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Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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Are they accommodations or supports? How you view them makes a difference

Adria Gold’s podcast offers the perfect example of the “UDL takeover” that happens when there is full implementation of the framework. Her story comes from the angle of identifying supports that are, at times, reserved for learners with Individual Education Plans (IEPs), but that same support can benefit all learners. The particular support she discusses is chunking.

The National Center on Educational Outcomes describes chunking as a structure that can support learners who are “classified as poor or low-ability readers” (NCEO, n.d.) The only caution is over-chunking, or breaking up the text so much that it can stifle learners’ comprehension of the passage. Though this particular support could be used as an accommodation, in Adria’s classroom it is a support offered to all. What’s the difference, though, between an accommodation and a support?

First, an accommodation is something that changes how a student learns. The term accommodation is used when describing supports offered to learners with disabilities. It isn’t unheard of for people to confuse accommodations and modifications.  This piece from lays out the difference between them (namely, modifications change what a student is taught or is expected to learn). With that understanding, we can look at a list of common accommodations that are discussed in another article on titled, “Common classroom accommodations and modifications.” These include:

  • Audio recordings instead of reading text
  • Recording notes instead of writing notes
  • Using a word processor to type notes or give responses in class
  • Sitting where the learner learns best

In a learning environment like the one Adria describes, these accommodations are seen as supports for any student who choose to use them because the teacher understands what she/he/they want(s) the learners to accomplish. Instead of individual students using these supports at specific times, they are supports provided to all learners based on the goal of the lesson or task. For example, if you want your learners to comprehend the text, listening to the story lowers the barriers of decoding. If you want your learners to capture key elements of a lecture, recording the notes can lower the barriers or slow writing or typing. For other learners, the barrier might be writing, so using a word processor will lower the barrier. And classrooms across the US (and the world, for that matter) are adopting flexible seating which involves learners not only suggesting the surface on which they will sit so they can learn best, but also the location in the learning environment. In each case, you have to know and your learners have to know what they are working toward so they can make informed choices.

In environments designed using the UDL framework, these options are made available to all learners, just like chunking is made available to all learners in Adria’s classroom. Adria uses chunking to help her learners break down the success criteria (the components they need to identify to successfully achieve the standard) and asserts her choice by saying, “So why not offer them a little bit of structure or chunking or just breaking down your expectation so that they know what they’re being held accountable for?” The learners can pay attention to the colored chunking, they can use the checklist to help them chunk, or they can move through the assignment without giving the colors or checklist any attention. They decide what will help them achieve the goal. Adria recognizes that the support is helping her learners understand their job in the learning process.

Above, I referenced a “UDL takeover” that happens when the framework is fully implemented. That framework is driven by the variability of our learners. We recognize that they all learn differently and it depends on the context. This podcast really focuses in on the access Adria provides to those variable learners. She wants every student to spend time in deep thinking, not wondering whether they will skip a step. She wants them to blend information, not see it as disparate parts. She wants them to think about and talk about the big ideas, not get stuck in the process. Adria understands that access is based on a mindset of inclusion. It is that mindset that drives the design of her learning environment and the focus is on the maturation of expert learners.

When Kim Babeu created her S.P.O.R.T. system, she was thinking about what skills learners needed to be successful in the world. For her, those included:

  • sportsmanship (e.g., cooperating with others and upholding one another),
  • participation (e.g., being fully present and involved on behalf of yourself and for the team)
  • organization (e.g., includes being on time and prepared),
  • respect (e.g., watching their language, respecting oneself and others), and
  • teamwork (e.g., stepping up to the plate).

As described during the podcast, this system has led to wonderful outcomes for her students. She’s so excited about it, she sent me student interviews where they talked about the impact SPORT has had on them. They shared the following:

They see themselves as individuals who are part of a collective:

Marquel, sophomore: “You feel closer with your peers. We are so far ahead because we have quite a few kids that are just a lot more mature and on task. Their characters are just amazing. They are good people.”

Adrianna G. “I think we’ve earned so many 5 out of 5s because we work together. Like, if there’s a problem we’ll all help out. We all participate. We’re all on the team.”

