• UDL: Celebrating Variability As the Norm

  • Katelyn Leveque

    Literacy Intervention Specialist

    Katelyn LevequeIt all started at the DEC Summit

    At the end of July, I was fortunate enough to attend CAST's Universal Design for Learning, presented by Dr. Kavita Venkatesh, during the Dept. of Exceptional Children's Summit.  As Universal Design for Learning (UDL) becomes more and more a part of the conversation around equitable access to high-quality instruction, the framework of UDL reinforces the importance of recognizing knowledge as a process, rather than an answer.

    Thank you, Ron Mace

    Universal Design was initially coined by architect Ron Mace, who, after contracting polio at nine years old, experienced firsthand the barriers and exclusion of a midcentury world designed for the abilities of some, rather than all.  Despite those barriers, and with the help of his loving and determined parents, he became an advocate and champion of accessible building codes and standards in the United States to ensure accessibility to all people.  Today’s use of automatic doors, curb cuts on sidewalks, ramps at entrances, and closed captioning paired with audio are examples of universal design that are necessary for some, but good for all. 

    What is UDL?

    Universal Design for Learning is an educational framework that guides the use of flexible methods, materials and environments that embrace variability, minimize barriers, and develop expert learning for all.  This ties in seamlessly with CCSD’s MTSS Equity Statement which recognizes scholars’ diverse learning needs and the importance of removing system level barriers.

    UDL Concepts

    The UDL framework is anchored in three key concepts:

    1. Learner variability is the norm.

    In 2009, the National Institute of Health launched the Human Connectome Project, which provided an unparalleled view of the networks in our brains.  Though the hope was to identify common patterns, the findings showed the neuro-diversity in how those networks are established and utilized was completely unique to the individual.  UDL engages with these networks by recognizing human variability based on parts of the brain that manage the “why” (affective network), the “what” (recognition network), and the “how” (strategic network) of learning.  Therefore, to embed UDL in instructional design we need to ask ourselves: How will learners engage? How will learners perceive this? And how will learners act on and express their understanding of this new learning?

    1. The barrier is in the design, not the learner.

    When asking ourselves these questions, we must consider potential barriers- components of instruction that could prevent learners from making progress toward a goal- within our instructional design.  These barriers might be found in our materials, methods or assessments.  

    Let’s say, for example, the goal is for scholars to write a five-paragraph essay on the lifecycle of butterflies. We know there will be a range of background knowledge and experiences among scholars in any classroom.  Some have visited science museums and have strong funds of knowledge to share.  Others have observed butterflies in their yard or at the park, and have those experiences to draw from.  And some have limited to zero firsthand experience on the subject.  We also know that the mere thought of writing a five-paragraph essay could shut down some scholars depending on learner variability.  Even those equipped with prior knowledge on the topic may experience barriers due to the language or organizational demands of such a goal. Thankfully….

    1. Learner variability is predictable and can be planned for.

    When setting goals (objectives) for scholars, consider whether your goal is content-centered or skill-centered. Let’s go back to the butterflies.  A content-centered goal would ask scholars to demonstrate understanding of a topic (in this case, the lifecycle of butterflies).  Offering adjustments like choice and flexibility in product (an essay, podcast, skit, presentation, painting, etc.) leverages UDL while maintaining grade-level instruction and expectations. A skill-centered goal asks scholars to demonstrate mastery of a specific skill (like writing a five-paragraph essay).  Therefore, flexibility in process and content are key UDL adjustments to make. By including choice of topic in the goal and offering key supports (sentence starters, models, graphic organizers, peer-editing opportunities, rubrics), learning targets and expectations are clarified, not lowered.  Additionally, when instruction is adjustable (see Five Moore Minutes linked below), scholars are empowered to make their own adjustments, which increases agency and ownership of scholar outcomes.


    Planning with UDL in mind can seem overwhelming, but you do not need to start from scratch, and are likely already utilizing components within your classroom.  The following is a list of doable starting points for designing for learner variability: 

    To Learn More: