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What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and how will it help your Mustard Seed School student?

February 8, 2021 | Abby Liu

Over the last few years, Mustard Seed School teachers have begun implementing Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into the curriculum and teaching practices. In the fall of 2020, teachers began a year-long professional development study in UDL with instructors from CAST. It takes several years to fully implement UDL. The effort is already making a difference.

Be sure to watch the quick videos at the end of Ms. Kuperus, Ms. Jang, and Ms. Buckley talking about how they’ve started implementing UDL in their classrooms!

What is Universal Design?

When I was introduced to Universal Design for Learning (UDL) a few years ago, I first learned about how the Air Force used to design cockpits for pilots in a Tedx Talk about UDL by Todd Rose called “The Myth of Average.” Rose explained that by building cockpits to serve the “average-sized” pilot, the set up was actually wrong for every pilot. And it was dangerous. Planes were more expensive and had more technology, yet pilots had worse outcomes. 

They discovered that by using measurements from a large number of body types and building for the average, they actually built something that fit nobody. The Air Force demanded that military plane companies build for the edges of pilot dimension and size. They implemented solutions that we now take for granted like adjustable seats. By designing for the edges, the Air Force dramatically improved the performance, safety, and comfort of pilots across the board. It also expanded their talent pool. This is an example of implementing universal design. 

Here’s another example. Architecture and design have long known this to be true: if you design a building to be universally accessible at the outset, it is not only less expensive, but it can also be more beautiful and functional. And everyone can benefit. Removing a barrier for one person helps others, too. Automatic doors will help the person who uses a wheelchair AND the person who has many bags of groceries or is pushing a stroller.  (“How a little idea called Universal Design for Learning has grown to become a big idea—elastic enough to fit every kid” by Katie Bacon. Harvard Ed. Magazine, Winter 2014)

Education, for the most part, has been developed for the “average” learner.  But just like there is not one pilot body type, there is no one kind of learner. Instead of categorizing or labeling students (gifted, average, disabled…), UDL sees all students on a continuum. On this continuum, all students need the “just right” learning experience for their particular learning style. 

What does neuroscience say about learning?

Neuroscience tells us that individual differences in learning styles are normal. Brain function has variability. “Brain functions and characteristics fall along a continuum of systemic variability. Thus differences are incremental, distributed, and dynamic rather than stable and categorical within an individual.” (Universal Design for Learning: Theory & Practice, page 6) In other words, there is no such thing as a “normal” learner. (Just like our pilot friend who doesn’t fit neatly into a built-for-average cockpit.)

What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

Based in neuroscience, UDL says that teachers should expect differences in how students learn and should plan for them. The curriculum should be set up in such a way that strengths can be amplified and barriers to learning removed. 

Universal Design for Learning says that all students should receive equitable opportunities to reach high standards.

So how does this work? According to UDL, there are three core principles:

  • Provide multiple means of engagement
  • Provide multiple means of representation
  • Provide multiple means of action and expression

Or, as UDL was defined in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, a federal law, “The term ‘universal design for learning’ means a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice that 

    1. provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and
    2. reduces barriers to instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, and challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient.”

( “How a little idea called Universal Design for Learning has grown to become a big ideaelastic enough to fit every kid” by Katie Bacon. Harvard Ed. Magazine, Winter 2014)

What does UDL look like in the classroom?

If a student is learning how to add simple numbers, the teacher can show the students how two blocks plus two blocks makes four blocks. Or the teacher can show the students how to work with a number line. Or use other math manipulatives. And the student can work through simple addition problems by representing their thinking on a piece of paper using two circles plus two circles to represent the equation. Or they can represent it by counting out loud on their hands. Everyone in the class will learn that 2+2=4. They might take different routes. They might express the equation in different ways. 

