When I begin to explain Universal Design for Learning to any audience, it is often received as paradigms and theories are: with quiet reservation until the audience can see where the rubber hits the road. What does this mean for my teaching? What does this mean for my time? How will I translate any of this into my course and do I really need to? I already work hard to meet the accommodation plans, why are we talking about design?
This first blog post of mine is a bare bones explanation of why I value UDL because asking these beautiful questions (Renner, 2005) is the best place to start. Without going into any models, without strategy, target, or expectation, I would like to share why Universal Design for Learning is important to me.
I have worked with children, teens, and now young adults with disabilities since the beginning of my career. I have been an instructor and teacher myself. I have researched the norms and the margins to know who fits, who could fit better, and why. I have seen that we tend to design activities, courses, and curricula based on what a person should know, and largely what they should know is bound to tradition. In experiential learning settings we design what a person must know in order to succeed in a job.
When that design is done, and the syllabus is drawn up, we begin to deliver our course. It is the beginning of a course but it is also the start of a test.
Who will get it and who will need more? Once we see who needs more, the scramble begins. Who seems lost? Who has unexpected behavior? Who needs repetition? Who is leaving the room in a panic? Who is being disruptive? Who is not coming to class?
With a curriculum in place, we move to the task of jostling and rejigging and retrofitting to include as many people as possible. Inevitably, the folks who have been tested and are not quite hitting the mark, feel and know that they are at the margins and rapidly moving outwards.
I AM NOT FITTING.
Extensions, note taking support, tears at office hours, sudden absences, leaving the room, frustration, withdrawal.
I AM NOT FITTING.
Students who don’t fit might need to go to Counselling or Accessibility Services or have quiet talks about Early Alert. Students who don’t fit need specialized services.
I AM NOT FITTING AND I NEED A REASON.
I need a reason to have support and extra help. What is wrong? What is that called? Who will believe me?
There are many ways of not fitting. We have a thorough language and a thorough system to name our concerns, strategies to remediate the problems, specialists to check in with, and ways to monitor ourselves. Come back and try again when you have better ways of fitting.
I have seen this from age 3 to age 63, from preschool to retraining, from kindergarten readiness, to university transition.
I like UDL because it starts with the margins (Rose, 2016). It starts the curriculum design process with the people who don’t fit and by starting with not fitting we start with inclusion. Instead of a retrofit, we imagine the broadest scope right from the get-go. We start with a challenge to do better, differently and innovate beyond ourselves. Two of my favourite researchers on phenomenological contextualism, in their most recent book (Atwood & Stolorow, 2019), have remarked that it is working with the hardest cases that has driven the field of psychiatry forward. It is the individuals whose behavior is beyond the pale, whose experiences mean taking down a mountain one spoonful at a time that drive innovative practice.
I like UDL because we get to start with everyone, we get to look at the margins as an opportunity for curiosity and to push education further that we could imagine. By starting with the margins we get to ask ourselves, “Well, why not? WHY NOT?” and persevere for answers.
I believe that universal design for learning means that we stop trying to include as a moral imperative and start including because it’s exciting, innovative, and has the capacity to amaze and delight.
To me, UDL is hope.
Renner, P. (2005). The art of teaching adults: How to become an exceptional instructor and facilitator. Vancouver: Training Associates.
Rose, T. (2016). The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness. San Francisco: HarperOne.
Stolorow, R.D. & Atwood, G.E. (2019). The power of phenomenology: Psychoanalytic and philosophical perspectives. New York: Routledge.