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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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During my conversation with Callie Mulcahy for this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, she shares how she uses UDL to help her students move through the process of design. She provides them with a process that helps them think through the steps they will from idea generation to the finished product. What she is doing is helping them be more intentional.

Intentionality has become something of a buzz word in popular culture. Oxford Languages for Google defines intentionality as “the fact of being deliberate or purposive.” They clarify the philosophy definition is “the quality of mental states (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, desires, hopes) that consists in their being directed toward some object or state of affairs. Regardless of the definition you lean toward, intentionality is a necessary part of our lives.

Read this list of actions and think about which ones you do intentionally?

  • Eat your meals

  • Brush your teeth

  • Pet your dog or cat

  • Clean your house

  • Mow your yard

  • Prepare your meals

  • Exercise

  • Talk on the phone

  • Text

  • Drive

  • Post to social media

Of these things, which ones should you do intentionally?

  • Eat your meals

  • Brush your teeth

  • Pet your dog or cat

  • Clean your house

  • Mow your yard

  • Prepare your meals

  • Exercise

  • Talk on the phone

  • Text

  • Drive

  • Post to social media

Intentionality is derived from your goal. Dieticians will tell you to prepare and eat your meals with intention to help maintain a positive relationship with food and to prevent overeating. Dentists want you to brush your teeth with intention to ensure you’re cleaning your teeth and gums evenly. Mowing involves a machine and a blade, so you want to be intentional about your use of the machine, but you likely have the goal of mowing in a certain pattern for the look or health of your grass. Physical trainers want you to exercise with intention so you do not pull a muscle and so you are working toward a goal of improved fitness. Whomever you’re talking to on the phone definitely wants you to have the goal of listening or you want them to listen to you. The act of driving…that one should be obvious. And, we’ve all seen the downfall of social media personalities who were not intentional about a post which is usually followed by a post with, “I apologize for not thinking through what I posted.” Their goal was not well thought out. The only thing I left open was petting your dog or cat. Sometimes, your goal is to daydream while petting them, but they probably appreciate it when the goal is to make them happy. I know that’s the case in my household.

So, what does intentionality have to do with teaching? Everything. To intentionally design your environment and lessons means you have a goal to consciously making decisions about the experiences you want your students to have and the resources you’re going to use. Intentionality is a word that is used when we think about the implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) because without that, you cannot truly put the framework into use.

To say that you are implementing UDL means you are intentionally thinking through how you will activate the nine guidelines, you are thinking about the barriers your learners are experiencing or are likely to experience, you are intentionally designing for the variability that is present across your learners, and you are intentionally setting your goals, designing with flexibility in mind, you are guided by inclusive thinking, you actively design in rigor, and your provide opportunities for student-generated choice. That’s a lot of intentionality, but that’s what it takes. UDL is a framework that sets the foundation for change, but change takes intention and that intention is the pathway for your learners to become expert learners.

Interested in a book that specifically talks about teaching with intentionality? Check out Teaching with intention: Defining beliefs, aligning practice, taking action by Debbie Miller. The book is specific to K-5.

When Choice Builds Agency

During this episode, Emily shares how the instructors at the Relay Graduate School of Education not only teach students about UDL, they also use the UDL framework to design their instruction. She makes clear that this has been a journey for everyone and they are continuing with their growth, but what she shares is a wonderful story of exploration and implementation across a system. Woven within her story is a focus of agency which is what I’d like to highlight here.

When we provide our learners with agency, we are giving them opportunities to identify what they are interested in and attach that to what they are going to learn. They are also given choice as to how they will work within that environment (e.g., seating, task, skill, mode of learning or assessment, etc.). That kind of definition can feel really abstract, so I’ll share an experience I had as a student and how it built my agency.

In high school, I opted to take a course called U.S. History-Paperback. We moved through the U.S. History curriculum via fiction and non-fiction books our teacher had identified. For example, for the American Revolution, the list included books like Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, My Brother Sam is Dead by Christopher Collier, and Sarah Bishop by Scott O’Dell (I will say that there was a significant lack of diversity represented in our books, but there are many, many more high quality and diverse books available now. Always, always, always have diversity represented in your materials and environment). This is the first example of autonomy. Though we needed to stay within the curriculum, we chose the book(s) we wanted to read. We could also propose other books. We just had to argue why it was appropriate. Mr. Bloomberg was a smart man. We helped him expand his reading list.

