"UDL" - Is this the next buzzword about to sting Australian teachers for more working hours? (Part 1)

Keep your ears tuned at the next conference or the next principals network gathering for mention of 'UDL'.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has been in use in schools in the US for over fifteen years - probably because of its main exponent and proponent being Harvard University.

Like many modern innovations in mainstream education it has its roots in special needs education research.

Universal Design for Learning has reached our shores. In Australian universities, UDL is now being applied in the writing and delivery of almost every course. But why are so many Australian primary and high schools now making a bee-line for the next bee's knees of classroom teaching practice?

Well, partially out of a pursuit for pedagogical rigour; but something more compelling (that most teachers don't realise) is that all Australian schools are now, in a sense, obligated to embed UDL into their teaching practice.

Let me explain...

In 2016 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) updated and clarified the obligations of all signatory countries (including Australia) under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. (Article 24 stipulates the provision of a fully accessible and truly inclusive education for all.)

To better facilitate this the UNCRPD instructed that, "curricula must be conceived, designed and applied to meet and adjust to the requirements of every student." And furthermore, that "standardised testing must be replaced by multiple forms of assessments and recognition of individual progress towards broad goals that provide alternative routes for learning.” [paragraph 25]

(This might explain why ACARA is in the process of transitioning from graded achievement standards to 'learning progressions'. Paragraph 25 will also likely spell the beginning of the end for NAPLAN since, in the above context, NAPLAN discriminates against students with learning disabilities.)

To achieve full inclusiveness, the UNCRPD has recommended that all signatory countries apply the Universal Design for Learning approach to teaching in schools. Given the specificity of this edict we need to investigate and scrutinise UDL.

I have a saying: 'We despise what we don't understand'. I initially didn't hive a clue what UDL was so I determined to do the research before writing this post.

After several weeks of reading I would summarise Universal Design for Learning this way:

It is essentially a framework to help teachers create and calibrate instruction that will cater for ALL learners in any class in any lesson. Based on the premise that each student learns in a unique way, it guides teachers to build variability into their lesson plans and flexibility into the learning environments to accommodate that.

(Note that UDL is not quite the same as differentiation. It is not about individualised programs for individual students, but one program that accommodates the diverse learning needs and styles within any class group.)

One of the Queen Bees of UDL is teacher and consultant Bryan Dean from Oakland Schools, USA:

"UDL intentionally designs the learning environment upfront to account for the anticipated variation and needs of our students. By considering barriers upfront, we make the environment more accessible for all students. UDL proactively plans around barriers and [for] variabilities we know exist."

Therefore, the Driving Question for me as a teacher becomes:

'How can I deliberately design my lessons and learning environment so that I accommodate the range of differences within my class while removing barriers to learning?'

UDL Principles

This extremely challenging question is answered in part in the UDL principles and framework:

  1. Engagement - by tapping into learners' interests, challenging and motivating them to learn

  2. Representation - by giving learners different ways of acquiring information, knowledge and skills

  3. Action/Expression - by encouraging students to use different ways of demonstrating what they know.

I will explore this topic further in the coming weeks. Please contribute if you are already on the UDL journey or if your school is about to embark.

All perspectives are welcome. So whether you think UDL is not all it’s cracked up to bee, or it's the bee-all-and-end-all, it's important that the truth bee told.

Look for part two - 'The Honeycomb' - next week, when I will look at the positives of implementing UDL, followed by the negatives in 'The Sting in the Tail'.

I hope you've had a successful start to the school year and that your classroom has adequate air conditioning. 40 degrees outside right now as I write this. Swarm, isn't it?

Hive a good week!


James (Death-by-a-Thousand-Bee-Puns) Phelps

Some references: