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Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
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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.

This blog is in response to my podcast with Jessie Sherman

Some schools choose specific teaching methods like project-based learning or defined practices of teaching like arts integration as a way to teach their learner population. Both are excellent mechanisms to support exploration and learning. What Jessie and her colleagues discovered though, was that while their school adhered to both project-based learning and arts integration, there were learners who were not fully engaged and participating. Enter Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Note: If you have not listened to my interview with Jessie yet, I suggest you listen to UDL in 15 Minutes and then return to this blog.

Project-based learning is grounded in authentic learning, providing learners the space and time needed to fully explore and respond to complex challenges. Arts integration focuses on drawing learners into learning via fine and performing arts. Both are highly valued and researched, showing quality outcomes for learners (see American Institutes for Research and DefinedSTEM for reports). As noted though, the strong and positive outcomes reported were highly reliant on the design and implementation. What happens when that design and implementation doesn’t reach all learners?

That’s exactly what concerned Jessie. While Jessie was concerned about the participation and outcomes of her students with disabilities (they do not have a substantial number of English learners in their school), Jessie recognized that she always had some learners who weren’t inherently connecting with the projects, or couldn’t or wouldn’t participate in the fine or performing arts. She also noticed that these weren’t a certain type or demographic of learner. Fortunately, Jessie was introduced to a framework that helped her think even more expansively about the barriers learners might face. Welcome to UDL.

My biggest takeaway from my conversation with Jessie was how she and her team of supporters identified structures and supports that opened up opportunities for all of her learners while staying true to the mission of their school. Jessie did not see UDL as a competing framework or “one more thing.” Instead, the UDL framework spurred her to broaden the choice of reptiles within the designed project. The UDL framework guided her to take a closer look at the painting option in relation to the arts integration. She realized there were additional mediums and processes that allowed access. The heart of the lesson was still driven by project-based learning and arts integration. UDL enhanced learners’ access and the flexibility of the learning environment (e.g., more choice).

Those of us who are whole-hearted supporters of the UDL framework know that UDL is not a panacea. UDL is a framework that has to be purposefully implemented. That purpose is driven by the desire to create fully accessible, flexible, choice-filled, goal-driven, rigorous learning environments. These are the design outcomes inclusive educators want and the UDL framework offers the pathway to that design.

Pathway through a stand of trees
This photo by Unknown Author CC BY-NC-ND

This blog is in response to my podcast with Shelbi Fortner.

Growth mindset is a concept that has received a lot of attention and for good reason. If you aren’t familiar with it, if you aren’t sure of what it is, or if it feels too shallow to you, read this clarifying piece from The Atlantic. And, because growth mindset is such a crucial component within the UDL Guidelines (check out Sustaining Effort and Persistence), we really need to understand it.

An important reminder that came from The Atlantic article is that all of us, learners and their educators, demonstrate a growth mindset when we turn to the resources around us to help us develop our solution (Gross-Loh, 2016). That is exactly what Shelbi described when talking about her design shifts during her interview. Note: If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, I suggest you do and then continue reading. In other words, spoiler alert!!

During this podcast, Shelbi shared her professional journey as a teacher and as a learner. More importantly, she shared her willingness to try something that might not have worked in other settings. When she designed the assessment for her Honors Biology students, her focus was on giving them different ways to think about visual models like photosynthesis, DNA replication, and protein synthesis. She asked them to compare and contrast, to state which models they believed were better at describing a process and why, and which models were more accurate. The students didn’t even have to answer the same questions – they chose the questions that made sense to them. This UDL-driven design worked because (a) she was in a context that supported her growth mindset, and (b) Shelbi exhibited a growth mindset during the design process.

Shelbi’s administration gave her the room necessary to try things like her non-standardized final exam design. She turned to the administration as a resource, informed them of her idea, and they encouraged her to run with it. They knew that high quality teaching and learning were going on in that Honors Biology learning environment. The administration was also eager to hear the results of the of the students’ thinking. Ultimately, Shelbi and her administration were united in her implementation of UDL.

Next, Shelbi demonstrated a growth mindset in her willingness to turn to others for suggestions. Several from the UDL Core Team, Shelbi, and I sat and discussed ideas when she was first considering this exam design. She took those ideas and established a final that provided her learners the room needed to astound her. To do that, though, Shelbi had to grapple with her own beliefs around what a final exam is, the purpose of a final exam, and how to hear the voices of her students in those final exams. Instead of giving up, she pushed forward by reaching out for new resources. That’s what someone who has a growth mindset does.