Each student signed a book contract which laid out which book we chose, why, our anticipated completion date, and it gave us an outline we used to help guide our reading process. These were overarching questions about plot, theme, characters, motivations, etc. This is another example of autonomy. He scaffolded the selection process to really make us think about our connection to the book and our reason for choosing it. And, even though Mr. Bloomberg gave us an overall pacing structure (e.g., have x number of books read by x), I know firsthand that he worked with each student on pacing. I chose a really difficult-for-me book to read for the Civil War and I was not going to finish it quickly enough. Luckily, he had clearly communicated to us that we were to meet with him whenever we had questions or concerns. When I left that meeting, he had empowered me with suggestions on how to chunk the book and engage with it better. He never told me that I was behind or that the book was too difficult for me. There was always an option to switch books if you wanted to, but he knew that I didn’t see that as a solution.

Once we were done, we turned in our notes and then chose our next book. Mr. Bloomberg would read through our notes and determine partners based on what we read and what we pulled from our books. If he was going to partner me with someone else who read the same book and he noticed that I didn’t completely lay out the theme of the book, he’d give me a note on that so I could add to my notes. He used everything from jig-saws (meeting with other students who read different books) to same-book partners to help us learn about that segment in history.

When we met with our partner, we had a guide to walk us through the conversations we needed to have. We also had the study guide for the final evaluation, so we could make sure we were getting the answers we needed along the way. If either of us felt we didn’t get the information we needed, we could approach another student who had read the same book. This is a third example of autonomy. We were deciding whether or not we had the information we needed, but that decision was an informed decision based on the study guide.

Ultimately, this course allowed us to gain our autonomy. There were many students who entered that class never having experienced that level of freedom before, but he always had scaffolding in place. For example, he had some non-negotiables (e.g., we had to read at least one book from each time period), but we were also part of determining the class rules (e.g., what would cause you to lose the privilege of access to the library through this cool backdoor from his classroom versus having to walk down the long hallway and through the regular doors). The classroom felt alive and interesting. We could choose to read in the classroom or the library and the same choice was provided for our student meetings (though we had to be a bit more quiet in the library).

I was not interested in history before I took Mr. Bloomberg’s class. I liked reading, but didn’t read for content. That class taught me that I could read history for pleasure. It also taught me that my reading pace didn’t matter. Finally, it taught me that I was really good with time management and could handle big chunks of information. These are things that aren’t in the standards. These are things that supported me as I moved through higher education. These are the experiences I gained through the use of agency. What I love most about this story is that it is replicable in today’s classroom. Other than the backdoor to the library, key components of this environment are replicable.

In what ways are you allowing for agency in your classroom? In what ways are you supporting it? When have you attempted to provide it and things fell apart? Did you shy away from it or did you look for a way to scaffold the attempt? Our learners can only take with them what we provide. You might have to scaffold an opportunity down to its bones, but then you can help those learners advance and grow through those scaffolds. After all, every student needs the opportunity to become an expert learner.

Helping Educators Implement UDL

I had the honor of interviewing Alaa Zaza for this podcast. Zaza works for the Manahel-Syria Education Programme which is helping educators reach and teach children all over northeast Syria, even during the war. You can read more about the programme here (and you will want to).

A theme that emerged from our conversation was: “How do you get started with UDL?” It is a question I am asked during or after every workshop and in response to my podcast. It’s a universal question. To me, there are two contexts: one is when an individual is starting and the other is when a leader is hoping to help a group of teachers move into the framework.

When individuals begin exploring the UDL framework, it’s typically in their own time and follows their own passion. They are intrinsically motivated and have their own purpose for investigating. They can move through resources and build their own knowledge. They might not have an overt plan, but they can set their own goals and can determine their own strategies. What I’ve just described are individuals using their skills as expert learners. But what about educators who work in an organization that has chosen to investigate or adopt UDL? How are they supported?

Just as Zaza and I discussed during the podcast, educators need to be brought into UDL in a way that allows them to practice being expert learners. We need to bring educator in using the UDL guidelines.

Below, I’ve offered ideas that are aligned with each of the checkpoints. These ideas are to get your started. Build on them. And when you do, share them with others and me! Finally, know that there will be systematic variability. What patterns can you identify ahead of your workshops, PLCs, and discussions? For example, time is always identified as a barrier. How can you help minimize that barrier for the educators with whom you are working?


Recruiting interest

  • Allow educators to choose the avenue into UDL that makes sense to them (principle, guideline, checkpoint, goal-writing, choice, etc.).
  • Provide time for guided reflection so educators can identify any examples of relevance, value or authenticity in this work.
  • Provide space for educators to discuss their reservations and fears about UDL and address them as a group.

Sustaining Effort & Persistence

  • Articulate the goal for the session or the goal around implementation. Better yet, construct the goal collaboratively.
  • Provide specific and logical connections to resources rather than simply providing lists. Ensure the resources vary in level of information (e.g., beginner, practiced, and expert knowledge about UDL).
  • Encourage educators to partner with others, but provide protocols or guiding frameworks they can use to support their collaboration.
  • You have to be comfortable with the framework so you can provide specific and supportive feedback to your educators as they grow with the framework.

Self Regulation

  • Returning the (collaboratively created) goal, establish growth markers so educators can identify their own growth.
  • Provide ideas for coping skills as educators try new things in their environments. Not every day will go well and everyone will need some support.
  • Take time to co-create a rubric with your educators so they can self-assess their own movement within the framework.




  • Provide specific support and professional development to your entire staff on tools that support the customizing the display of information, alternatives for auditory information, and alternatives for visual information. Ensure that this professional development provides ample time for practice and ownership.

Language & Symbols

  • Ensure educators are comfortable with the language of UDL (principles, guidelines, checkpoints, learner variability, flexibility, choice, etc.).
  • Ensure educators understand the organization of the UDL Guidelines.
  • Ensure educators have access to tools that support decoding UDL.
  • Design conversations and professional development that support educators to see connections between other initiatives and UDL.
  • Use multiple media to share UDL.


  • Guide educators to connect what they are doing to pieces and parts of UDL while helping them see the bigger picture of the framework.
  • Provide supports (reflection tools, protocols, etc.) that support educators to see patterns that support or patterns that create barriers for their learners.
  • As educators are learning about UDL, provide activities and opportunities for them to share their processing and how they visualize the implementation of UDL.
  • Clarify how UDL can be utilized across the curriculum.


Action & Expression
  • Provide specific support and professional development to your entire staff on tools that support response and navigation as well as assistive technologies that are used and others that are available. Ensure that this professional development provides ample time for practice and ownership.
  • Model your use of multiple media when providing information about UDL.
  • Provide access to different tools and resources so educators can practice using different tools during their implementation of UDL.
  • Encourage educators’ UDL fluency by inviting them to share their experiences with each other and using language associated with the framework.

Executive Functions

  • Work with your educators as they set their own goals around UDL implementation.
  • Provide planning tools and strategizing aids to educators as they plot out their use of the UDL framework.
  • Offer an organized space to hold resources, but encourage educators to personalize that organization to meet their individual needs.
  • Encourage educators to adopt their own tools and resources that help them monitor their own progress in UDL implementation.

As stated above, these are starter ideas, but they are ideas that are completely aligned with the UDL checkpoints. I invite you to think through them to see how they can work in your environment. And, let me know how it goes! It is my quest to help every learner experience what it means to be an expert learner, whether that learner is a child or an adult.

The UDL Reporting Criteria

During my conversation with Kavita Rao for UDL Research in 15 Minutes, I realized that the topic was perfect for UDL in 15 Minutes, too, because the tool she was sharing is one that can be used by many. This blog will focus on the UDL Reporting Criteria tool and offer suggestions of how it can be used by people other than journal authors and journal editors.

First, I’m going to share this sentence from the tool: “The workgroup concurred that the Reporting Criteria were not “quality indicators” and are not used to evaluate the way UDL is used or to evaluate the quality of a study.” The group did not want the tool to be used to judge the quality of a lesson or environment, evaluate how UDL is used, evaluate the quality of a study. So, what does that leave? It leaves you with a tool that you can use for self-reflection and that you can use to drive conversation during a professional learning community (PLC). It also leaves you with a tool that you can use for planning and reflection.

First, I suggest reading through the entire tool, including the abstract, background, and the development of the reporting criteria. This will give you the grounding you need before you begin editing. Next, move to the tool.

I suggest you replace the word participants with the word learners. That will create an instant shift for you. Second, you will probably need to shift the point of view from authors to the educator along with the associated verb (e.g., “Authors describe” to “The educator describes”). Finally, sit back with the tool and imagine using it as a design tool for your environment or your unit or lesson. Don’t stop there, though. Think of it as a reflective too. It gives you a way to think through the lesson you just taught, how your learners were supported, and how they respond.

Planning while using UDL is a practice that includes on-the-ground thinking (e.g., How am I going to set up this activity?) to what I call 10,000 foot thinking (e.g., Let me look across the guidelines to see if I’ve provided a balance of options for all of my learners). This kind of planning is accordion-like which is why it can seem so odd at first. Most of us learned how to lesson plan using a sheet of paper with guiding words and boxes. We answered prompts. It was very on-the-ground planning. UDL requires us to look at a framework full of options and consider which ones will support our learners as they move toward the goal. That’s a different kind of thinking, but it’s the kind of thinking that needs to happen to create the kind of educational environment our students need.

The last thing I want to talk about is how to reference this tool. The UDL Reporting Criteria tool is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. What does that mean?

Creative Commons is a non-profit. Their “what we do” statement reads, “Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that helps overcome legal obstacles to the sharing of knowledge and creativity to address the world’s pressing challenges.” The UDL-IRN uses Creative Common for much of its products because they want everyone to be able to modify the materials to meet the needs of their environment. They are responding to variability!

The UDL Reporting Criteria are licensed so you can reproduce and share the information in whole or in part and you can produce, reproduce, and share adapted material. Here’s the deal, though; cite it. Give credit to the original working group. Educators should support educators which means we should recognize the work of others. By doing this and talking about it with your leaners (we shouldn’t leave that conversation to the language arts teachers, every subject requires citations!), you are modeling how you’ve expanded your knowledge, how you’re being resourceful, and how the best work is derived from several sources. You’re modeling your growth as an expert learner which is a perfect gateway to supporting all of your learners to become expert learners.

Stereotype Threat

During my conversation with Andretesha Fitzgerald, she told a powerful story about her learners’ growth in leadership. It all stemmed from a newspaper article about the city in which they live, East Cleveland. Within the podcast, Antretesha quotes the phrase “three miles of misery” from that article. From there, she tells a wonderful story of empowerment, growth, and connection. What I want to talk about is the connection between what that newspaper writer wrote, the unseen consequences, and how UDL helps educators design an environment that mitigates those unseen consequences. What I’m talking about here is something called stereotype threat. To get to that discussion, let’s take a quick look at the affective networks as they are discussed within the UDL framework.

The affective networks are the brain networks that guide us to determine what matters to us and the actions we’re going to take. Within those networks are the emotional, motivational, and biological drivers that propel our everyday decision-making and actions. While thirst or hunger are examples of biological drivers, the emotional and motivational drivers within our affective networks (linked to the principle of engagement) are also a doorway to learning.

Learning is more accessible when we feel safe and connected to an environment. Threats that can keep students from learning can include a loud environment where it’s really hard to concentrate, popcorn reading where students don’t know when it’s going to be their turn and they experience so much stress about it that they cannot hear what’s being read out loud by others, or not feeling connected to anyone else in the learning environment. Another significant example is when learners internalize negative descriptions about themselves. They see themselves through the negative stereotype’s others use to define them and then the learners come to believe those negative stereotypes. This is called stereotype threat. These internalized threats keep the learners from performing to their potential; an unseen consequence.

A seminal research study conducted by Steele and Aronson (1995) identified stereotype threat as a reason for the achievement gap experienced by African American students. This thorough study provided compelling evidence of this issue. In another study by Cohen et al. (2009), it was found that learners who were provided several opportunities to write affirming, self-valuing statements about themselves performed better on standardized assessments. For example, the learners recognized a skill they had or a positive relationship they had with others and their part in developing that relationship. When learners participated in this simple act, the achievement gap closed by over 40 percent. Returning to the affective networks, this really demonstrates the tight relationship we have with perception. In this case, the specific link was the learners’ perception of the task difficulty and their culturally constructed identity. In short, how we perceive ourselves as learners directly impacts our learning outcomes and that perception can be deeply affected by the stereotypes others hold about us.

So, where does the application of UDL fit with all of this? Take a close look at Recruiting Interest. I’ve already talked about minimizing threats and distractions, but learners also need to see authentic examples about themselves and those with whom they connect.

Rightfully so, there is a lot of talk about giving our students the opportunity to see representations of themselves in their coursework and environment and we should be bringing those forward, but we also need to give our learners the opportunity to find and add those individuals with whom they identify. Instead of assigning who they will research for a project, give them parameters via a rubric to help them know the accomplishments or experiences that person must have (e.g., how the person contributed to the Harlem Renaissance, astronauts and the experiments they led, musicians that have been at the forefront of their genre). Give learners the opportunity to learn more deeply about the subject through the eyes of someone they connect with and then make the information part of your environment. The latter part of that is really, really important because you are affirming their choices and their perceptions.

