The goal of education in the 21st century is not simply the mastery of knowledge. It is the mastery of learning. Education should help turn novice learners into expert learners-individuals who know how to learn, who want to learn, and who, in their own highly individual ways, are well prepared for a lifetime of learning.
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach that addresses and redresses the primary barrier to making expert learners of all students: inflexible, one-size-fits-all curricula that raise unintentional barriers to learning. Learners with disabilities are most vulnerable to such barriers, but many students without disabilities also find that curricula are poorly designed to meet their learning needs.
Diversity is the norm, not the exception, wherever individuals are gathered, including schools. When curricula are designed to meet the needs of the broad middle-at the exclusion of those with different abilities, learning styles, backgrounds, and even preferences, they fail to provide all individuals with fair and equal opportunities to learn.
Universal Design for Learning helps meet the challenge of diversity by suggesting flexible instructional materials, techniques, and strategies that empower educators to meet these varied needs. A universally designed curriculum is designed from the outset to meet the needs of the greatest number of users, making costly, time-consuming, and after-the-fact changes to curriculum unnecessary.
Three primary principles guide UDL-and provide structure for these Guidelines:
- Principle I: Provide Multiple Means of Representation (the “what” of learning). Students differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. For example, those with sensory disabilities (e.g., blindness or deafness); learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia); language or cultural differences, and so forth may all require different ways of approaching content. Others may simply grasp information better through visual or auditory means rather than printed text. In reality, there is no one means of representation that will be optimal for all students; providing options in representation is essential.
- Principle II: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression (the “how” of learning). Students differ in the ways that they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. For example, individuals with significant motor disabilities (e.g. cerebral palsy), those who struggle with strategic and organizational abilities (executive function disorders, ADHD), those who have language barriers, and so forth approach learning tasks very differently and will demonstrate their mastery very differently. Some may be able to express themselves well in writing text but not oral speech, and vice versa. In reality, there is no one means of expression that will be optimal for all students; providing options for expression is essential.
- Principle III: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement (the “why” of learning). Students differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn. Some students are highly engaged by spontaneity and novelty while other are disengaged, even frightened, by those aspects, preferring strict routine. In reality, there is no one means of engagement that will be optimal for all students; providing multiple options for engagement is essential.
At CAST (the Center for Applied Special Technology), we began working nearly 25 years ago to develop ways to help students with disabilities gain access to the general education curriculum. In the early years, we focused on helping individuals adapt or “fix” themselves – overcoming their disabilities in order to learn within the general education curriculum. That work, commonly focused on assistive technologies, is an important facet of any comprehensive educational plan.
However, we also came to see that this focus on assistive technologies was too narrow. It obscured the critical role of the environment in determining who is or who is not considered “disabled.” In the 1990s, we shifted our focus towards the general curriculum and its limitations: how do those limitations contribute to the “disabling” of our students?
This shift led to a simple, yet profound realization: the burden of adaptation should be first placed on the curriculum, not the learner. Because most curricula are unable to adapt to individual differences, we have come to recognize that our curricula, rather than our students, are disabled.
CAST began in the early 1990s to research, develop, and articulate the principles and practices of Universal Design for Learning. The term was inspired by the universal design concept from architecture and product development pioneered by Ron Mace of North Carolina State University in the 1980s, which aims to create built environments and tools that are usable by as many people as possible. Of course, since people are not buildings or products, we approached the universal design problem via the learning sciences. Thus, the UDL principles go deeper than merely focusing on access to the classroom; they focus on access to learning as well.
This work has been carried out in collaboration with many talented and dedicated education researchers, practitioners, and technologists. As the UDL field has grown, so has the demand from stakeholders for Guidelines to help make applications of these principles and practices more concrete.
These UDL Guidelines will assist curriculum developers (these may include teachers, publishers, and others) in designing flexible curricula that reduce barriers to learning and provide robust learning supports to meet the needs of all learners. They will also help educators evaluate both new and existing curricula goals, media and materials, methods and assessments.