Universal Design for Learning at CORE

Stephen and Nicole on Project Runway at CORE staff retreat

Universal Design in an engineering or architectural context is about creating solutions to problems that meet the needs of the most people possible at the outset. It is about avoiding the need for retrofitting. In the context of curriculum, how might the same principles impact on the way in which we design and organise learning environments and resources?

Practical opportunity to apply the principals of UDL

At our recent CORE retreat, focussed on, “Where are we now?” and, “What next?”, 120 staff unknowingly participated in an event that gave us first-hand experience of the potential of underpinning environments with a universal design approach.

A small team of us had been charged with creating a team building “social activity” that would be “fun” for everyone. Although our CORE whānau is predominantly made up of teachers and facilitators, we are also an eclectic bunch of developers, events managers, researchers, learning designers and administrators. So variability in people’s interests was a predictable given and we knew that a one-size-fits-all solution was not going to float.

Creative use of physical materials, goals, and ideas

An idea, all things being considered

In a rapid brainstorm over Skype, we came up with a design challenge based around the fashion show Project Runway. Now, at first glance you may think we might have missed our demographic, but as the photos attest, the punt we took captured the hearts, minds, “and hands” of our colleagues.

For those of you who might initially associate Project Runway with aeroplanes, the show is actually focused on clothing design. Each team is given a design brief and has to interpret it within a given time frame with a range of resources. Our teams were also required to give a commentary that reflected each team’s creative style and CORE’s commitment to Tātai Aho Rau – a concept related to weaving that illustrates our values.

And the outcome—it works

Creative use of physical materials, goals, and ideas on Project RunwayAs the social committee, we had hoped that we had built in enough options to capture people’s diverse interests, and we wanted each person to be able to fully participate and contribute. We thought through the potential barriers to getting stuck in, and tried to create some supports to nudge people along. What we hadn’t bargained on was the way in which everyone threw themselves into the experience with such relish, took full advantage of both hard materials and technology, and created intricate and experimental work both with words and with textiles. The result: a magical and hilarious celebration and a creative demonstration of our shared understanding of what CORE is about.

Revealed to all—why the activity was successful

The following day, the opportunity to highlight that our Project Runway event had been universally designed, was too good to miss. For many at CORE, it was a significant “a-ha” moment, and dispelled a few myths that had aligned “Universal Design” solely with “special education” or accessibility.

The Ministry's Universal Design approach

In a wider context, our shared epiphany also lines up with the Ministry of Education literature review, which identified Universal Design and the framework known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as an approach that can make a difference for all learners, and can be applied to “all facets of education: from curriculum, assessment and pedagogy to classroom and school design” (Mitchell 2010).

Hazel and Mark on Project Runway at CORE staff retreat

A framework for moving culturally responsive concepts into actions

As an educator who has been exploring UDL for the last few years, it is exciting to see conversations gaining momentum online, in workshops, and classrooms. At the international UDL Summer Institute at Harvard Graduate school, and whilst with Dr Sharon Friessen at the University of Calgary last year, discussions frequently revolved around the need for each country/community to take the learning around UDL and shape it for its own unique cultural context. As I, alongside colleagues such as Karen Melhuish Spencer and Janelle Riki, explore ways to underpin our own work with a UDL approach, we particularly see how the principles provide a framework for moving culturally responsive concepts into actions.

Also, hand-in-hand with a tool like the e-Learning Planning Framework, the UDL principles enable us to consider how technology can be used to provide options for the way in which we create resources, provide options for learners to demonstrate their understanding, and design environments to engage and sustain the interest of all learners.

Appeal: please share your UDL stories!

So, if you have dipped your toes in the water in this area of learning design and have a story to share, we’d love to hear from you. The more stories we gather, the more we can shape our own Aotearoa New Zealand UDL narrative.

And, if you are new to UDL, check out the links below, and watch this space—as here at CORE, we are intent on exploring how to design both physical and online learning environments underpinned by a UDL—there will be stories to tell.

And one last thing, huge thanks to Karen Melhuish Spencer for the first and last photos, and to Micheal Lintott for the middle two. Exquisite.

Useful links

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Chrissie Butler

Chrissie Butler works alongside schools and education facilitators supporting strategic planning and blended professional learning in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), e-learning, and inclusive practices. She is also the lead writer and content developer on the Ministry of Education’s new Inclusive Education website. Chrissie supports the development of CORE's internal capability in inclusive learning design and provides consultancy to New Zealand and overseas schools and agencies. She brings her life-long arts practice to all aspects of her work. She has a particular interest in exploring the relationship between creative work, education, digital technologies, and social change.

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