Andretesha’s students were fortunate. They had a pair of teachers who led them through a process of identifying a personal connection with their community or issues beyond their community and then acting on that connection through a letter-writing campaign. It is a fantastic example of empowerment through advocacy. All of this stemmed from an article that laid the groundwork for the students to experience stereotype threat. Instead, these effective educators gave their students the opportunity to practice being purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed. Those learners experienced what it felt like to be an expert learner.


Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie Vaughns, V., Apfel, N. & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science 324(5925): 400–403. doi: 10.1126 /science.1170769.

Damasio, A. D. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. Putnam.

Hammer, T., Crethar, H., & Cannon, K. (2016). Convergence of identities through the lens of relational-cultural theory. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 11(2), 126-141.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Gotlieb, R. (2017). Embodied brains, social minds, cultural meaning: Integrating neuroscientific and educational research on social-affective development. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 344S-367S.

Lane, R. D., & Nadel, L. (2000). Cognitive neuroscience of emotion. Oxford University Press

Ledoux, J. (2003). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. Penguin.

Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. CAST Publishing.

Nasir, N. I. S. (2012). Racialized identities: Race and achievement from African American youth. Stanford University Press.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797–811.

Falling in (Radical) Love with the Checkpoints

During my interview with Lizzie, she shared how she dug into two of the checkpoints within the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) guidelines. She shared her deeply felt reasons for why she dug into those checkpoints, but that digging-in really needs to happen with all of the checkpoints. So, how can you get started with this journey? Below, you will find a list of questions that you can use to guide yourself in your own investigation.

My suggestion is that you investigate these checkpoints with another colleague or a group. Your interpretation and experience will always be different than anyone else’s, and it is crucial that you hear the viewpoints of others and that they hear your viewpoints. UDL is meant to be used by a collective of educators who are seeking ways to improve the outcomes of all children. The framework is at its most rich when it is implemented by several who are working together. If you find yourself being the Lone (UDL) Ranger, you can always reach out to those of us in the UDL community who are very committed to the framework and speak publicly about it. You’ll find these like-minded people on Twitter at #UDLchat, #UDLChatIE, and #UDLhe. Just put those hash tagged group names (e.g., #UDLchat) into the search, and you can scroll through the names of people who participate with those discussions.

One of the checkpoints Lizzie focused on was minimize threats and distractions. When you read this, or any checkpoint, ask questions like:

  1. What does the opening sentence tell me? And, how does it differ from the opening sentences of other checkpoints? (this will help you recognize the difference between some of the checkpoints that might feel similar).

  2. How are the checkpoint words defined (e.g., what is a threat and what is a distraction in the context of the guidelines)? Is there another name you would give to that checkpoint? (this will help you “own” that checkpoint).

  3. How do the suggestions under each checkpoint align with or differ from what you thought the checkpoint meant? (this gets you to do some more introspective work on your own interpretations).

  4. What are instances when you have implemented some of the ideas under each checkpoint? What additional idea could you add in to your lesson tomorrow? (this gets you into your own planning and use of the framework).

The UDL Guidelines are dense with information, but this is a good thing. If CAST were to have narrowed the checkpoints, teachers would have less guidance and support in how to design their lessons and environments. Having this breadth of information allows for multiple avenues and opportunities for learners to gain skills associated with becoming expert learners. After all, aren’t those multiple pathways the reason why we implement UDL? It should be.

During this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, Jess Lombardi describes how she sets her students up to successfully lead their own conferences. There is no need to present an argument for this kind of design because there is no downside. We need to empower all of our students to identify goals based on data, track their progress toward those goals, and support them to create a portfolio that they present and that demonstrates their growth and reflections across the year. As Jess shares, parents are always amazed, the students are proud of themselves, and the students learn extremely important skills that align with the UDL description of expert learners. So, why don’t more teachers establish this expectation and build this system into their year?

First, some teachers might not be familiar with the idea. If you don’t learn about it when you’re in teacher prep courses, your administration doesn’t promote it, and you don’t have colleagues who prepare their students in this way, then you don’t have that connection. How do we help these educators?

You’re likely reading this blog because you’re an educator. Because you’re an educator, I assume you know other educators. I’m presuming “Birds of a feather” and all of that. Here’s what I propose: the next time you’re in a discussion about education with those friends, ask if they design their environment to support student led conferences. Even if they teach middle or high school, do they design their environment for student led conferences? If they do not, suggest that they listen to this podcast. Suggest that they go to this set of articles from Edutopia that lay out the process and offers tips, checklists, and even printables.

Second, some teachers might think this takes too much time. Honestly, you can do some looking and probably replace one structure with another. Here’s what I mean. My middle school did not promote student led conferences. We were a traditional middle school with back-to-school night at the beginning of the year and report cards. Calls home were mostly for discipline issues, though some made calls that shared a student’s exceptional skills or grace toward another student. I was special education teacher, so I led Individual Education Planning (IEP) meetings, but I wanted my students to take more of a lead in their conferences. There wasn’t a lot out there when I was in the classroom, but there are a plethora of resources now. While others who share their experiences about student let IEP meetings see time as a barriers, I managed to do some swapping to address that time issue.

For example, I was pretty sure that my 8th graders had not been expected to keep track of their own growth related to their goals, so we started small. They chose one goal to keep track of. Next, I knew that I was going to need to prompt them each week to reflect on their growth toward that goal and identify any kind of results that would show movement (whether there was movement or not). So, instead of having them fill out their assignment notebooks on that day (which was a requirement of the 8th grade teams), I had them work on those reflections and I or the paraprofessionals wrote in their notebooks. To them, this was an awesome trade. To me, it was an awesome trade. And what about those students who either did not write independently or who communicated using echolalia? Number 1, I presumed competence. Number 2, I sought ways to help my students communicate their thoughts to me whether that was through one-on-one interviews, paying close attention to their actions, offering them other ways to communicate (e.g., typing their thoughts, drawing their thoughts, physically pointing things out to me). I won’t say that it was perfect 100% of the time, but the expectation was set and my students certainly worked at it.

Universal Design for Learning is all about helping learners gain skills that lead them to become more purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, strategic and goal-directed. When I think about the prep, the action, and the outcomes related to student led conferences, that process is a homerun when it comes to helping learners continue down the pathway to becoming expert learners. I hope you’ll join Jess and the many others who build student led conferences into their practice. It will definitely help you set the stage for the development of expert learners.

Are you still using a typewriter?

During this episode, Blake shared her passion for reflective teaching and her passion for helping students become reflective learners. In the process of talking through those big ideas, she shared a story that made me remember an attitude I once had. That attitude stated, “You made your choice. Now, you have to live with it.” While many think it teaches a lesson, it doesn’t. It is an antiquated attachment to finality where there doesn’t need to be one. It is like telling everyone that we have to go back to typewriters before the age of whiteout and correction tape. If you make a mistake, you have to pull out the paper and start over again. You are locked in and there are no other choices. It is the same mindset. Instead, take a moment to breathe and provide the student with guidance to be reflective in their decision-making. That is a lesson.

I’m not proud to say that I had the, “You made your choice” attitude when I started teaching, but I am pleased that I moved away from it before I left the classroom for higher education. I want to share how I made that transition, so this blog is going to be different than others. I’m going to share my story rather than links to specific resources or research. Welcome to story time with Loui.

I was raised by two secondary teachers. One (my father) high school, and the other (my mom) middle school. My father’s mother had been an elementary math teacher, and my mother’s cousin (raised like a sister) was also a teacher. I was surrounded by teachers and I loved it. In 3rd grade and volunteered to read to the 1st graders. Additionally, my school identified a cadre of students who liked to tutor other students and put us to work once a week after recess. It was probably only 20 minutes, but I reveled in it. We had access to the encyclopedias kept behind the librarian’s desk (I’m hoping you just shook your head in dismay) and we were each given a special dictionary. Armed with these tools, I felt prepared to help any student with any lesson, even math!

Something else came with this privilege. You got to choose an extra book to check out of the library to read the following week. Every student in the school wanted to check out The Guinness Book of World Records (now, the Guinness World Records). I had never checked it out before and it was available, so I grabbed it. With eager anticipation, I opened it at home only to find that it wasn’t interesting to me at all. I wasn’t entranced by the woman with the longest fingernails or the man who lifted the most weight. The next day, I took it to the librarian and asked if I could exchange it. “You made your choice. You can’t choose another book until next week.” I was stunned, a little angry, and seriously bummed. For reasons I still don’t understand, I was locked out of getting another book that interested me. Instead of fostering my love of books and my advancing my ability to discern my reading preferences, the librarian fostered my frustration. All I learned was to hate rules. Fast forward to 9th grade. By then, I’d been told this phrase in multiple ways with the same message – I was stuck with what I chose because that’s how life is. Thank goodness I had a teacher with a student empowerment mindset.