Alexis, junior. “I think our class works as a team and actually wants to earn the sports and follows it. This class feels different. It feels like the class wants to be here and actually learn what we’re learning Other classes just come [sic to school] just because they have to.”

Marcos, Junior: “To earn a class wide like SPORT feels great because everybody was on task, doing their work, you know. Everything was just perfect, it was a perfect thing, you know? [And] this class feels like home because I feel, like it’s a structured place where I can be myself. I can see myself using it in the future because it helps keep me focused.”

Samira, sophomore: “SPORT has helped me not just in class but out of class. It helps me in other classes because I know how to respect, talk, help my team, my classmates, and how to participate. It’s a big thing to understand because it has a lot of meaning in a lot of places. Learning how to respect yourself, elderly, other students.”

More focused:

Diego, sophomore (via a student translator). “S.P.O.R.T. made him be more focused in class which made him more respectful and want to do better in class.”

Alexis, junior: “In my classes it has helps me stay more focused and calm. It has helped me be more respectful of teachers and be more on task. I’ll follow [sic S.P.O.R.T.] when I’m not in school because it has made me become a better person in life and accomplish more things. S.P.O.R.T. is a really good thing. It has helped me in many ways and I’m sure it will help you, too!”

Larry, sophomore: “[sic S.P.O.R.T.] has helped me motivate myself. It helps me stay focused in class.”

Understanding themselves as learners and citizens:

Marquel, sophomore. “I do better with set goals in mind. With SPORT, there’s a goal for the day, so I do better. It keeps me on task.”

Alexis, junior. “Has helped me in many ways, not only in school but in life. It has helped me become more responsible and organized and respect others more. It has helped me realize that everybody deserves respect.”

Marco, junior: “S.P.O.R.T. has helped me mature my mentality and gain skills like be on time, pay attention and focus. It has helped me be engaged more with the lessons.”

Larry, sophomore: “It has helped me with daily activities, like if my mom needs some help, I’ll do what she asks me to out of honor and respect.”

The impact they can have on others:

Samira, sophomore: Responding to earning SPORT points as a class. “We have achieved a big goal because we worked for it. We really, like, put a lot of effort into it. We want to be role models and show other classes what we can do.”

Samira, sophomore: What she wants the world to know. “To just respect and work together, not throw shade at other people. Instead of putting them down, hold them up. Make a difference in life.”

And now…intentionality

When listening to Kim and hearing the outcomes these students have experienced, it’s easy to identify how S.P.O.R.T. aligns with UDL. A quick scan of the guidelines under Engagement alone shows a strong alignment to the affective networks. Those students are learning that: their choices make a difference (recruiting interest), being part of collective has value (recruiting interest), they are part of a collective (sustaining effort and persistence), goals are important in both class and in life (sustaining effort and persistence), the expectations set by Kim are meaningful and doable (self-regulation and recruiting interest), as they improve on their own coping skills, they will be able to accomplish more academically and in life (self-regulation), and that they have ability to reflect and alter their behaviors based on that reflection is a life skill (self-regulation). It’s no wonder this system has the potential to be seen as the implementation of UDL!

Did I just say “potential”? Yes. Is that a slam? No.

The number one thing that must happen to implement UDL is the intentional use of the framework to design something. That means we are thinking about the systematic variability and potential barriers learners might experience before any design decisions are made. But what if people tell you that they “see UDL” in your teaching and you don’t do either one of these things? It means you have been practicing strategies and methods that are backed by quality research and now you get to bring more into your repertoire! Let’s use S.P.O.R.T. as an example.

Toward the end of the podcast, Kim shares that she provides direct instruction about S.P.O.R.T. at the beginning of the year. She also uses posters and student leaders to help new students learn about S.P.O.R.T. to ensure they feel welcome and know how to be part of the community from the beginning. I did not have time to ask, though, what other barriers she has considered. I didn’t get to ask what systematic variability she knows will be present and how can she plan for that up-front. For example, Spanish is the predominant first language in her building, but these students are in an English-speaking environment. Though she knows that students support one another in their language-rich school, she can use Microsoft’s translator (LINK) and then ask students to clean up the translation. Now, her Spanish-speaking students don’t have to wait for their peers to assist them in reading about S.P.O.R.T. That barrier is removed.