There are several other ingredients that had to be in place for this final to work. Some of those included a year of discussions, activities, and assignments that required those students to evaluate, assess, and critique their own knowledge. They were practiced in this level of thinking. In addition, while Shelbi embraced and embodied a growth mindset, she knew that she needed to guide her learners in the creation of theirs.

As discussed in The Atlantic article cited above, growth mindset focuses on helping students learn to use the resources around them to problem-solve, not “try harder” and repeat methods that are not adequate or appropriate for the situation. They cannot learn this through modeling alone, though; learners need to be provided specific opportunities with clear feedback to help them know they are establishing a growth mindset. Shelbi provided those opportunities and feedback throughout the year. And, a final example of Shelbi’s growth mindset showed up in her desire to figure out how she will create a rubric to support her design and support her students in the future. Shelbi isn’t done learning and she’s not done using the resources around her.

A final note about growth mindset: Dr. Dweck points out that having a growth mindset does not mean always being in that state. In fact, depending on the context, we might experience a fixed mindset (I hope you saw the word context and immediately connected that to variability and UDL!) Context is key and none of us are a certain type of learner. I encourage you to think about times when you experienced a growth mindset and when you experienced a fixed mindset.

What triggered your fixed mindset?

How did your mindset affect your teaching?

How did your mindset affect your learning?

How does your mindset affect your route toward becoming an expert learner?

This blog is in response to my podcasted interview with Kim Babeu.

I’m always deeply intrigued by where people start with Universal Design for Learning (UDL). It’s one of the first questions people ask – “Where do I start?” I always invite people to begin where they are most comfortable. To begin with what resonates with them the most. To begin with whatever will meet the need they have identified.

Kim was already a seasoned educator with 38 years of experience prior to learning about UDL. She was recognized as the Arizona Teacher of the Year back in 2005 and took the act of engagement very seriously. She also took the act of representation very seriously. A visit to her high school classroom was like entering a shrine of student work that celebrated students and their accomplishments, but also communicated that serious work goes on there. Pictures of students in their caps and gowns surrounded a graduation gown and cap stapled to the wall offered proof positive that their peers had walked this path and had met their goal. Stations with materials, a calming location, and book shelves with current, applicable, and student-focused books were all around. (Kim does have a couple of shelves of old textbooks, but those are only used for physics experiments…they are the subject of the experiments, they are not read).

Graduation cap and gown stapled to the wall surrounded by pictures of students in their cap and gown
Image: Graduation cap and gown stapled to the wall surrounded by pictures of students in their cap and gown.

When Kim was learning about the Principles of Engagement and Representation, she began having some epiphanies. The one that struck her the deepest was the difference between her interpretation of choice and the interpretation of choice UDL puts forward. I will say right here that Kim’s rapid movement forward in this area was only able to happen so effectively because she has a behavior and academic support structure in her class (which we’ll discuss in an upcoming podcast). Students learn about, practice, and earn grades based on sportsmanship, participation, organization, respect, and teamwork (S.P.O.R.T.). This system establishes a community in her classroom as well as open communication. With these key elements in place, she felt more comfortable, in her words, “letting go of the reigns.”

For example, while she always had markers, colored pencils, mix media, and other tools her students could use to learn about anatomy, that process had always been very structured. She guided the students in what materials they would be using. And while students had their phones/mp3 players in class, they had to be turned off unless they were using them for an assignment. After talking deeply about choice as a way for learners to become more self-determined – become active participants in their own learning and seeing how their choices have an impact on their learning – Kim decided that this one of the areas she was going to try.

She watched her students flourish in their learning. It didn’t seem to matter which option the students were choosing to learn about the anatomy of the upper body, they were succeeding. And, they weren’t stuck just using one method. She encouraged them to mix their methods until they found the one that worked for them, including having one earbud in and listening to music if that helped them. A student who traditionally kept to himself became a classroom leader, showing the other students a strategy he used to grid the body to chunk his learning. While Kim expanded how she Represented the information to them (with a focus on Language & Symbols), she was really driven by all of the guidelines under the Principle of Engagement.

Another major takeaway Kim had from our session was how the language we use in our learning environment impacts our students. She decided to use the word “assessment” rather than tests and quizzes. It’s very important to know what our students are learning, but it’s equally as important to help them identify and use their coping skills and do as well as they can during that assessment. Kim took the steps necessary to explain to her students why she was shifting her language. She took seriously the purpose of formative and summative assessments and why the former are so much more informative to the teacher and the learners. She explained that assessments are moments along the way to check in, to see how something might need to be taught differently, and to celebrate accomplishment. Quizzes and tests are seen by many learners as conclusive, not moments along the path of learning. Although it was a shift in language, Kim also had the mindset in place that allows this word to be as flexible as intended. Simply using a different word doesn’t lead to long-term change; there must be a shift in actions that go with that word.

