In this blog I offer you my thoughts about what UDL (universal design for learning) is (and is not) and how it is differs from differentiation and adaptation.
The concept of UDL is really well articulated in this Enabling Elearning video when the student (Felix) says: “Last year I had dyslexia and I felt different. This year I don’t feel different; it’s much easier”.
Felix had been in a class where he was the only student using a laptop to support his learning (as he has dyslexia). His individual learning needs may have been met, but he felt ‘different’ and ‘special’. He then went to a class where everyone was using technology. Felix was able to independently access the tools he needed when he needed them, just as everyone else in the class did – it felt easier and he felt more included.
Hence UDL aims to remove barriers from the start to make learning work for each and every learner, rather than designing learning for the (mythical) average and then providing supports for a few who don’t match that mythical average.
The idea is that support and flexibility are embedded in the learning environment as much as possible, so busy teachers do not have to address them on a daily basis. When a range of learning supports and flexible options are embedded into the everyday learning environment they become normalised and every student can use them (or not) as is appropriate.
In contrast, differentiation and adaptation provide individual supports and are one component of UDL – they are something that you would do for an individual when you have already looked at more universal supports that help every learner.
The difference between an individual support approach and a more universal approach is shown clearly in the image below. UDL is represented in the right hand picture where the barrier is removed and no-one needs individual supports to see the game. Differentiation and adaptation is represented in the middle box where each individual has different supports to see the game. Of course both options are better than no supports but the universal design option aims to create a learning environment that is usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design.
Image Credit (with permission): Via Advancing Equity and Inclusion — A Guide for Municipalities ©CAWI
Differentiation and adaptation are very important options for removing barriers to learning, but because they often focus on individuals, they can sometimes do more to set students apart from their peers than to include them. That is why it is so important to try to design learning that works for everyone before looking at individual approaches to address learner needs.
UDL thinking — creating an inclusive education
I believe that the real power of UDL is in transforming our thinking.
UDL is about asking … ‘Will that work for everyone?’ And it involves smart, purposeful design for everyone from the outset so that, as much as possible, individual adaptations are not necessary.
It is an approach we apply to everyday decisions and lesson or curriculum design. I believe the important thing is that we are constantly trying to make learning work for everyone. We may not always succeed, but trying is important.
For me, that UDL attitude is one of the essential keys to an inclusive education.