universal design for learning as lever

Last week I went to (most of) my school’s new faculty orientation. Much of it focused on stuff like benefits and tenure, but I was intrigued by the morning devoted to what the organizers called “Universal Design for Learning” (or UDL). In architecture and engineering, the term “universal design” refers to a set of principles for accessibility that result in things like wheelchair ramps and large, flat light switches. UDL, by metaphorical extension, is ostensibly concerned with providing accessible learning environments, so that students with disabilities have equal opportunities to learn.

I say “ostensibly,” because it’s pretty clear that part of the UDL agenda is not just about addressing the needs of students with disabilities, but also about changing core pedagogies of teachers. According to the website linked above, there are three key principles of UDL:

  • Faculty can offer various ways to REPRESENT essential course concepts
  • Faculty can offer various ways to encourage student ENGAGEMENT
  • Faculty can offer students various formats for EXPRESSION of what they have learned

With a little tweaking, these principles could pass as a distillation of Chickering and Gamson’s “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” And the examples of good UDL solutions (which can be viewed in an online tutorial) looked a lot like the kinds of active, experiential pedagogy that college teaching centers tend to espouse.

So, UDL isn’t just about addressing disability; it’s also about reforming teachers. I’m okay with this, but I also think it’s an uphill climb. In the Q&A session at the end of our workshop, there was a concern that experiential activities are all well and good, but that instructors in some disciplines can’t spend valuable class time on stuff like that when there is so much material to be covered. This propensity to think of teaching in terms of content coverage is more prevalent, perhaps, than you’d think. I saw it all the time when I worked for a teaching center, especially (but not exclusively) when talking to instructors in the hard sciences. As one of the workshop presenters pointed out, this model of learning posits students as empty vessels into which a teacher pours knowledge.

I believe (along with many others) that deep learning is the result of active engagement and participation, not passive reception. If UDL principles can encourage teachers to rethink their teaching in these terms, then all of their students stand to benefit–not just the ones living with disabilities.

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