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Accelerating Learning for All with UDL

FEBRUARY 9, 2021

Students come to the classroom with diverse backgrounds, needs, learning styles, interests and abilities. Teachers can maximize learning for all students with Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Thinking Maps supports the UDL framework by making learning more accessible for everyone.

What is Universal Design for Learning?

UDL is an approach to instruction that is designed to remove barriers to learning for all students. It takes its inspiration from the concept of Universal Design in architecture, engineering and User Interface design. A Universal Design is one that eliminates barriers for people with disabilities and also provides benefits for everyone. For example:

  • Adding a ramp for building entry eliminates a barrier (stairs) for people in wheelchairs, but also is useful for people pushing strollers or people who are simply tired.
  • Closed Captioning for television makes programming accessible for the deaf, but also is helpful for people watching TV in loud rooms, people who don’t want to disturb their housemates, and people who are having trouble understanding accents on an international program.
  • Accessible door handles make it possible for people with dexterity challenges to open a door and are also great for people who have their hands full.

The hallmark of Universal Design isinclusivity. Rather than creating “separate but equal” accommodations for people with disabilities, a Universal Design mentality seeks solutions that are better for everyone. UDL applies this same philosophy to teaching and learning. UDL seeks to eliminate barriers for students with learning differences, physical or cognitive challenges, or attention or sensory processing issues, while maximizing the learning potential foreverystudent.

The UDL framework was developed by the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) in the 1990s. Since then, its influence has grown as educators and policymakers have recognized its importance and impact. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includesnumerous references to UDLand encourages states to select or design assessments, technologies and teaching practices aligned with UDL principles. UDL works hand-in-hand with aMulti-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) initiativeby supporting the requirement that teachers provide high-quality Tier 1 instruction for all students.

Applying the Principles of UDL in the Classroom

TheUDL frameworkprovides guidelines for designing curricula and learning activities that will make learning more accessible for all students. To achieve this, UDL calls for multiple ways for students to engage with learning materials and each other. This includes multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression.

  • Engagementaddresses the “why” of learning, including factors that make learning personally interesting, relevant and satisfying for students. Examples include offering students choice in learning materials or activities, designing learning activities around student interests, using a mastery-based approach to curriculum design, optimizing the challenge level of activities for each student, and providing options in how students engage with peers during the learning process.
  • Representationaddresses the “what” of learning, including the actual materials and content students will interact with. It includes options for perception (such as providing information in both visual and auditory formats), language and symbols (such as vocabulary development and support for non-native speakers) and comprehension.
  • Action and Expressionaddress the “how” of learning, including how students engage with the learning environment and express what they know. It includes options for communicating ideas, demonstrating proficiency, interacting with learning tools and monitoring progress towards learning goals.

A Tree Map showing the three branches of UDL: Engagement, Representation, and Action and Expression.

Thinking Maps and UDL

Thinking Maps aligns with the principles of UDL by making learning more accessible for all students. Here are some ways in which Thinking Maps aligns with UDL.

  • Universal: The Maps are used by all students in all content areas across the school. They provide support to help students with learning or language difference access grade-level content, but are not a separate “intervention” activity used only with specific students.
  • Flexible: The Maps provide students with lots of choice in how they present their ideas and demonstrate learning. For example, students can use pictures, simple words or full sentences in constructing their Map, choose the type of Map number of elements needed to express their ideas, and can personalize it with color and choice of materials. Maps can be created in digital and analog formats.
  • Adaptable: Maps are appropriate for students of all ages and ability levels, from PreK students creating simple Maps with manipulatives to college students using multiple Maps to explore complex ideas and connections. Teachers can provide more or less scaffolding depending on student needs, and Maps can be created individually or collaboratively depending on how students prefer to work.
  • Supportive: Thinking Maps provides support for all students as they develop cognitive, metacognitive and self-regulatory skills. The Maps make thinking visible, helping students understand and activate their own cognitive processes and providing a tool for goal setting, planning, regulation and self-assessment.

To learn more about how Thinking Maps is used with a UDL framework, check out the February Navigator series in the Thinking Maps Learning Community (TMLC):

Not a TMLC subscriber? Contact your Thinking Maps representative to get access to Navigator, Map Builder, Map Gallery and online professional learning courses.

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