Next, UDL is built on the premise that barriers are in the environment, not in the learner, and that the goal determines the support needed. If a learner utilized a wheelchair and needed to get from one room to the next and there are two steps, the barrier is that there is no ramp not that the learner uses a wheelchair. Likewise, if a leaner is a non-reader and they need to comprehend the directions for an experiment, the barrier is that the learner in not provided with audible directions (i.e., given by another learner, teacher, or technology), not that the learner is a non-reader.

If a teacher learns about S.P.O.R.T. but believes that student behaviors purely originate from inside the learner versus seeing behavior as a learner’s reaction to the environment, S.P.O.R.T. cannot work. That’s because the teacher will always look to the students to behave versus scanning the environment for barriers (e.g., something that might trigger a behavior in a student, academic tasks that aren’t scaffolded causing the student to act out, or academic tasks that are too simple causing the student to be bored and frustrated).

This is where UDL helps. How? The intentional and successful implementation of the UDL framework depends on an understanding of variability – context directly impacts all behavior. More specifically, UDL guides us to design environments that help students learn coping skills, self-assessment, and executive functioning.

Finally, after we worked together in the summer of 2018, Kim became enthused about providing her students choice during their anatomy assessments which we talked about in the first podcast. Now, she can ask herself whether her students have choice when learning about and demonstrating their understanding of S.P.O.R.T. When students aren’t successful in exemplifying S.P.O.R.T., are there barriers in the environment related to choice-making that can be removed? Can the process be scaffolded more for some students who demonstrate a lack of connection? These are the questions UDL makes us ask. This is the reflective use of the framework. This is how you guide your learners toward becoming expert learners.

Classroom observations can be a powerful method to improve everything from environment design to implementing strategies. During the podcast, Dan described the influence one teacher had on him.

And there was this one particularly talented teacher who would come into my math class. And she would implement or use all these strategies and I would stand back and watch her and I think, wow, if this is working for students who are struggling, why not try it with the students who may not be struggling, but you never really know because they’re not going to freely admit it so why not let everybody have access to the strategies? And so, at that point, really the “Why not?” became my, my mantra for new ideas. I try to use it as sort of a growth mindset. Even student suggestions, you know, why not try it? And so, that’s really where that, “Why not” sort of developed.

Dan was observing someone who came into his classroom, though many times, observations involve going into someone else’s space. However they happen, observations can be incredibly helpful!

Robert Kaplinsky offers an easy comparison between the Pineapple Chart method created by Jennifer Gonzalez and Mark Barnes for their book, Hacking Education, and his method called #ObserveMe. While these two initiatives help educators learn from one another, I want to add to the conversation by offering an observation guide that is specific to UDL implementation.

The guide, Here’s What I See: The UDL Implementation Observation Guide is different than other guides in four ways.

  1. It asks the observer to focus on a single aspect of the lesson or the environment. An aspect can be a strategy, a material (e.g., use of a specific technology, use of manipulatives, how learners interact with the organizational system of classroom materials), or a method. This helps the observer dig into that one aspect and investigate how it is designed into the lesson and/or space and how learners react to it.
  2. It divides the lesson up into three sections: the initiation, the body, and the conclusion. This way, it is not limited to certain lesson structures (e.g., I do, we do, you do).
  3. The reflection prompts ask the observer to consider the three principles of UDL (e.g., evidence of/nuances of design using engagement). This allows the observer to fully consider how the aspect is used throughout the three phases of the lesson in relation to the three principles.
  4. The guide concludes with de-brief prompts and suggestions of how observers can be grouped for effective conversations. The de-brief prompts are written to guide observers to reflect on issues directly related to the UDL framework.

While I’m excited about this observation guide, I hope users will send me feedback so we can co-construct an even better tool to continue moving ourselves toward becoming expert learners!

