunity to reflect and react when presented with the stark reality of privilege and power as is so elegantly displayed in Sylvia Duckworth’s image shown above. If you’re looking for a starting point for a challenging conversation, the UDL framework can be an excellent inroad to facilitating systemic change.

18. When We See the World Through a UDL Lens, We Create a More Inclusive Society
We hate to sound like a broken record here, but UDL isn’t just about creating classrooms or school systems with an eye towards being more accessible for folks with disabilities. Modeling empathy goes far beyond simply “teaching tolerance” — which might inadvertently be a subtle way of saying “I’m willing to tolerate *those people* — but I don’t actually have to like them.” UDL is about recognizing the inherent dignity and value in all sorts of individuals and ways of learning. And not to get all hippie dippy on you here — but isn’t that what education is supposed to be all about in the first place?

19. UDL Challenges Us to Rethink The Way That We See Barriers
One of the most eye opening takeaways that we had at the UDL-IRN Summit came when a breakout session facilitator challenged us to stop for a moment and rethink the possibility that perhaps we’ve been thinking about “barriers” all wrong in the first place. As an educator, it can be easy to fall into the mental trap of believing that some individual students naturally arrive to our classrooms carrying more baggage and barriers than their peers. But suppose, for a moment, that we operate under the principle that barriers exist in the environment and the experience, not in the learner. Armed with this line of thinking, how might this change the way that we approach our schools and our systems?

20. UDL Is Not Just “Fun And Games”
If UDL gets a bad rap, it’s often from critics and naysayers who look at it from the outside and can’t help but remark on how unconventional it might look to the untrained eye. Naturally, a passerby might feel some due degree of concern to walk by a classroom and see a handful of students sitting around using LEGO bricks on a rug, while another student seemed to be listening to music coming through their headphones as they danced by themselves near the window, and two other students were literally standing up and talking to one another in the middle of the classroom. But the key to keep in mind is that the passerby’s eye in this situation is untrained. Little do they know that the group with the LEGOs are actually practicing collaborative problem solving in an attempt to fuse content knowledge with creativity as they construct a scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. The student with the headphones is listening to a song in French and creating their own dance moves inspired by the lyrics (that they were translating in real time). And those students who were standing up and talking to one another in the middle of the classroom? They were hard at work rehearsing a skit where they simulated a scene set in a Parisian cafe — all delivered expertly in the target language.

21. UDL Doesn’t Require Any Fancy Technology
While it’s true that the UDL framework champions multiple means of Representation (e.g. “the way that the teacher delivers the material”) — that doesn’t mean that schools or teachers need to find themselves limited in their UDL efforts based on a relative scarcity of resources. A printed textbook, a YouTube video, an .MP3 podcast recording, a traditional teacher lecture, a small group discussion, or even the opportunity for students to engage in hands-on practice with a work product that was created by another student are all completely viable ways for students to “breathe in” the information that they’re expected to become masters of. If you have a working internet connection, you’ve got the UDL world at your fingertips. And even if the internet isn’t behaving on any given day, you’ve still got all sorts of tactile resources at the ready to help you get the job done right.

22. Consider The Shift From Understanding to Being Understood
As we wrapped up the final session of the UDL-IRN conference, we couldn’t help but share a thought that had been kicking around in our minds throughout the week. UDL is all about removing barriers and creating a more empathetic, inclusive approach to the work that we do. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy sell to fellow teachers — especially to well-meaning educators who are simply overburdened with far too many directives, policies, procedures, protocols, deadlines, and deliverables the way it is. If you’re gung-ho about bringing UDL into your school, there is wisdom in taking things slowly so as not to inadvertently create unnecessary resistance from fellow teachers who could ultimately be your biggest allies. When attempting to bring about any meaningful change at scale, empathy is crucial. It is vital to remember that people are not moved to act when they understand — they are moved to act when they feel understood.

23. UDL is Much, Much More Than “Just Good Teaching”
To bring this (lengthy!) blog entry to a close, we think it’s fitting to return our top 23 list right back to where it first started. Because UDL is all about intentionality. And the UDL guidelines are a powerful collection of lenses that help us remove barriers for learning while creating classrooms that are more engaging, accessible, and student-centered at every turn. While it’s true that when it’s all done right by an expert practicioner, it really can start to become invisible and seem like UDL is “just good teaching,” there’s a whole lot more to it than that. It starts with Intentionality. But it brings so much more to the table: Engagement. Representation. Action and Expression. Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. Belonging. Empathy… and the list goes on and on.

It truly is an honor to continue to learn, grow, develop and explore the many ways that UDL can help our classrooms as we find new ways to strengthen and enhance the resources and services that we do here at EMC² Learning!

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