Tag Archives: Universal design for Learning

Vulnerability, Education Reform, and Universal Design for Learning

i have recently completed an internship with the Department of Defense Education Activity. As a precaution, this post is my opinion alone and does not necessarily reflect that of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Defense Education Activity.    

Recently, I watched some videos of TED talks given by vulnerability and researcher Brene Brown. Dr. Brown refers to vulnerability not necessarily as a weakness, but as a source of courage.

Vulnerability utilizes very different mechanisms than other responses. It is perhaps because vulnerability involves confronting our fears and differences. Not being able to deal with vulnerability and shame in appropriate ways can be unhealthy. On the other hand, awareness of vulnerabilities and shame can be quite helpful (Brown, 2010, 2012), downloaded from http://www.ted.com/speakers/brene_brown, October 13, 2014).

Education reform is often driven by fear. There is usually a sense that students are somehow not performing up to par in the current system and, thus, the system must be reformed. The reform is often categorical instead of looking at individual students.

Despite its seeming connection to education reform, Universal Design for Learning is concerned with individual learners as well as systematic issues. This more individualized approach may not necessarily provide quite an easy fit for certain education reform efforts, especially with regards to standardization.

Universal Design for Learning does involve emphasis on standards to the extent that students are to get to standards utilizing various ways of knowing / learning to achieve the standard. It is oppositional to certain kinds of standardization, however, in that there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach to getting students to a place where they meet the standard.

Vulnerability impacts Universal Design for Learning in two ways. First, teachers and administrators need to be able to utilize flexibility if they are to use UDL to be most impactful. Secondly, students need to be able to be aware of their strengths and vulnerabilities in learning. Students need to have cultures that value various ways of learning (e.g. the school is aware of Multiple Intelligences, plans its lessons accordingly, and educates students on Multiple Intelligences, Gardner, 1991) and to have awareness of their strengths and weaknesses. Because students may have various ways to learn, and because student needs may vary from school to school and even within schools, it is important to not interfere with instruction as long as students are, in fact, meeting high standards.


What is developmentally appropriate?: The CCSS, early childhood education, and UDL

i recently completed an internship with the Department of Defense Education Activity. This blog is my opinion and does not necessarily reflect that of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of Defense Education Activity. 

The first is more or less an excerpted article by retired education professor Joseph Ricciotti written for major newspapers in Connecticut (Ricciotti, 2014, downloaded from http://dianeravitch.net/2014/10/06/joseph-ricciotti-common-core-takes-the-joy-out-of-learning/ on October 6, 2014). Ricciotti insists that the CCSS does not treat teachers or students with dignity. Among his assertions are that the CCSS is developmentally inappropriate. For example, Ricciotti cites Angie Sullivan, a kindergarten teacher, complaining about how her students are required to write opinion based essays. Sullivan states that the third grade curriculum has essentially been pushed down to kindergarten (Ricciotti, 2014, cited by Ravitch, 2014, downloaded from http://dianeravitch.net/2014/10/06/joseph-ricciotti-common-core-takes-the-joy-out-of-learning/)..

Sullivan is a kindergarten in Nevada and is an anti-Common Core leader in that state. Sullivan cites her concern as being mainly concerned with the appropriateness of the CCSS / Nevada standards (Ravitch, 2014, downloaded October 6, 2014 from http://dianeravitch.net/2014/10/06/nevada-can-a-5-year-old-write-a-fact-and-opinion-paper/).

Sullivan goes on to cite a letter of objections put forward by the Alliance for Childhood (2010, March 2, downloaded October 6, 2014 from http://www.edweek.org/media/joint_statement_on_core_standards.pdf).   The Alliance for Childhood objected to the Common Core based upon four objections. First, the new standards, they believe, will force out play-based instruction for long, didactic instruction, which the Alliance for Childhood believes is inappropriate for young children. Secondly, the Alliance believes that the standards will lead to inappropriate standardized testing. Third, the Alliance believes that the combination of testing and didactic instruction will push out other important learning which children, at this age, need in order to be successful. Finally, the Alliance believes that there is not strong enough evidence from top-performing countries to establish nationwide standards in this area.