Illustration of lady construction worker with hard hat and vest smiling and giving a thumbs up while carrying rolled up blueprints with her other hand
Public Domain

In this episode, Monica shares how she and a team conducted action research to discover whether choice would lead to greater engagement in assessments and learning at the middle school level. While sharing that story, she pointed out that their school counselor is a “Gardner guru,” referencing Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences. Later, she talked about the counselor’s use of multiple intelligences (MI) to help the students identify their strengths.

Referencing Gardner’s work provides a wonderful opportunity to remind everyone of his intent when he published information about MI. In fact, Gardner clarified his work in a Washington Post article printed on October 16, 2013, titled, “Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles.’(Strauss).

Through his work on multiple intelligences, Gardner’s goal was to dissuade people from believing that we have a single overarching intelligence that defines how well we will do in life. Instead, Gardner believes there are a series of 8 different intelligences including: intrapersonal, interpersonal, logical-mathematical, naturalist, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic, and musical ( The theory suggests that due to the interconnectivity of our brains, we inherently experience these different intelligences simultaneously and we experience them based on context. While a person may show a propensity toward one or another, that doesn’t mean it defines that person. He uses the example of a person who has the ability to acquire a new language quickly. That person might have a higher linguistic intelligence, but this does not lock this person into a type or style.

At some point, individuals and groups began talking and writing about learning styles. Definitions were created and assessments soon followed. As Gardner points out, though, there are no criteria to back up the definitions and these styles do not hold true across context. Here’s an example. Some people refer to themselves as “auditory” learners, but this style fails to recognize how our brain works. For example, a person might appear to learn best when the learning is attached to music, but not when listening to podcasts. Both are auditory actions (i.e., they make use of hearing), but use different cognitive faculties. The brain works differently even though the “input” is through the ears. To identify a learner with a type of style or to have that learner identify themselves as a specific type of style (a) denies what we know about how the brain functions, and (b) can mislead a learner to characterize themselves in an ill-defined and limiting way.

Through the UDL Lens

In that same article, Gardner provides recommendations that I provide here via the UDL lens. First, he calls on us to individualize. He calls for educators to help learners discover ways they find comfortable to learn and support them in those ways. In the UDL community, we build that into the design via choice (as Monica and her peers did for their action research). An important key here is to help learners find ways of learning, not one way, because there is not a single way for any learner to experience learning. Second, he asks teachers to “pluralize” their teaching by teaching topics and skills in a variety of ways. This is at the very heart of UDL and the Principle of Representation. When we use multiple means and methods to demonstrate topics and skills, we are able to connect with all of our learners, providing them opportunities to learn more thoroughly. Finally, Gardner asks us to drop the term “styles.” It’s confusing and has no research-base unlike the principles, guidelines, and checkpoints of UDL as well as the concept of variability.

Wooden figure leaning on its right hand
CCO Public Domain

Currently, there is no MI test and, in fact, Gardner pushes against self-assessment to specifically define oneself (read here). What he does want people to do is understand the interrelationship between our intelligences. He has online activities at the posted link so people can experience these connections.

Ultimately, Gardner doesn’t want us to assess ourselves. He wants us to explore and understand these different parts of ourselves. So, instead of asking your students to assess themselves, allow them the ability to explore and make their own discoveries through choice and reflection. That is, after all, how we support the development of expert learners.

During my podcast with Jana Nicol, she provided some wonderful examples of how she got started with the UDL framework. These included the organization of her classroom supplies, her use of the classroom schedule, and her adoption of flexible seating. Each were quality environment strategies. The difference, though, is how she used the framework to determine the design of each item. Below, I break down the three examples and include the UDL guidelines associated with her decisions.

Labeled bins with cut-out handles on sectioned shelves that stand at the height of her students
Organization of supplies (picture taken by Jana Nicol)

What teacher doesn’t love an organized space, especially when your classroom isn’t particularly large? And while Jana teaches 3rd grade, many of the names associated with classroom supplies are part of students’ day-to-day language. She recognizes the variability she knows will be present. She knows that some of her learners might struggle when scanning the bins to locate the correct supplies. Knowing about variability also leads her to design other presentation and use strategies. The signs on her bins include the picture of the item (Perception and Language & Symbols). To what end? She wants her learners to be motivated and self-driven in their use of the supplies (Self-Regulation and Executive Functions). She wants to open the doors to creativity when they are working on projects (Expression & Communication) instead of requiring them to stop, seek permission, and potentially lose their creative idea while waiting to get the supply they need. And, instead of waiting, they can stay in their zone of excitement and productivity (Sustaining Effort & Persistence). The pure freedom learners have to choose the supply they think they need provides them with more choice and autonomy (Recruiting Interest), leading them to experience both success and challenge based on their choices (e.g., have you ever used a glue stick when you should have used masking tape?).

