Once Architectural Jargon, ‘Universal Design’ Is Changing Education

Imagine a wheelchair ramp.

The design is ingenious — it affords people in wheelchairs access to buildings, but it may also be used by able-bodied individuals. This is a classic example of universal design.

Initially conceived in an architectural context, universal design is now being applied to the realm of education, too.

The idea behind Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is to create curricula with which learners from myriad backgrounds — those who are gifted, those with learning disabilities and differences, and those who are twice-exceptional — can thrive. This obviates the need for kids to “catch up” with lessons that meet the standards for what “typical” students should learn at a given grade level. With UDL, the environment meets the student, rather than the other way around, so that learners are free to develop at their own pace.

From Education to Technology

In recent years, technology has offered a particularly effective means of meeting individual student needs in inclusive learning environments.

More than a decade ago, researchers David H. Rose and Anne Meyer outlined the application of UDL methods and technological means in "Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age." They suggest that educators mold pedagogical approaches to individual learners, rather than asking learners to overcome “inflexible educational materials and methods.” Rose and Meyer believe that technology has changed the educational landscape; new digital media are, they contend in a subsequent paper, “inherently flexible” and adaptable to a wide range of learners. At the heart of their argument is the belief that an apparent “failure to learn” does not, in fact, reflect the capacity of a student, but rather of the overall learning system. They contend that the adoption of new pedagogical methods — made possible by advances in technology — can provide meaningful and equitable access to education.

Think of the degree to which assistive technology has helped students with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and other learning disabilities. It has enabled students and educators to embrace tools that serve as aids — and not “crutches” (in a negative sense) — to learning. These types of learning supports are fundamental to effective inclusive education. And inclusive education, in turn, has been shown to benefit all students — research has shown that students with and without disabilities are more likely to flourish in inclusive environments.

How UDL Works

UDL has three central principles:

1. Provide multiple means of representation (the “what”).

Material should never be presented in just one form, such as auditorily or visually. A student with dyslexia, for instance, may need text-to-speech technology, which reads aloud what is printed on the page.

2. Provide multiple means for action and expression (the “how”).

Students should be allowed to express themselves in a variety of forms — with language, with movement, with written text, or in some other way. Communication should not be dependent on a student being able-bodied.

3. Provide various means of engagement (the “why”).

Students should be able to “connect the dots” between their existing knowledge and new information. For this to happen, teachers should recognize that students have varying educational backgrounds. Working from this point, they should place lessons within broad contexts and provide scaffolding to the greatest extent possible. Lessons should also enable students to apply their learning to big ideas, both in and out of the classroom.

The Results — How UDL Is Making an Impact

Does the once-architectural theory map to current educational results? In a word: yes. Research into each of the three principles suggests that UDL is changing learning for the better.

The “What”

Although the discussion surrounding UDL has intensified recently, the concept of educating students via a variety of methods is itself not new. Over the past two decades, various studies have bolstered the positive effects of multisensory instruction.

Nineteen years ago, a study from the University of New South Wales examined the effects of exposing kids to the same information via both auditory and visual means. It found one particular outcome: Presenting material in two ways can help students ingest more information by countering issues with “split attention” (when students are so focused on one factoid that they have difficulty understanding another bit of knowledge presented simultaneously). The researchers also found that working memory capacity was enhanced by presenting information by auditory means in addition to visual means.

Since then, other research has produced similar findings. A 2012 study conducted in India concluded that multisensory math teaching yielded significantly more gains than conventional instruction. Likewise, findings from a 2015 case study concerning music instruction for students with dyslexia support the benefits of multisensory teaching.

The “How”

Most studies around expression focus on communication methods in the classroom. A particularly interesting study by then–doctoral candidate Laura Hilton of Western Michigan University used Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) to allow students with autism to communicate more easily. While using PECS did not necessarily boost vocalization, it did allow students to generalize their requests in a simpler fashion. In addition, participants’ aggression decreased, a change that Hilton believes resulted from their newfound ease of communication.

The “Why”

Based on their own quantitative testing, classroom experiments, and research, scholars Edwin Ellis, Theresa Farmer, and Jane Newman explain how teachers can make their classrooms conducive to broad learning and application in their remarkable piece “Big Ideas About Teaching Big Ideas.” The authors emphasize the efficacy of project-based learning (PBL), which invites active student inquiry. This teaching method, they argue, does more than cultivate problem-solving skills; it also empowers students with a sense of “enfranchisement with the community.”

Long Story Short

Universal Design for Learning suggests, more than anything else, that teachers be open to new ideas (such as technology in the classroom). They should also think about applying these ideas to serve their students, who may be facing a number of mental, physical, and emotional limitations.

This openness to experimentation may itself be partially responsible for creating better classroom environments and, ultimately, experiences. And the result is incomparable: teaching methods that meet the particular needs of some students while simultaneously meeting the general needs of others — like the wheelchair ramp.

Check out the latest updates and opinions on education-related news, and ask the schools you’re considering how they’re creating accessible and inclusive environments for all students.

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