In New Brunswick, Canada, where I teach, we have an inclusive system of education. There is no alternative setting for students who have special needs, so every student is placed in the general classroom setting. Classroom composition is quite diverse as a result, and meeting the needs of all students can be challenging at times. I have embraced Universal Design for Learning because it has helped improve my practice to better meet the needs of my students.
UDL has the potential to create a truly inclusive educational setting for all students. UDL plans for learner variability from the outset, meaning that the needs of all students are accounted for in the planning stage, which reduces the need for accommodations, and in some cases eliminates this need altogether. This is because many accommodations commonly used for students who follow Personalized Learning Plans (known as IEPs in other school systems) can be made accessible to everyone. Some examples include:
- Extra time to complete assignments and tests
- Reducing the number of assigned questions
- Having students complete larger assignments in smaller chunks
- Reading directions aloud to students
- Simplifying directions
- Checking in with students to ensure they understand directions before beginning a task
- Using reduced reading level material for students (e.g. a simpler text that covers the same content)
- Providing examples on how to respond to questions
- Providing photocopied notes
- Allow students to use dark lined paper for writing assignments
- Give students the option to take frequent activity breaks
- Provide students with manipulatives for Math (e.g. counters, number lines, base ten models, addition or multiplication tables, etc.)
- Offer access to a computer to complete assignments
- Offer choices in how to demonstrate learning (e.g. written essay, write a test, create a visual model, make a powerpoint presentation, etc).
Benefits to offering accommodations to everyone (or to anyone who wishes to use them) may include:
- Destigmatizing the process of receiving accommodations (e.g. if everyone is given dark lined paper to write on, it doesn't single out students who need to use it (such as those who are visually impaired or have difficulties with fine motor planning)
- Students do not need to have a diagnosis/label in order to have access to accommodations which may help them experience more academic success
- Reducing barriers to learning material or to demonstrating what they know - all students should be afforded the opportunity to learn or demonstrate learning in ways that capitalize on their strengths!
- Students are given more autonomy over their learning. Having choice empowers them to learn in ways that interest them the most, or that makes learning more accessible to them
In a nutshell, by being flexible, more students can fully participate in the general classroom setting without the need for accommodations, because instead of accommodating only those who have a documented need to be accommodated, we offer those accommodations to everyone. I have used this approach in my classroom for years, and have seen how it benefits everyone, not only those who follow Personalized Education Plans.
Does this mean everyone follows regular curriculum? I'd say yes, to the greatest extent possible. In my own classroom, by being flexible it has significantly reduced the need to provide accommodations to most of my students. But I would add that UDL does not negate the need very few students have to follow adjusted goals/programming (known as individualized in other school systems). Some students, for example, those who have significant cognitive delays, have different needs and deserve to have those needs met. This can be done in the regular classroom setting, and can be matched to the regular curriculum as much as possible so that they can feel like they are a valued member of the classroom community. For example, if students are learning how to write a five paragraph essay on a given topic (e.g. what they did over the holiday break), a student who follows an adjusted curriculum could complete the same assignment, writing about their holiday break, but may be expected to write a few sentences instead. They are working towards their adjusted goal (e.g. to write three sentences about a familiar topic), but are working on this activity in the classroom while their peers are working towards writing five paragraphs on the same topic.
UDL by definition is to plan for learner variability, because it is the norm, not the exception. The notion that all students learn differently is well-supported by research from learning sciences and cognitive neuroscience. Another well-known axiom of UDL is to be firm on the goal, and flexible on the means. I would argue that for some students, in order to meet their needs, and to meaningfully include them in the general classroom setting, at times it is necessary to also be flexible on the goal.
**This blog was inspired by a recent discussion I had with colleagues on Twitter about the subject. I'd highly recommend #udlchat on Twitter, which is held the first and third Wednesday of every month at 9:00 EST.