The objections of Ricciotti, Sullivan, the Alliance for Childhood, and, presumably, Ravitch related to the developmental appropriateness of CCSS largely turn on cultural arguments. It is most likely true that many American children would not be prepared to meet the standards today. This is because U.S. society has not previously believed that it was developmentally appropriate for young children to undertake such endeavors. However, various societies, whether they are actually formally educating children or not, do have various expectations for children and later as adolescents that differ from society to society (for example, see Berger & Lueckmann, 1966, Lesko, 2001, Rosemund, 2014).  Our understanding of developmental appropriateness, therefore, is mostly culturally based. Even when compared to other countries, the assumption made by the Alliance for Children is somewhat muted because they more or less assume that early learning can only happen in school or school-like settings. There may be alternative explanations such as learning happening from family sources or other informal means of education.

Not only is “developmentally appropriate” a cultural issue, but it is also sometimes central to arguments concerning children with disabilities. For example, who should determine the developmental appropriateness of an intellectually impaired or autistic child? Should professional determination that an education program is inappropriate be the sole determiner of the child’s readiness to pursue education? The field of disability studies has troubled the notion of professional judgment in making assumptions about people with disabilities (e.g. Barnes, Mercer, & Shakespeare, 1999; Campbell & Oliver, 1996; Charlton, 1988). Professionalization has often poised troublesome burdens on people with disabilities especially when it comes to their competency. Professional judgment that insists a certain disabled child is unready for academic concerns can hinder such things as literate and mathematical development. The assumption that the child cannot reach a goal automatically disqualifies the student from reaching the goal. The same issues seem to be in play in the objections raised above.

That being said, it is also important to be cautious about the goals students can reach and to allow those ideas to happen or par with developmentally appropriate milestones as marked by scientific study (developmental psychology, for example). Students must be supported in an environment conducive to how they might learn best and be exposed to a variety of means in order to learn.

Although Universal Design for Learning is incorporated into CCSS as a way to allow students with disabilities to meet the standards (CCSS, 2010), it is appropriate to question whether Universal Design for Learning might be better utilized among a larger audience as intended (National Center on Universal Design for Learning, 2011). UDL can be of use, therefore, in helping a wide variety of students meet goal-based standards, not just students with disabilities. In order to be more fully incorporated, however, a key element of flexibility needs to be incorporated. It is upon this point that opponents of CCSS may have their strongest argument for restricting the ways in which students can learn would hinder the ability of educators to be flexible.

Educators might be better off utilizing the flexibility argument and utilizing any evidence-based research (beyond arguments rooted more in culture) that shows how certain ideas in the CCSS are unworkable from an instructional point of view. However, it is also important that these educators are not dismissing the possibilities or importance of the standards merely because it is new or different. While the CCSS may not be the most flexible document, subsequent reform efforts may find it useful to incorporate flexibility while maintaining and, if applicable, raising standards.

Andrew Bennett

UDL and Education Reform: A Primer

I recently left an internship with the U.S. Department of Defense Educational Activity. Just to be on the safe side, this post does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Department of Defense Educational Activity, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. Opinions expressed here are my own and I am solely responsible for this content.


Education is often in a state of reform especially as society changes over time. In the United States, educational reform has taken its most recent turn in the Common Core Curriculum. Currently, 43 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories participate in the Common Core Curriculum. The Common Core is a set of standards developed utilizing expert opinions about what students should know after each grade level (CCSs, 2014).

These standards reflect a “college and career ready” approach, indicating that students, upon graduation from high school (secondary school) will either be ready for postsecondary schoolwork without remediation or will be able to successfully complete vocational training and be able to carry out the career of their choice within skilled trades (CCSS, 2014).

These standards currently fall into two categories. The first category is standards for mathematics. The second standard is language arts. Language arts, it should be noted, has under the Common Core become an expanded category. Traditionally, the subject of language arts has been thought to encompass writing, reading, and the study of literature. The most significant change in this subject, under Common Core, is that literature has become an expanded category. Now, non-fiction literature, including historical documents and technical literature have an expanded presence in the standards especially in the later grades. These two areas were chosen because they are deemed to be building blocks for skills needed in a variety of areas that can be spread throughout the grade levels. For example, mathematics complements sciences. Eventually, there will be more standards for other subjects. Some states, in fact, are currently going about creating College and Career Ready standards in subjects such as science and the arts (CCSS, 2014).

