Nice Theory #3—Universal Design for Learning

I’m going to take a couple of posts to deal with this one. For the first two nice theories (Learning Styles and Experiential Learning) the tactic was set-up the niceness, then unleash the critique. The theories did not fare well, even though I was restrained in my comment. My approach will be different here. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as an insight or principle is, in my view, deep and wonderful. My goal to day is to praise the insight. At a later date, I’ll cast some doubt on some of the directions that the work is taken. To the best of my knowledge, there is no real “theory” of UDL—but that’s yet another story for yet another day.

So let’s back up a few decades. The notion of “universal design” comes to us from architecture. Some genius (and I’m being sincere here) noticed that our cities, streets and buildings were not readily accessible to all people. People in wheelchairs, for example, had a devil of a time getting up and down sidewalk curbs to cross the street. Would it be possible, thought our hero, to redesign things AT ZERO COST so that when they were initially built or installed, more people could use them? A blinding flash of light.

It costs exactly the same amount of money to make a low corner curb on a sidewalk as it does to make a high curbs. So now, after the expense of retrofitting old curbs in high traffic areas, cities all over the world now make low, wheelchair-friendly curbs on every corner. This is deep. For no new money, a major issue of accessibility is solved. Do you often ride in an elevator? Elevators need buttons so that riders can choose their destination. Braille buttons cost exactly the same amount to manufacture as do non-Braille buttons. So why not make all elevator buttons with Braille as the default. Boom! Blind people can now easily use elevators without assistance. I hope you’re as excited about this as I am.

It took quite a while, but eventually it occurred to a few clever educators that the same principles might be applicable to education. Is it possible, they asked, to create schools with universal design principles? So long as we’re talking about buildings, the answer is, trivially, yes. But that’s not a very interesting question. What about teaching? Can teachers teach in a way that satisfies the principle of universal access?

Holy cats, what’s this? If students have different current capabilities, what can I, as a teacher, do to help them to participate in the learning in a way that respects both where the student currently is and where (s)he needs to go? And can this be accomplished without significant capital investment?

This is the challenge. It excites me. Yet, it comes with concerns. But I don’t want to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm at this point. If you’re with me, give this some serious thought before I return to the topic. Don’t google, don’t check out what’s being done in the name of UDL right now. It’ll just get in the way. For now, ask yourself what are the curbs and elevator buttons of the contemporary classroom and think about ways to lower the curbs and enhance the buttons.

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