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My journey with Universal Design for Learning


This blog is the third in a three part series about Universal Design for Learning. Primary school teacher Adele O'Leary shares her first steps in Universal Design for Learning. Adele describes the impact of UDL on her teaching and her learners, and offers several ideas on how to get started with UDL.

Reflective journal

Adele O'Leary.

Meeting the diverse needs of all learners is no mean feat and I am constantly looking for new ideas to help me in this journey. Recently, I have been learning about Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, a framework that helps teachers plan and deliver programmes with all students in mind from the outset.

Planning for diversity
When I think about my current class of students, I am well aware of their diverse needs, strengths, and interests. I cherish their different personalities and cultural identities. However, when I plan, I predominantly design learning experiences for an imaginary "average student" rather than investing thought and time into catering for the diversity that I know exists.

As I learn about UDL, I realise that the ideas of student diversity and inclusive design should be at the forefront of my mind when planning and teaching. Not only do I need to consider the knowledge and skills that I want to help students develop, but I also need to acknowledge and plan for the multiple pathways that students need to take to get there.

Presenting information in multiple ways
The focus in my classroom right now is on the UDL principle of representation. I am trying to present information in different ways to support understanding using a range of media. In a recent maths lesson, I taught place value to a group of students using tactile materials, movement, cooperative games, iPad Apps, and books. Previously I would have only used duplo blocks to represent tens and ones but since learning about UDL I also used ice cream sticks and counters, and children's bodies and balls. Not only is maths learning becoming more fun and dynamic, but I am already noticing higher engagement from some of my reluctant students and it feels great.

Now, whenever I plan a lesson I ask myself the question "how many different ways can I present this information to build students' understanding?" Although it is taking time to think up new ways of presenting, I know that I will get quicker and hopefully this new way of thinking and doing will soon become an automatic part of my lesson design and delivery.

Giving options and removing barriers
Last month I watched a short video called What does UDL look like? where Linda Ojala, a classroom teacher, talks about UDL in her classroom. In the clip, Linda explains the importance of providing options to students so that they can choose activities, contexts, and settings that suit them. Linda also emphasises the need to identify potential barriers to learning and plan proactively to remove or diminish the barriers.

With this video in mind, I have begun to reflect on a student in my class who frequently wriggles, chatters, escapes to the toilet, or loses his pencil during writing sessions. As I begin to shine the torch on the barriers to his learning I realise that there are several things at play:

  • He likes to move around so sitting still in a chair to write is a barrier.
  • He gets distracted easily by his friends so asking him to work next to his friends is another barrier.
  • He also struggles to hold his pencil correctly so expecting him to write legibly and fluently with a pencil is an additional challenge.

Last week I tried a couple of new approaches during my writing session to make it more inclusive. I let my students choose to work wherever they wanted to in the classroom and gave them the option of using triangle pencils for easier grip. These two tiny changes brought results. My target student chose to lie down in the quiet library corner to write where he had room to stretch and move his legs. He also used a triangle pencil. His writing output was the best I had seen all year and he didn't escape to the toilet once. Interestingly, several other students also worked in different settings around the classroom and chose triangle pencils. What works for one, also works for others. My next move is to talk with him about why his writing seems to be working so well and to ask him what other changes I can make to support his learning.

Ideas for you to try ...

As I have been learning about UDL I have made a list of several practical strategies to help develop a more inclusive and flexible classroom curriculum. Feel free to try these ideas:

Supporting resources

Inclusive Education Guides for Schools – Universal Design for Learning
This comprehensive education guide provides practical strategies, suggestions, and resources to help you learn more about UDL and plan for all learners at the outset.

Inclusive classroooms
This section of enabling eLearning provides ideas, resources, and stories to support you to use technologies as part of your learning design.

Other blogs in the series

Introducing Universal Design for Learning
In this blog you can find out about the origins and principles of UDL, and learn how UDL supports the implementation of The New Zealand Curriculum.

Universal Design for Learning in action
This blog features the stories of two teachers who use UDL. These teachers share their understandings and application of UDL, and offer a smorgasbord of inclusive ideas and strategies for you to take away and trial in your own classrooms.

Share your ideas

  • Computer keyboard.
    In what ways do you already apply UDL to your practice?
  • What changes might you introduce to your classroom in response to what you have read?
  • Do you have any questions or comments about Universal Design for Learning?

We would love to hear your thoughts and questions. Please email them through to [email protected].