Although the Common Core has proved to be a controversial issue domestically (e.g.. Oklahoma has pulled out of Common Core and Louisiana is considering it while other states never joined and with one state, Minnesota, declining to participate in mathematics standards and with opposition from various conservative and liberal factions), it does lay groundwork to increase expectations of all student groups, including students with disabilities and students who do not speak English as their first language.

One of the suggested ways to do this is through “instructional supports for learning” (CCSS, 2014) “Instructional supports” are parallel to the concept of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) (CCSS, 2014). However, the National Universal Design for Learning Center points out that Universal Design for Learning actually goes beyond the implementation suggestions laid out by Common Core. Rather, the National UDL Center suggests that UDL actually extends to all learners.

Universal Design for Learning is a set of instructional strategies, supports, and evaluations that are designed to enable all learners to meet goals. Education reformers often support their argument by defining UDL’s codification under the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-135, 110th Congress), 2008. This definition calls for flexibility in presenting information to students and in ways of having them demonstrate mastery of material and reducing barriers to instruction and providing appropriate accommodations to students who need them. It is emphasized that UDL is an evidence-based strategy (P..l. 110-135, 110th U.S. Congress). Evidence-based strategies are those driven by “hard” data (i.e. studies incorporating scientific method and quantitative evidence).

UDL’s roots are rooted in psychology and neuroscience 9e.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). These studies were made possible by examining how brain pathways work. Further evidence established pathways for learning (Tootell, Rappas, Kwong, Malach, Bor Brady, Rosen, & Belliveau 1995; Wallis & Bulthoff, 1999). Because tasks are individuated within the brain, people do not process information in exactly the same way (Schlaug, Jancke, Huang, & Steinmetz, 1995).

Learning has been revealed to be 1) modular, 2) distributed, 3) parallel. And 4) heterarchical (Meyer & Rose, 2005). Learning takes place as various modules in the brain interact (Gevins & Smith, 2000; Habib, McIntosh, & Tulving, 2000; Rypma & D’Esposito, 1999). Additional theoretical support for this way of understanding learning pathways comes from Howard Gardner’s (Gardner, 1983, 1999) work on multiple intelligences which indicates that there are various kinds of intelligences that a person may possess. According to Gardner, individuals will learn better if information is presented a variety of ways because such instruction accounts for a greater number of “kinds” of learners. For example, some individuals may learn best verbally, some through kinetic movement or by doing, some visually, some through auditory means, and so forth.

UDL best supports curriculum in three ways. First, it utilizes multiple means of representation across learning styles. Secondly, it allows students to express themselves in multiple ways while holding to standards. Finally, it allows for multiple means of engagement through a variety of means (Meyer & Rose, 2005).

Another way that UDL impacts curriculum is through deemphasizing (although not necessarily waiving) certain presentational elements (e.g. books and lectures) in favor of other kinds of learning practices. These practices contain built-in models of performance, opportunities for supported practice, immediate feedback, and communities of practices (Dalton, Pisha, Coyne, Eagleton, & Dreycher, 2001).

Feedback, in form of assessment, can be an important issue in UDL and is of particular concern in the age of education reform. UDL principles indicate that there should be some level of flexibility built into assessments. UDL’s emphasis on technology, however, can actually provide for a greater level of deeper assessment than traditional exams, however, as students can be evaluated through a variety of conditions which goes beyond what traditional exams can measure (Meyer & Rose, 2005; Russell & Haney, 1997, 2000).

Of course, individuals with the most severe cognitive disabilities may need alternative assessment in order to meet goals. One way, currently being led by a collaborative group of academic, non-profit, and corporate researchers, hosted by the University of Kansas, is working on one particularly UDL based alternative assessment called the Dynamic Learning Maps Assessment. This assessment recognizes that learning pathways, especially within this group, are not linear (Dynamic Learning Maps, 2011-2014). An example of a learning map can be seen here (www.dynamiclearningmaps.org/content/what-learning-map).

Now that we have a primer in UDL and educational reforms, we can discuss more substantial issues in UDL and education reform. This content will be coming in the following weeks. Until that time, please use the comment tool for your questions, opinions, and feedback.

Andrew Bennett