In my 9th grade English literature class, we chose a Shakespeare play to read during a two-week time period. I chose Romeo and Juliet because I knew it well and figured it would make life easier. Instead, it made life really boring. Three days in, I went to Mrs. Blaylock and tentatively asked if I could change plays. I was prepared for no, but she said, “Of course, Loui. I want you to enjoy Shakespeare!” But she didn’t stop there. She asked me three honest questions (they were not loaded with disdain; rather, she really wanted to hear my thoughts): why did I want to change plays, what new play did I want to choose, and how could I be more effective in my choices next time? Man, that third one was a zinger, but it stuck with me. I was a little intimidated by the process (you mean that my opinion matters that much?) and she required me to be articulate in my answers, but I learned how to be more effective in my decision-making. I gained empowerment.

Fast forward again to my 2nd year of teaching. I’m an 8th grade collaborative teacher. I have a case load of 42 students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) across three 8th grade teams. Students on one team are in the midst of a Holocaust multidisciplinary unit. They need to choose a summative project that will be their focus for 9 weeks. We are about 1 week in and some of my students want to switch projects.

Did I use what Mrs. Blaylock had taught me? Nope. Instead, I told my students to soldier on. Sure, I scaffolded things, gave them timelines, pushed them to meet deadlines, but it was a miserable process for all. Why didn’t I take a moment to breathe and apply her three simple questions? Why was I focused on some arbitrary and ineffective stance when I could have been focused on student empowerment? I just needed to ask them the three questions and openly listen to their responses.

  • Why do you want to switch?
  • What do you want to choose?
  • And, how will you be more effective in your choice-making in the future?

I’m really fortunate that I did take the time to reflect on that mistake and I changed how I supported student empowerment. It’s also one more reason why I am so drawn to the UDL framework. It wasn’t in existence yet, but had I been introduced to the framework, discovered even some of the checkpoints under Recruiting Interest, Self-Regulation, and Executive Functions, and understood variability (i.e., students’ decisions, reasons, and needs are going to fluctuate and it’s my role to help them recognize that and find a decision-making pathway that suits them), I would have had a ton of different ways to empower my students. Understanding the necessity to empower learners can lead you to the ultimate understanding: the most important course of action is to help foster the growth of expert learners.

The Power of Backward Planning

In this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, I interview Carla-Ann Brown about her combined use of backward planning and UDL to help design inclusive and culturally sustaining environments and lessons. For this blog, I’m going to spend a little time with backward design which is what Wiggins & McTighe called it when they wrote about it in their book Understanding by Design (UbD) (1998). The overarching reason for backward design is to plan from the assessment backward to the beginning of the lesson or unit. Before anyone starts hollering, “You should never teach to the test!!!” let’s take a moment to understand the premise of UbD and backward design. I’m going to use UDL to get you there.

If you’ve been listening to UDL in 15 Minutes for a while (there are over 50 podcasts!), you’ve heard my guests and me talk about growth mindset (Dan Schmidt and Shelbi Fortner), formative assessment (Christina Khatri), and the importance of continuous growth (Ian Wilkins). We’ve had these discussions from the position of UDL and how these are outcomes of our design. We want our learners to increase their growth mindset. We value formative assessments and understand that they are more valuable than summative assessments. And we need our students to experience and recognize their own continuous growth. But these things do not happen unless we design them into the lesson or environment. Design is key. This is the same premise from which Wiggins and McTighe come.

UbD also tells us two other main points. First, if we want our learners to successfully achieve the goal, we must design processes and activities into the lesson or unit to provide those opportunities. Second, lessons and units are most powerful when students participate in deep thinking, metacognition (they think about their own learning), and they have multiple opportunities to revise and revisit their work. They are digging deep into understanding versus a primary focus on knowledge. How is understanding different than knowledge?

According to UbD (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), when we understand something, we can articulate the meaning behind it. We grasp the theory of the topic. We understand that most knowledge is not absolute and there are multiple dimensions (e.g. be sure to listen to how Carla-Ann talks about how she teaches history from a culturally sustaining position rather than a dominant culture position). We also comprehend when to use a skill or component of knowledge. Ultimately, knowledge is not enough; we must have understanding. This is why UbD and UDL are so well aligned!

