A recent study, reported in the journal Nature, of neurological myths and teaching practice has cast some doubt on certain elements that are linked to Universal Design for Learning (Howard-Jones, 2014 http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nrn3817.html?WT.mc_id=TWT_NatRevNeurosci, downloaded October 28, 2014).. In turn, this study, if true, would seem to cut into certain assumptions that the Common Core State Standards make about students with disabilities
For example, one of the myths the researcher, Paul Howard-Jones, lists is the idea of preferred learning styles (Perry, 21 October 2014, downloaded from http://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2014/10/educators-misguided-belief-neuromyths-hinders-childrens-learning-expert-says). Preferred learning styles stem from the theories of Howard Gardner (1983, 1999). Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences state that students have different abilities and, thus, should be taught in differentiated ways that accommodate the student’s needs. However, Howard-Jones lists these as one of the myths of education finding no real evidence of this study. In fact, Howard-Jones claims studies have shown that students actually may learn better in ways that may be oppositional to their learning preferences.
Interestingly enough, however, proponents of Universal Design for Learning (e.g. Meyer & Rose, 2005) have claimed that Gardner’s theories actually can be scientifically supported through neuroscience. For example, they cite work in psychology and neuroscience to support their work, specifically talking about brain pathways (e.g. Gevins & Smith, 2000; Habib, McIntosh, &Tolving, 2000; Kent, 1998; Nichelli, Graggman, Pietrini, Clark, Lee, & Milletich, 1995; Petersen, van Mier, Fiez, & Raichle, 1998; Rypma &D’Esposito, 1998; Tootell, Reppas, Kwong, Malach, Born, Brady, 1995; Wallis & Bulthoff, 1999; Xiong, Rao, Jerabek, Zamarripa, Woldorff, & Lancaster, 2000). It would seem that the notion of brain pathways may be established, but the tie to Gardner’s theories related to learning have not been fully established and, in fact, be contradicted by other research.
Since Gardner’s theories have played an important role in differential instruction, however, this study, should it have impact, would somewhat undermine some of the suggestions the CCSS make concerning students with disabilities, specifically those standards that help students with “severe disabilities” meet these standards or equivalent standards. However, since there has been certain scientific support via the brain pathways research, the potential for learning is still there. The fact that multiple intelligences may be a myth does not necessarily completely deter UDL because there is alternative scientific evidence.
This new study does, however, point to a potential weakness in how students with disabilities would fare under the study. Since CCSS was not researched per se, but rather based on so-called “international benchmarks” and supposed expert consultation (CCSS, 2014), it is not surprising, perhaps, that a potential weakness may be exposed. Even though the goal is laudable, and perhaps still doable, it may weaken the effectiveness of the argument. In order to help students with disabilities to succeed, policy must be driven by real evidence-based practices, not extrapolations or theories, but actual evidence based on scientific merit, preferably the gold-standard double blind trial, which was derived from the pharmaceutical industry.
I do not believe this study completely derails Universal Design for Learning, but it may impact its marketing. Moreover, it exposes a potential weakness in the recommended practices toward students with disabilities (another thing CCSS gets wrong since UDL is supposed to be for everyone [National Center on Universal Design, 2011]). Proponents of Universal Design for Learning, specifically differentiated instruction, will have to think carefully, and perhaps more carefully examine, in a way devoid of ideology, whether differentiated instruction still holds a place in Universal Design for Learning. Until such time as that occurs, policymakers and educators need to be skeptical of what strategies actually work. More scientific, less ideologically driven, practice of what actually works and has been tested in the classroom needs to hold precedence. It remains to be seen how this study, or subsequent studies and shifts, will actually impact UDL or CCSS, if at all, but it does bring to light a potential flaw that may need to be corrected.