Similarly, say a teacher assigns a set of readers response questions during Language Arts. A student who struggles to express themselves through writing might read a book and respond to the questions by making a video. Their classmate might prefer to create a comic-like graphic depiction of their analysis. And still another might write a more traditional paper. All methods of expression enable students to communicate their ideas about the book. The goal for each student is the same, the method is flexible. 

With UDL, specific learning goals are still in place, but they are competency-based goals meant to develop expert learners. This is a shift from past educational thought where students were seen as empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge and facts. Instead, as students become expert learners, they are actively involved in creating knowledge and establishing its value. 

It’s an approach that optimizes learning for each student’s strengths and weaknesses, allowing for what neuroscience tells us is going to happen: learner variability. Universal Design for Learning provides accommodations to students who need them, and additional challenges to students who are ready for more. And it says learning differences that naturally come out in the classroom actually benefit all students. When students who are different from each other learn together in the same classroom, they also learn from each other. The more neurodiversity, the better. 

Implementing UDL happens in many phases over the course of many years

As you would expect, UDL requires a carefully crafted curriculum and trained teachers. Fully implementing it within a school is a multi-year process. According to CAST,  the professional development organization that we’re working with, there are five phases in the UDL implementation process:

    1. Explore
    2. Prepare
    3. Integrate
    4. Scale
    5. Optimize

Where is Mustard Seed School in the implementation of UDL?

At Mustard Seed, we’re a couple of years into the implementation process. Our staff are between phases two and three. Some teachers are still in the preparation phase, others have begun implementing. They’re working on adapting the curriculum as well as their teaching practices. To learn about specific examples, watch the short videos at the end of this blog. We plan to share more about the ways that we’ve implemented UDL in the classroom in the coming months and years.

Even though it takes time to fully implement UDL, there are a lot of things working in our favor. The UDL principles work very nicely with Mustard Seed School’s already established curriculum and style of teaching. Especially the hands-on, experiential, and  arts-based program. And, in the early childhood division, it dovetails with the Reggio-Emilia approach, which emphasizes giving children hundreds of art languages to explore and express learning. Universal Design for Learning challenges us to take the work that is already happening at Mustard Seed and go further with it. The arts naturally provide multiple means of engagement, representation, action, and expression. The thematic, project-based social studies and science curriculum lend themselves to further implementation of UDL.

UDL and Mustard Seed School’s mission

The core ideas of UDL intersect with many parts of our mission statement. Teachers must know and care for their students in order to know how to meet individual learning styles and remove anything that would prevent learning. UDL is a whole-child approach to learning that inspires minds, cultivates hearts, and removes barriers. It’s about opening doors for everyone to step through. And building an aircraft upon which all students can fly.

Real examples of  MSS teachers using UDL in the classroom

Teacher Clara Buckley talks about how she has implemented Universal Design for Learning strategies in her Middle School and PK classrooms.

Third grade teacher Cindy Kuperus talks about using the Universal Design for Learning strategy of sharing clear learning goals to engage students.

Fourth grade teacher Chloe Jang talks about how self-reflection, a Universal Design for Learning strategy, helps students grow into purposeful and motivated learners. She also shares how self-reflection increased student resourcefulness and strategic thinking.

Learn more

Here are some articles, books, and videos that helped me as I wrote this blog. 

The Myth of Average (Tedx Talk by Todd Rose on UDL–highly recommend)

“How a little idea called Universal Design for Learning has grown to become a big idea—elastic enough to fit every kid” by Katie Bacon (Harvard Ed. Magazine, Winter 2014)

“The Five Phases of the UDL Implementation Process: Tools to Guide Your Journey” by David Rose, Patti Ralabate, Grade Meo

Universal Design for Learning Theory and Practice. By Anne Meyer, David H. Rose, and David Gordon.

Abby Liu

Director of Marketing and Communications

Ms. Liu loves to tell the Mustard Seed story. She’s the parent of two Mustard Seed School alumni. She's seen the impact of a Mustard Seed education from the early preschool days all the way up to eighth grade and beyond.

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