The Universal Design for Learning framework grew out of the Universal Design movement in architecture and product design. Social justice movements in the 1960’s led to a new focus on designing barrier-free products and environments to increase accessibility for all users. For example, architects designed buildings with ramps and larger doorways for those who used wheelchairs. They soon discovered that other users, including senior citizens, parents with double-wide strollers, and executives pulling wheeled computer bags, also benefitted from these changes in design.
The Universal Design movement represented an important attitudinal shift. Architects began to understand that the problem did not lie with people who had disabilities; the problem was the inaccessibility of the building structure. To minimize potential barriers, architects began to consider a more diverse population of users at the point of design. Educators at Harvard’s Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST), led by David Rose and Anne Meyer, applied this thinking to curriculum, coining the term Universal Design for Learning. Was a curriculum designed for the “average” student creating unnecessary barriers? Could barriers to learning be removed by considering the diverse needs of students at the point of lesson design? Absolutely.
UDL is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Nor does the UDL framework propose a classroom environment in which every student has an individual educational plan (IEP). Instead, UDL provides a framework for designing lessons and learning environments that are flexible enough to work for the widest possible variety of learners. Teachers who adopt the UDL framework accept responsibility for all students in their classrooms and actively collaborate with school and district specialists to intentionally build supports into their lessons. Teachers also apply the UDL core principles Multiple Means of Engagement, Representation and Expression, in designing lessons, materials and learning environments.
For a “made in BC” introduction to UDL, see the 5-minute video Introduction to UDL. CAST’s free online publication Universal Design for Learning Theory and Practice (2014) presents a comprehensive overview of current thinking and practice in UDL.
Video: UDL Overview
In the video below, Canadian educators Jennifer Katz, Judith King, Leyton Schnellert and others discuss UDL and learner diversity.