Universal Design for Learning

    Oct. 23, 2008 MCAE Network Conference

“The concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is the intersection where all our initiatives—integrated units, multi-sensory teaching, multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction, use of computers in schools, performance-based assessment, and others—come together.”

- Donna Palley, Special Education Coordinator/Technology Specialist, Concord, New Hampshire, school system

By Akira Kamiya

Universal Design is a concept originally developed in the field of Architecture.  The concept arose from the need to have buildings and public spaces be accessible to all.  So that those with physical disabilities could access the spaces as easily as everyone else through the use of innovative design.  This concept is different than adding on to an existing design.  For instance to accommodate those in wheel chairs,  rather then just adding additional wheel chair accessible ramps, the original design from the ground up would be to developed with these extra considerations in mind.  

A good illustration of this concept is the curb cut on a side walk.  This was originally created with those in wheel chairs in mind.  But as it turns out this design ends up being a benefit to all !  So those with skateboards, bicycles, elderly walkers, children etc. all take advantage of this small accommodation to make  getting on the sidewalk easier.

In the world of education, these same concepts can be applied to increase the reach and depth of learning.  The organization CAST, Center for Applied Special Technology, has been active for the last 20 years studying how technology can benefit teachers and students in ways that allow everyone to learn on more equal footing regardless of physical disability or learning type.

Through modern scanning equipment we can see that while brain functions during thinking and learning it is evident that the brain is composed of separate specialized areas.  

The research of Russian Psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, that learning can seen to be spread across three interconnected networks:

    Recognition Networks

    Strategic Networks

    Affective Networks

The recognition networks are specialized to receive and analyze information (the "what" of learning)

The strategic networks are specialized to plan and execute actions (the "how" of learning);

The affective networks are specialized to evaluate and set priorities (the "why" of learning).

What this specialization shows us is that learners cannot be reduced to simple categories such as "disabled" or "bright." They differ within and across all three brain networks, showing shades of strength and weakness that make each of them unique.

Traditional modes of education have come to over emphasize mainly one media, that of Text.

So reading and writing have priorities in the class room.  A very intelligent student with a borderline case of dyslexia may flounder in class because she/he cannot parse the letters in a word as quickly as others.  Yet if material was presented in an audio format she/he might be able to excel.

So it can be said that it is incorrect to label students disabled, when really it’s the  educational curricula that should be considered ‘disabled’.  Through the use of Universal Design Concepts in Education, curricula can be designed from the ground up to be accessible and expressible to all students.  The Intelligences involved with reading and writing should not be only ones singled out for distinction.  


See Text of Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age

for a much more through examination of this topic and also some practical real world applications.