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The Universal Design for Learning…Has a nice ring, doesn’t it?

*cover image by Giulia Forsythe- click here to visit her Visual Practice art notes

Education is guilty of tossing handfuls of buzz words and acronyms like candy off a fire truck during a parade. They change with the times and are thrown around so much to the point that one may want to throw them all UP. Differentiate. Engage. And my favorite- rigor, which always makes me imagine a morgue or kids squirming and pounding on a table for some reason.

So often these words become a vague replacement for really talking about what to actually DO in the classroom. The discussion about Common Core and changing American education is so heavy on what the standards say and what the assessments will be, but the most important part of the discussion is missing- what will this look like in classrooms? What should teachers actually do? How will we rearrange professional development, schedules, and teachers’ roles to succeed with this? The standards do not provide the means, thank goodness, but if the means are not appropriately addressed, the means will become whatever helps students pass the test. And this will cause the movement to fail. Miserably.

You can completely talk in acronyms and buzz-speak if you so desire. This post will be full of them, I admit, but they will all serve a purpose and I stand behind them.

*created by jkarabinas using Skitch by Evernote

*created by jkarabinas using Skitch by Evernote


Here arrives our not-so-new word that has not been worn out yet, I am happy to say, though I feel like I should come across it more: The UDL. The concept needs to take schools by storm (think summer thunderstorm followed by a rainbow, not hurricane and subsequent destruction) for this learning revolution to be successful. One might say that Universal Design for Learning is just a fancy way to say “differentiated instruction” and that may be true, but that word-universal- just has that ring that makes me feel excited.

Born out of the architectural field “to design structures that… are intended to be used by all individuals, including those with disabilities” (Muller & Tschantz, 2003), the UDL initially was an effort to design instructional materials for students with disabilities. Placing this concept in the field of education, the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) coined this to apply to all learners, regardless of (dis)abilities. In 2003, CAST had been creating instructional materials for over 10 years, mostly digital, to fit this principle of “universal”. Now 10 years later, the concept is finally becoming more known in our new times of the Common Core and increasingly accessible digital technology.

UDL calls for us to present information in multiple ways, allow learners to express learning in multiple ways, and for teachers to motivate and engage learners in multiple ways. Multiple ways. For everyone. In the whole class. What a fabulous idea! But how on earth is this achieved? It sounds overwhelming and I would agree that it most certainly is, but with a little practice, collaboration and support, it is possible. It HAS to be possible. This is a challenge to be explored on another day.

UDL is mentioned in the Common Core State Standards with regards to students with disabilities, yet we cannot forget that differentiation is meant for all students. It’s quality teaching. The CCSS mostly align with the principles of the UDL because the target (the WHAT) is set, but the means (the HOW) is up to the instructor and/or learner to determine. However, some CCSS goals do not align, explains CAST in this example:

“Tell and write time in hours and half-hours using analog and digital clocks” (Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, Grade 1, Measurement and Data, 1.MD, item 3, p.16). The problem with this standard is that it requires students to write time. This presents some learners with a barrier because the act of writing is difficult for them. In this case, express would be more appropriate than write, as it allows flexibility and avoids confounding the expectation with tasks that are superfluous to the actual goal. Or, the standard would align with UDL if “write” were interpreted to permit other forms of expression. (

When I consider differentiating the what, how and why, I immediately think of my personal favorite model: Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT. It goes on to consider innovation, one of the most important elements of improving education. Learners are challenged to consider What IF? Though the concepts of 4MAT and UDL are similar, the biggest discrepancy appears in the call for multiple means of engagement.

4MAT asserts that all learners be connected and engaged with the WHY of the upcoming experiences in a common way. From my own experience, I would have to agree. This is not to say that I wouldn’t need to draw on multiple means of engagement throughout a unit, but the WHY quadrant is typically an activity that is seemingly irrelevant yet is a metaphor for the concept to be explored. When students have this shared connection, it creates a common example to which we can all return. They love these types of activities. One of my favorites is providing groups of students with identical coloring sheets and specific crayon colors (or no colors, or 1 color!) to introduce different types of government. Another is playing Jenga before diving into the idea of interdependence within an ecosystem. (You can read Bernice McCarthy’s comparison of 4MAT and UDL by clicking here.)

Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT Learning Cycle (

You may notice that neither of those examples requires technology! While UDL primarily considers digital tools, I would assert that for a learning model to be truly universal, we cannot leave out the human need for the arts. Movement. Games. Visual Art. Music. Additionally, we should aim for a balance of arts and technology to truly stretch learners, not just allow them to always stay within their comfort zones.

This summer I will be exploring this very idea: What arts AND technology-based means of engagement, expression, and motivation can we offer to address areas of focus within the Common Core? How do we get this in action with classrooms? I will do this because I love the imagery of the word universal and want that imagery to make its way into as many classrooms as possible. I’ll do it because the world wants to revolutionize education and to do it we need to look at HOW we are reaching learners, not simply change the standards, change the test, randomly throw money at old professional development and expect that to create better instruction.

Related Posts

Common Core: It’s not the WHAT- It’s the HOW. (


About Learning

Center for Applied Special Technology

Muller, Eve and Tschantz, Jennifer. Universal design for learning: four state initiatives. Project FORUM at NASDSE. (April 2003).

National Center on Universal Design for Learning

Notes and Comparisons of 4MAT and The Universal Design for Learning


6 comments on “The Universal Design for Learning…Has a nice ring, doesn’t it?

  1. Pingback: Content & Skills Before Tools: Build Tool Fluency! | soul strikers

  2. Pingback: Achieving the UDL: Arts, Technology & Geometry | soul strikers

  3. @Eliza_Peterson
    July 2, 2013

    You hit it here, Jaclyn: “Additionally, we should aim for a balance of arts and technology to truly stretch learners, not just allow them to always stay within their comfort zones.” Great post. Your Skitch made me laugh. It’s so true!


    • Thank you Elizabeth. I admit, I was giggling to myself while I made the Skitch. After I wrote this post, I actually came across an article published in April written for the Harvard Educational Review. It was written by 2 heads from CAST and another educational scholar. It explores the case for the arts as a part of the UDL. It’s awesome- you’ll appreciate it if you haven’t run across it before.


  4. Barb
    June 30, 2013

    The depth of your thinking always amazes me. Your thinking has layers and layers. I read and re-read your ideas – a sure sign you’re making me think too. One love.


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This entry was posted on June 29, 2013 by in education, Next to torture, ART persuades best., The World of TE(a)CH.

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