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What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
April 10, 2024
What is Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

"UDL is really recognizing that one size fits all does not work."

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is more than just an educational framework; it's a powerful belief in the potential of every student to achieve high levels of learning. Rooted in neuroscience research and supported by numerous federal laws and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UDL is recognized as best practice for teaching in inclusive environments. The essence of UDL lies in creating the right conditions for learning and ensuring that instructional methods are applied intentionally to benefit all learners. As Article 2 of the Convention outlines, universal design involves crafting products, environments, programs, and services to be universally usable, maximizing usability for everyone without the need for adaptations or specialized designs. This commitment reflects a broader vision where educational practices and environments are designed to accommodate everyone's learning needs without constant accommodations and modifications.

So, how can we approach design for all people? One of my favorite analogies to explain the importance of universal design is the dinner party analogy. To ensure there is something for everyone, there are three options to learn more about it (dare I say a buffet of options!!)

  • Listen to episode one of my micro-podcast, The Education Table, which opens with the analogy (but keep listening for some strategies for how to implement UDL!). Every episode is 10 minutes or less!
  • Watch the video, What is UDL (3 minutes)
  • Keep reading below

One-Size-Fits-All Vs. Universal Design

I want to tell you a story about my amazing French-Canadian grandmother. We often had these big family dinners on Sundays where the aunts, uncles, and cousins would come together. And Mémére loved a good ole’ casserole dish. Whether it was shepherd's pie, pot roast and potatoes, or American Chop Suey, everthing, and I mean everything, was made in a single pan. When it was time for dinner, we were given the same portion (read: one-size-fits-all) and told, "You’re going to eat all of that because some people in the world are hungry!" And that is what many of us did. This worked okay at the time because no one in my family had any significant dietary needs. Yes, there were times when I plugged my nose to minimize the taste, and once, I had to choke down curdled milk, but I survived. Here’s the thing: the more we know about dietary variability, the more we know that this practice simply does not work.

Fast-forward to today, and imagine having a bunch of people over the house for dinner and saying, "All right, everyone, look, I have tuna noodle casserole. Here it is," and taking a big scoop and putting it on everyone’s plate. It wouldn't work. We know that many people have allergies or dietary needs. And the goal is not tuna noodle casserole. The goal was never tuna noodle casserole. It was about coming together around a table and enjoying a meal. So, we approach universal design by asking what the goal really is. And based on the variability of all people - who might be excluded if there were no other options and choices?

1 in 5 learners has a disability. 1 in 5 learners is going to have a need for something different. That's 1 out of every 5 people that will be excluded when they are presented with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Because variability is so predictable, we're much more likely to invite people over our homes and have potlucks, buffets, and stations because we know that one-size-fits-all just doesn't fit everyone. The same is true in our classrooms, professional development sessions, and meetings. 

UDL equips students with a "buffet" of options, empowering them to take control of their learning journey. This approach allows learners to select from educational strategies as they progress toward well-defined goals, fostering a sense of ownership and agency. By encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning, UDL reinforces the belief that all students can achieve high levels, echoing the foundational principles outlined earlier. This personalization enhances learning outcomes and deepens students' engagement and commitment to their educational path - and when we apply the strategies consistently, we can begin to co-create classrooms with our learners (potluck!) and find more balance in our lives.

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