Speaking of theory, a complaint that educators have about UDL is that it is too heavy in theory, but just as UbD points out (i.e., for us to understand something, we need to grasp the theory of it!) that same theory is what makes UDL so powerful! For example, once educators grasp the impact and value of variability, the importance of providing multiple options, and that all design should move all learners toward becoming expert learners taking action through the framework begins to make sense. Without those theoretical underpinnings, though, UDL can feel (and is) hollow. UDL is not a group of coherent facts; instead, it is a collection of research and practice that offers us an understanding of why we should make certain design decisions. UbD is, in fact, a process that can help you understand UDL.

If you’ve not read about UbD before, or you feel like what you’ve read before didn’t give you enough meat, you can read the second chapter of Wiggins and McTighe’s more recent edition of their book on the ASCD website. This chapter will take you more deeply into the concepts of knowledge versus understanding. Other reliable sources include Edutopia, the Cult of Pedagogy, and Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching.

UDL is a powerful framework and UbD can help you determine how you’re going to apply it in your environment. I invite you to see how the two compliment one another in ways that support the development of expert learners.


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Choice is not a Reward

Choice is one of the cornerstones of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Not only is it part of the guidelines (see optimize individual choice and autonomy under the Guideline of Recruiting Interest), it is embedded throughout the Guidelines. Every guideline begins with the phrase “provide options for…” That phrase spurs us to identify and build on the ideas proposed within the checkpoints. For example, “Provide options for Recruiting Interest” tells us that recruiting interest is important and we should read about the checkpoints listed below that guideline and build some of those options into our lessons. We know, though, that there is another step to take. That step is to establish those options as opportunities for choice.

During my interview with Susanne Geise, she shares the different ways she provided her students with choice. Students helped design the lesson, they chose what product they wanted to create, and they chose how they wanted to present that product. It was a really exciting lesson, but it got me thinking about how we position choice and for which students.

First, the positioning. What kind of choice truly benefits learners? Katz and Assor (2007) shared that the perception of choice is crucial. When students recognize and associate feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness with choice, outcomes like engagement are stronger. Breaking that down, you not only offer them the choice in how they will complete an assignment or an assessment, the amount of choice and how the act of choice is structured aligns with the students’ levels of competence, and the choices provided are relevant to them.

Next, to whom do we offer this level of choice? It turns out that not all learners are given access to this kind of choice. Students with emotional and behavioral disorders (Swoszowski , Evanovich, Ennis & Jolivette, 2017), students with disabilities who are Black and Latinx (Waitoller, 2020), as well as students who are low-achieving (Crumpton & Gregory, 2011). But these students need just as much opportunity to experience choice as their peers. How do we move forward?

Let’s use the 5 W’s plus the H to do some introspective work. (Note: if you want examples, listen to episodes with Kate Stanley, Laura Christie, Megan Gross & Lisa Yamasaki, Monica Watson-Bedard, Rachel Chappell, Carrie Preston, Kim Babeu, or Shelbi Fortner). Honestly answer these questions:

  1. Who have you asked to help you add choice into your lesson (e.g., which students)?
  2. What types of choice to you provide (e.g., does the choice lead to learning and reflection or just preference?)
  3. When do you feel challenged to offer choice?
  4. Where can you add in choice?
  5. Why aren’t some students included in the choice discussion (i.e., choice can be an accessible topic for all learners. See below for next step)
  6. How can you shift things to include all learners?

By answering these questions, you begin the road toward a more inclusive and equitable design because you’re prompted to gather the voices of all learners. And more, you are truly helping all learners continue their own journey toward becoming expert learners.

Crumpton, H. E., & Gregory, A. (2011). “I’m not learning”: The role of academic relevancy for low-achieving students. The Journal of Educational Research, 104(1), 42-53.

Katz, I., & Assor, A. (2007). When choice motivates and when it does not. Educational Psychology Review, 19(4), 429.

Swoszowski, N. C., Evanovich, L. L., Ennis, R. P., & Jolivette, K. (2017). Evaluating implementation of check in/check out in alternative educational settings: Stakeholder perspectives. Residential Treatment for Children & Youth, 34(2), 107-121.

Waitoller, F. R. (2020). Excluded by Choice: Urban Students with Disabilities in the Education Marketplace. Disability, Culture, and Equity.