As you heard during the podcast, Kim is seeing unbelievable levels of accomplishment in her classes. Students are excited to learn, to try new methods of learning, and to show what they know (to be assessed). They are showing up, participating, and accomplishing at the highest levels she’s ever seen. They are also building community among themselves and with others important in their lives. Students who have never taken work home to show the those who mean the most to them are now posing for pictures. They are proud of their accomplishments and are creating their own celebrations. That is empowerment in action.

So, is this the power of UDL? Yes. Yes, it is. How do I know? Kim entered those training days with a lot of pedagogical and content knowledge. She had beautiful relationships with her students. Her students produced great work. But through her investigation of the framework, she started to identify some things she wasn’t doing. She didn’t just accept those ideas and go, though. Kim learned why these things were important and reflected on them. She took the time to see where she could wind them into her learning environment so all of her students would benefit and then she paid attention to how her students reacted. The UDL framework took her there.

The act of teaching is dynamic and filled with so many choices. The UDL framework guides those choices. If you take the time to learn deeply about the framework, it becomes the bumper rails of the bowling lane. By using it, you design a learning environment that removes structural, emotional, and even pedagogical barriers, allowing your learners to move toward the goal.

Boy bowling
Father & son at the lanes by Jememe Rauckman CC by 2.0

If you’ve read or heard anything about UDL, you have been told it is a framework. A framework. What the heck is a framework? With apologies to my high school chemistry teacher, let’s talk about the Periodic Table of the Elements.

The Periodic Table of the Elements provides a framework to help users see how the elements are associated, how they can work together, and their overall properties. The table even helps scientists predict what additional elements might look and act like. This framework guides the thinking chemists have about the elements but doesn’t tell them everything there is to know about chemistry.

Periodic table of the elements
This graphic by Unknown Author is public domain.

Now, let’s switch to the UDL framework. The visual representation we most associate with UDL is the UDL Guidelines.  Similar to the Periodic Table of Elements, the UDL Guidelines represent the UDL framework to help educators see how researched practices are associated, how they are interconnected with one another, and how they are organized so educators can see their base purpose. The UDL Guidelines provide you with a lens to investigate practices and see whether they promote quality outcomes for all learners. How you learn about either of these frameworks can make a difference in your implementation.

CAST UDL Guidelines
CAST (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.2 [graphic organizer]. Wakefield, MA: Author.

Learning about a framework

I was not familiar with the table of elements before I took chemistry in high school. How we initially learned about it was overwhelming to me. We had to memorize all of the elements and write them into a blank table in a prescribed amount of time. This activity was reminiscent of the 3-minute timed multiplication tests I took in 3rd grade. I didn’t do well in 3rd grade and I certainly didn’t do well my sophomore year. Memorization was to be our gateway to learning more deeply about the elements themselves. Needless to say, memorization and quick recall were a barrier for me, so that gate never opened for me. I interpreted chemistry as “not-my-thing” until I took it again during college Masters level courses. Then, I loved it! I believe it was because the professor was quick to get us into learning the relationships between the elements and doing something with them instead of memorizing them. You can and should use the same approach with UDL.

While it is certainly helpful for educators to learn about the different guidelines and checkpoints as you can at the CAST website, it is understanding the design of the framework and putting those guidelines and checkpoints into action that makes UDL so powerful. You can read more about that in Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning. Understanding why there are three principles and how those connect back to the three brain networks helps you uncover how different strategies and actions impact your students. Understanding whether you are providing students access to learning, you are helping them build on their current skills, or you are helping them internalize skills gives you control over the design you are creating. Understanding the interplay across the guidelines and seeing how they build on one another guides you to see how the framework holds together. And understanding the crucial driver of variability and how the foundational elements of access, flexibility, goals, rigor, and choice flow throughout the framework helps you pull the framework together.

Going back to the table of elements. You don’t “do” the table of elements just like you don’t “do” UDL.  You use the table of elements to make intentional decisions, to plan experiments, and to predict reactions. You use the UDL Guidelines to intentionally design your lessons and learning environments because you know you are going to have variability across all learners. The consistency driving the framework is learner variability and your consistency is your use of the UDL Framework.

All of us in the UDL community are like chemists. We are in a field that is rooted in consistent and persistent discovery, challenging research, and a lifelong quest to investigate all that the framework holds. I invite you to jump in, revel in what is familiar, get excited about learning new information, and give yourself time to explore the depth and breadth of this beautiful framework.