A pocket chart filled with cards that have the task name and associated picture on them. The top pocket has the day of the week. The order of the cards going down visually models the order of the schedule. A long pole with a cartoon hand is used to point to the schedule items when Jana Nicol reads the schedule out loud.
Classroom Schedule (photo by Jana Nicol)

When I was an 8th grade collaborative special education teacher, students came to my room during two different periods a day. I always wrote a schedule on my board. I knew that helped my students (and me), but I didn’t know why it helped them. UDL helps me understand why.

Students know what is coming, which can help them understand the flow of the class (Sustaining Effort and Persistence) and know what’s coming next. For some, knowing the schedule order provides them with a sense of security (Recruiting interest) and helps them regulate their emotions and reactions toward specific subjects or what they perceive as activities connected with those subjects or activities (Self-regulation). Nicol’s schedule provides images, written words, and she reads the schedule out loud (Perception and Language & Symbols). She ensures her students understand the pattern of the day (Comprehension). By discussing the schedule, learners also have the opportunity to think through their day and plan how they will stay on task, work with others, or meet other goals (Executive Functions). Posting the schedule is a first step, but it is how the schedule is used in the environment that opens opportunities to learners. When you understand the guidelines, you can investigate how you might use a simple organizational structure in a way that benefits more of your learners in a more effective way.

Four boys sitting around a rectangular table. Two boys are seated on milk crates. One boy is seated on a stool, while another boy is sitting in a chair.
Flexible seating (photo by Jana Nicol)

Flexible seating is a popular topic and has been shown to be a promising structure for learning. In this podcast, we talked not only about the different types of seating learners could choose, but that they also chose where they worked and, when applicable, with whom they worked. It takes careful planning and execution and the UDL framework can help you do both, just as it helped Jana.

As Jana shares during the podcast, her students love choosing where they are going to work (Recruiting Interest). They are able to work alongside one another (Sustaining Effort and Persistence) and they help keep one another on track (I’m making an assumption here, but it fits with how Jana designs her classroom) (Sustaining Effort and Persistence and Self-Regulation). Students who might experience a learning barrier due to the physical set-up of the space can be provided with options and opportunity when there is flexible seating (Physical Action).

Toward the end of the podcast, Jana used a word that is one of the underlying components of UDL: flexibility. When we design environments that allow for learner choice – we build in flexibility – we see them grow. They now have to make decisions as to what is going to benefit them most. Which supply will help them accomplish what they’ve set out to do? How they will manage their needs as they relate to the schedule? And, which seating type and what location will help them reach their goals? These types of decisions are what help our learners become expert learners, and that is the ultimate goal of UDL.

This blog is in response to my podcast with Ben Kelly.

Empowering through investigation

During this episode’s interview with Ben Kelly, he is jazzed about Minecraft as a tool that aligns with the Universal Design for Learning framework. I’m jazzed about his participation in action research. This research method is extremely powerful because it gives us answers about how we can change our instruction or environment to meet the needs of our learners. Ben and colleagues throughout New Brunswick, Canada took part in UDL-focused action research projects that were supported by the University of New Brunswick as well as the New Brunswick Department of Education. This powerful partnership led to the publication of each team’s findings. The teams investigated topics including: student engagement in project-based learning, eBook usage by English language learners, grade 9 math, engagement around a social studies curriculum, promoting student engagement, increasing engagement in an inclusive environment, establishing collaboration among teachers who are implanting UDL, using math exchanges and math stations to improve problem solving and numeracy skills, and using formative assessment to improve skill development, understanding, and self-correction in physical education. Their reported results are enlightening and supportive of the UDL framework! I promise that after you have read some or all of these articles, you will become jazzed about the possibilities action research bring to you!

