Teaching all students in the digital age: Universal design for learning in our district!
Now more than ever before, our schools reflect the communities we serve. During my entry work, which began in late March of last year, I learned so much about our two towns and our regional school district. In brief, what I learned is that what makes these communities and their regional school district so special are its people.
Earlier this morning, the Spencer-East Brookfield Regional School Committee acted upon my recommendation and took action to form the David Prouty High School Building Committee, which got me thinking about the future needs of not only the school district's facilities and plant, but most importantly, our students. So, as we look to the future as a regional school district and begin again the process of looking at our feasibility work in partnership with the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), we also need to continue to examine ways we can strengthen our core curricular and extra-curricular programming, instruction, and assessment within the schools. As a result, in this month’s newsletter, I propose an option for our communities and the regional school district to consider… It is called, Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
Universal Design for Learning: What is it?
As you know, teachers and staff are charged with delivering instruction to a diverse group of learners who come to the learning experience with a variety of cultures, languages, learning styles, abilities, and disabilities. In today’s educational environments, it is not that uncommon to find more than ten different languages spoken in a given school, but the integration of diverse learners and students with disabilities in the classroom. Traditional models for instruction need to be expanded to incorporate individual learning styles, prior knowledge about the world in which we live, and accommodations for students who need them. Such classroom diversity heightens the need for inclusive practices. Because the need to demonstrate successful student outcomes has grown more imperative, every teacher can benefit from developing a working relationship with instructional methods and resources to reach the range of students. “This is especially important for students with disabilities, who need access to instructional materials and who must be given educational opportunities that allow them to fairly demonstrate what they have learned. For these students to take full advantage of updated teaching practices, curricula, and technological advances, they must have the opportunity to access, participate, and progress in the general education curriculum. In essence, these students need an environment with the components of universal design for learning an environment where instruction is flexible, equitable, and accessible every day of the school year. The vision is that, in these environments, needed accommodations are built into the design of instructional materials. These accommodations will encompass the widespread use of digital curriculum and assistive technologies that have emerged from research and fit the definition of AT in the 1997 Amendments of IDEA, i.e., any item, piece of equipment, or product system that is used to increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities,” (Universal Design for Learning; pp. 2-3).
However, just as important to the vision are the teachers and staff “who are well-versed in the methodologies that can result in universal design for learning. These teachers know about, plan for, and incorporate universal design for learning on a routine basis in order to ensure all students access to the general education curriculum.
The greatest promise held by universally designed instruction is that of flexible, equitable, and accessible ways to teach, is the wide array of alternatives it provides for teachers. With UDL, teachers can reach each individual student, disabled or non-disabled, providing a platform for each to interact with the curriculum, - in ways that best support unique learning styles. With UDL, teachers can implement alternative instruction, speed up or slow down the pace of instruction, or provide the student with alternative ways to demonstrate his or her learning. For example, if a student…
- Learns best through listening, he or she can use a computer to read stories and information aloud, or to pronounce new words;
- Needs hints about where an answer is found, the test (or the computer) can provide prompts about where to look in order to be successful;
- Struggles to pick out the most important points, or organize information, he or she can use graphic organizers – on paper or with a computer program;
- Learns more easily with large print or without distracting pictures, software can be switched to adjust the size of the text or eliminate graphics;
- Can explain things best by using a keyboard and word processor, then that will be the method of choice, rather than pencil and paper; or
- Cannot work with a keyboard, he or she will use the device that works best, such as a switch, or voice commands, or other ways that help students share what they know.
According to the Council for Exceptional Children's text, Universal Design for Learning: A guide for teachers and educational professionals (2005), many of the supports provided by universal design for learning are within the realm of special education – and the application of effective technologies, including assistive technology – but ultimately, they need to be inclusive supports for the full range of students, those who have needs who are educated in general education classrooms, the promise of universally designed instruction has to be based on instruction that can be delivered by both general and special educators. That is, both general and special educators have to be knowledgeable about and proficient in "the methodilogies that support universal access to instruction. When this understanding is achieved, teachers can collaborate more effectively because all are able to focus on the implementation of recommended practices using familiar instructional strategies and readily available modifications," (pp. 2-3).
According to the Ohio State University Partnership Grants to Improve the Quality of Higher Education for Students with Disabilities, universal design provides equal access to learning, not simply equal access to information. Universal design allows the student to control the method of accessing information while the teacher monitors the learning process and initiates any beneficial methods.
Although this design enables the student to be self-sufficient, the teacher is responsible for imparting knowledge and facilitating the learning process. It should be noted that universal design does not remove academic challenges; it removes barriers to access. Simply stated, universal design promotes effective teaching and learning for all students.
In conclusion, studying our high school facilities in partnership with the MSBA is important. I am so happy for the communities of Spencer and East Brookfield, MA to see where this school building project takes us in the future. However, making sure our teachers and staff are focused upon teaching and learning with purpose and our student's needs is equally paramount! And universal design for learning is one way of thinking about teaching and learning that helps give all students an equitable opportunity to succeed. Please continue to partner, support and invest with us - in our work together – as we look to the future! #ChooseSEBRSD #Progress #Unity #Knowledge
Paul S. Haughey, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools