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Loui Lord Nelson, Ph.D.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) Implementation
Home > Blog > UDL in 15 Minutes with Diana-Grace Morris, Bonni Ramage, and Catherine Wong

UDL in 15 Minutes with Diana-Grace Morris, Bonni Ramage, and Catherine Wong

The Driver of UDL is Variability

This episode of UDL in 15 Minutes offers two straight-forward examples of how teachers used the UDL framework to lower barriers for their learners, but within those examples lie the crux of UDL: variability.

In this video with David Rose (one of the founders of CAST and is seen as the grandfather of UDL), he gives a succinct description of variability which includes the following quote: “Learners of all ages, of all nationalities, of all types are highly variable. Whether they’re disabled or not depends on their interaction with the context.” It’s that last sentence that trips up most people.

Our school systems are set up to categorize learners to place them with the right educators. That sounds great, but what happens is that the educator doesn’t always come to the learners, the learners tend to go to the educator. This has all been rationalized in lots of different ways (e.g., master schedule, the amount of time in a day, the expertise of the educator, the level of need the learner has), but ultimately, what we tend to see are separate settings. Separate contexts. And this leads to a mindset that “those learners” have innate barriers to learning that are too significant to be supported in a general education setting. But then, we have examples like those from Konini Primary School in Wainuiomata, New Zealand.

During the podcast, Catherine shares that a particular learner is a “reluctant talker”. And while this learner might receive specific support like working with a speech pathologist (which we did not discuss), these teachers want this learner to participate with his classroom peers. For this writing lesson they focused on this learner’s needs and they looked at the goal of the lesson. They said to themselves, “What are the barriers within the curriculum this learner is experiencing? What can we change to remove those barriers?” They thought to themselves, “We need to scaffold this activity. We need to break it down into smaller parts. But the learner is also really disconnected from the topic, so let’s find ways to connect him.” If you haven’t listened yet, I hope you do. Catherine tells it in a very accessible and matter-of-fact way that really breaks the bigger process of UDL down.

As Bonni shares her story about the learner who is a strong reader but is not connected to the lesson. Instead of explaining to the learner why she should be interested in the reading, the teacher listened to the learner, reached out to her colleagues to identify materials that fit with this learner’s needs and likes, and provided those to the learner. Bonni and her colleague didn’t push the learner out into a different group or force the learner into the original reading material. Instead, they changed the context. They changed the materials. They recognized that the barrier was not in the learner, the barrier was in the original materials. They recognized and attended to the variability.

Here’s what I saw in common in both of these stories:

  1. They wanted the learner to be in that context. (This is huge)
  2. They knew that the current context did not support the learner.
  3. With clarity, they knew want they wanted the learner to accomplish (i.e., they knew the goal).
  4. They decided what areas of the UDL framework would likely support this learner most and took action on those areas.
  5. That learner’s interaction with the context now became the same as the learner’s peers. The learner was able to participate and produce work.
  6. These learners and the other learners who benefited from these changes in the context all took steps forward in their learning.

This podcast is all about helping our learners become expert learners. In this podcast, we heard examples of teachers who lowered and removed barriers so their learners could find purpose and motivation, use their knowledge and be resourceful, and identify strategies and set goals to complete the assignments. These teachers provided that beautiful pathway to their learners – the pathway of expert learning.