But if you have never learned about action research or it has been a while since you tried it out, where do you start? George Mason University has gathered quality resources including work done by the University of Maryland as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant called Project Nexus. Linking very nicely to UDL, this project encouraged teachers to use the regular sources of interviews and written text but also included student drawings (a lovely connection to the principle of Action & Expression!).

Maybe you are interested in giving action research a try, but you are not sure whether you want to conduct action research on your own, with a team, at the school level, or at the district level. In this document, written by Eileen Ferrance and published and distributed by Brown University, there is a wonderfully helpful table that guides the reader to understand the supports needed, the potential impact that the research can have, and potential side effects in relationship to individual teacher research, collaborative action research, school-wide action research, or district-wide action research.

Ultimately, action research puts the power in your hands. As with any research, you decide what you want to study, how you want to structure the study, and who you want to have involved in your study, but action research is accessible to teachers. It relies on the assessment of what you are doing in your classroom and the work your students produce. These are things you look at anyway; the action research process provides a more structured and in-depth way to investigate your question, set a strong plan, collect the data, analyze and interpret those data, reflect on your findings, and ultimately finish that loop of formative assessment by making informed changes and sharing what you have learned. After all, you could be like the teachers in New Brunswick, Canada and your lessons could empower a bunch of other teachers!

Clip art diagram of action research process
Action Research Cliparts #2433655 retrieved from

…the more I’ve learned about UDL, it really truly is a mindset. I think of it sort of as, like, almost like an ideology really, in approach to education. It’s a totally different world view, a totally different way of looking at students, of looking at a lesson, it’s a different way of thinking about what it means to be in public education and truly serving every child, every child’s needs.

– Dakota Hudelson

The Mindset of UDL

If you’ve been around the UDL community for a while, you’ve heard the framework described as a mindset, but how can a framework be a mindset? A framework is a thing. In fact, when people struggle to understand what a framework is, I point them to the periodic table as an example of a framework. A framework is a structured way to organize and categorize information to make it more understandable and useful. But the UDL framework has two sides to it: a way of thinking and a way of doing.

A way of thinking. UDL brings together quality research and practices into one place. That’s why so many teachers initially say, “I’m already doing this!” After a while, though, teachers who are intentional about their use of the UDL framework begin to see that the framework challenges them to think even more broadly about two things: how they can remove the barriers keeping students from learning, and how different strategies and practices can be barriers for some and accessible to others. UDL makes us recognize, over and over, that there is no single way to teach anything. And, each time we teach it, it will need to be different because the learners who are present will be different. Finally, our teaching practice expands when we recognize the variability among our learners and we invite learners of all types into our environments. What I mean when I say that UDL is a way of thinking is this – to effectively implement UDL, we must believe that all learners bring something of value to the environment and it is up to us to lower the barriers so those students can share their contributions and build additional knowledge and skills.

A way of doing. As UDL continues to shift our thinking, it’s going to affect our doing. Returning to the teachers who initially say, “I’m already doing this!” the following question is asked: in your process of planning your lessons and setting up your environment, are you planning for the variable needs or planning for the average and then adding things in later for students who don’t fit the average? All of the research that established and continues to uphold the information within the UDL framework confirms that there is no average. By using the framework as a tool when designing your lessons and environment, you begin to add in options that support the variability that will be present. In other words, you design your lessons and learning environments, anticipating learner variability. Doing so causes you to provide multiple opportunities and options for students to connect with, understand, and demonstrate their understanding of the subject or skill.

In short, UDL is:

Illustration of young man thinking with question marks around his head
Thinker by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay
Note with "LET'S DO IT!" written on it and tape on one corner
Lets Do It by Maklay62 from Pixabay
A way of thinking A way of doing
We must believe that all learners bring something of value to the environment and it is up to us to lower the barriers so those students can share their contributions and build additional knowledge and skills. You design your lessons and learning environments, anticipating learner variability. Doing so causes you to provide multiple opportunities and options for students to connect with, understand, and demonstrate their understanding of the subject or skill.

Isn’t it funny how we interpret rigor throughout education? As Liz Hartmann points out during our podcast conversation, many educators fall into the trap of more, more, more. They pile on the reading assignments, projects, and things to do. Liz shares how they decided to add rigor by closely investigating the way they had students engaged with the content. Realizing that their desired amount of reading was occurring but the level of comprehension and subsequent application was not, the team turned to the UDL framework and challenged themselves to redesign how their learners were using the background knowledge as well as their learning strengths to gain new knowledge.

I want to break this down a little more, though. In the podcast, I comment that, “we’ve got some folks out there who unfortunately misinterpret UDL, and this concept of lowering barriers, and they see that as, “making things easier.”” When I hear that belief, I immediately know that the person does not understand the purpose of the framework. One way to show the difference in mindset is to provide comparison. In the table below, I’ve used the definition of rigor (from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary) that some might unfortunately bring into the classroom. Alongside each breakdown of the definition, I’ve written out the mindset of UDL and its intent.

Black and white photo of open dictionary on a table in a library
Dictionary by greeblie is CC by 2.0
Rigor (noun) UDL (noun); UDL implementation (verb)
Harsh inflexibility in opinion, temper, or judgement. Believing there must be an infiltration of flexibility within the design of learning environments so as to challenge students to become self-determined thinkers and decision-makers.
The quality of being unyielding or inflexible. The quality of recognizing, designing for, and implementing based on student variability.
An act or instance of strictness, severity, or cruelty. The development of an environment upheld by neuro-science research which supports educators and learners acquiring and applying social-emotional learning.
A condition that makes life difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable. An environment design that minimizes the level or threat a learner might feel, but supports the student to learn ways to mitigate or negotiate around those stressors in the future.

Instead of making things easier, when we have a better understanding of educational rigor and use the UDL framework to design our learning environment (e.g., the physical things and social-emotional structures present), we can truly move our learners toward rigorous learning. I like the way Robyn Jackson talks about rigor. When students have to (1) make meaning of things, (2) organize what they are learning in a way that makes sense to them, (3) figure out how small pieces and parts become part of a bigger process, and (4) then apply that new knowledge to other situations, they are doing something rigorous.

Linking back to the podcast, having students read 3 articles and watch 2 videos to understand a UDL guideline is not rigorous. Requiring students to share their interpretations as well as how they connect what they’ve learned to what they already know establishes a base for rigor. This is further amplified when the learners know they will receive feedback and assignments/challenges that push them further into the content and to connect that guideline to the entire UDL framework. Finally, they have to apply their knowledge of UDL to a new product, be it an app or the design of a future lesson. Instead of being pushed into the deep end and told to sink or swim (the falsehood of read+watch = understand), they have their choice of flotation device, swimming style, and beginning depth (the truth of guided goal-driven reading and watching = a new interpretation. Now, rinse and repeat). Ultimately, the learners know they are all moving toward the same goal in a rigorous way.

During each of my podcast interviews, I ask the guest to describe the students in his or her learning environment. Rachel’s school, Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, serves students who have disabilities as well as students who are ethnically, socioeconomically, and linguistically diverse. As she began to describe why she loved teaching these students and teaching at her school, she named characteristics that not only pointed to the culture she established within her classroom, but it also pointed to the culture of the school. I asked her to talk about that school culture and this is what she shared:

Yeah, I think that it’s a big part of our staff and the fact that many of our teachers feel, um, have this desire to really foster these core character traits in our kids. Um, you know, like I said, the school is a small school and, you know, everybody knows everybody. And our principal, you know, really enforces this idea of it takes a village and we all are looking out for all of these children. And so those core values, that’s what we call them in my classroom, core values, things like curiosity, reflection, kindness, and grit, and persistence, um, are things that are felt throughout the school and, um, as well as you know really trying to work on those social emotional learning needs of our kids and restorative justice practices. Many teachers in our school use those practices as well, which really, you know, really tackle that whole child approach to, to our kids.

A positive and strong school culture is crucial to the full implementation of UDL. Sure, students can go into a few select classes designed using the UDL framework and have a positive, deeply affective, challenging, rigorous, experience, but when they leave those environments, they lose the opportunity to become expert learners and it’s in that shift that we can lose them. The disconnect is dangerous.

Puzzle with child's face looking out from behind it
Puzzle by Milan Nykodym CC BY-SA 2.0

Most students experience multiple teachers/educators and learning environments throughout the day. Think of it as a giant puzzle that students put together every day. Each learning environment is another piece in their day. They know when those pieces connect and when they don’t. So, how do we create a culture where those pieces connect?

Just as Rachel described, when each educator feels they are part of a positive collective and understand their connection to the collective, that connectedness is communicated to their learners via common expectations, support structures, and norms. The school and district leadership lead that development, including the development of norms around the implementation of UDL. Where do you start?

Suggested tools that can guide leadership to establish a strong and positive culture can be found at in their Guide.

Specific to UDL, these videos are of building and district leaders who have brought UDL to their districts and schools and are making UDL implementation part of the collective culture. See what’s possible in your environment.

UDL is a powerful framework, but its power grows exponentially when it guides the design of a school or district’s culture. Imagine a district where families, students, and community members know that the entire environment is designed so every learner can become an expert learner. Now, that’s a positive culture!

“I sat there and I kind of crossed my arms and I said, “I already do this! I already do UDL!” And then I kept thinking, “Ah, these are just good teaching strategies. Everybody teaches this way!” Oh, and then I thought, “Oh, it has to do with elementary teachers just do this then. Maybe they don’t do it at the middle school, high school level, but we already do this.” And I just kept thinking it was really a new buzzword and that there wasn’t anything new. And then by the end, it was a week-long course, and by the end of the week I thought, “Oh, wait a minute. I guess I really don’t do this.” And I think I had been teaching for so long that I thought it really was what I was doing, but the more I dove, you know, I dove deeper into what UDL was and I realized it really was different. That there were a lot more levels to and layers as to what UDL was.”

– Laura Taylor, sharing her reflections about a UDL training during her UDL in 15 Minutes interview.

During our conversation together, Laura openly shared what I’ve heard other experienced teachers say when they first hear about UDL. When you listen to my podcast with Laura, you’ll hear what she took from that training. She shares what changed about her teaching after 25 years in the classroom.

From a training perspective, an incredibly interesting thing about UDL is that each person takes away their own thing. They might take away a better understanding of choice versus variety. They might take away a new understanding of accessibility. They might come to a deeper understanding of the power of goals. That’s because all learning is based on our background experiences and knowledge. That not only includes the experiences we had as learners when we were children, teenagers, and as adults, but it also includes experiences driven by the locations in which we have taught, the student populations we have supported, and the support we have been provided by the other professionals in our midst. Bring in the experiences we have outside of our professional lives, and you have all the ingredients for a variable learner of UDL! This also means that some people automatically connect with the UDL framework and others need some time, space, and additional information before they are ready to try it out.

Let’s say you’re the person in your building or department who is most enthused about UDL.  You see its potential, but your colleagues still have their arms crossed. What can you do? How do you provide them with more information and support them so they can absorb UDL in a way that suits their needs?

  1. Share stories told by other UDL implementers. I have guests spanning preschool to grad school from around the globe lined up for “UDL in 15 Minutes” in 2019. Sign up via iTunes, subscribe to my YouTube channel, and make sure you come back to the website for the follow-up blog posts.

  2. Share your stories. What one or two things did you take away from the framework that made an impact? What changes did you see in your students?

  3. Join a community of UDL implementers. Twitter has groups like #udlchat and #udlhe where educators talk about UDL. You don’t even have to post anything! You can just read what other people write and post. If you don’t know how to get started, just email me and I can help you join the Twitterverse!

  4. Connect with CAST and the UDL-IRN. CAST has updated The National Center as a hub of up-to-date stories about people, ideas, and conversations in the UDL community. The UDL Implementation and Research Network (IRN) has a weekly newsletter with tips and tools for UDL implementation.

We all come to UDL in our own wonderful ways. We start from where we are. And as we learn more about ourselves as expert learners of UDL (and life), we can pass along our lessons to our students through the design of our learning environments. Now that’s a real gift.