Jenna Gravel, Senior Research Scientist at CAST, and Nicole TuckerSmith, Founder and CEO of Lessoncast, explain how the Universal Design for Learning framework is ever evolving to address barriers and to create a more equitable classroom for all students. They also offer advice for educators who are just starting to implement UDL (time: 10:11).
Questions asked of Jenna Gravel and Nicole TuckerSmith in this audio:
- You both have a long history with UDL, not only implementing the framework in a school environment but also working with CAST in some capacity. Nicole, you have been providing professional development on how to implement UDL in the classroom for many years. From your perspective, please describe changes you have noticed in UDL.
Jenna Gravel, EdD
Senior Research Scientist
Nicole TuckerSmith, MT
Founder & CEO
Transcript: Jenna Gravel, EdD, and Nicole TuckerSmith, MT
Narrator: Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Creating an Equitable Classroom
Jenna Gravel, Senior Research Scientist at CAST, and Nicole TuckerSmith, Founder and CEO of Lessoncast, explain how the Universal Design for Learning framework is ever evolving to address barriers and to create a more equitable classroom for all students. They also offer advice for educators who are just starting to implement UDL.
This interview is brought to you by the IRIS Center, a national center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.
Question 1: Jenna and Nicole, you both have a long history with UDL, not only implementing the framework in a school environment but also working with CAST in some capacity. Nicole, you have been providing professional development on how to implement UDL in the classroom for many years. From your perspective, please describe changes you have noticed in UDL.
Nicole: One major change I’ve noticed around the application of UDL is really how UDL is applied as a lever to address certain challenges or issues within our teaching and learning designs. When I first was engaging with UDL and leading professional development related to UDL, we were really focused mostly on inclusion, including students, especially students with special needs. How do we remove barriers? How do we optimize design? How do we think about what may be essential for some learners and beneficial for all and design it into the systems? And lately, our organization gets the most requests to apply UDL in their learning designs because they’re struggling with issues around disproportionality, particularly with African American, Black, Latino, multilingual learners being over-identified in areas that require educator judgment. And at the root of it, the issue is because a difference is seen as a deficit. And I’m now working with districts and seeing them apply UDL in a way to help educators examine maybe the barrier isn’t in the learner. Maybe the barrier is in the design of our learning space. We’re working to help educators make that shift. And that is different. These are not conversations that I remember having back in 2005. And so I see that as a big shift, and I’m hoping that it’ll continue in that direction so that we will embrace variability, not just as it relates to ability, but also identity, and look at barriers that may be more challenging for people to have conversations around, specifically as it relates to individual and systemic bias. So that’s a shift that I’ve seen in how folks are trying to apply UDL to truly design equitable learning spaces.
The shift is to think about, “How are people and cultures being represented in the spaces?” So I can think about different formats of options of perception for a book, but also what book is this? Who is represented in this book? A lot of times you’ll hear concerns about, “Well, students—they don’t want to read.” What are you asking them to read? Because most of the reading lists are skewed. They prioritize white European history, and it’s just not inclusive. It’s not representative. And then we are frustrated with kids for not being engaged when this doesn’t reflect their reality. And we’re doing a disservice to students who always see their reality reflected. So that idea of representation would be a shift. Also, bias in assessment is rampant. Which forms of assessment are we prioritizing, even in how we ask the questions? For example, I was working with a teacher, and it was a standardized test. There was a math question about a loaf of bread, and the student asked her, “What’s a loaf?” Because he eats flatbread. But now he’s being penalized on this assessment question because the person who writes the assessment thinks everybody eats loaves of bread, but most of the world eats flatbread. And so those kinds of considerations need to be coming up when you’re using the UDL Guidelines to prompt you to think about truly creating equitable learning experiences.
Question 2 (Narrator): Jenna, in addition to implementing UDL in the classroom, you have been involved with some of the research behind UDL and were greatly involved in the development of the original UDL Guidelines. Can you describe some of the changes you have noticed in the UDL framework across time?
Jenna: I think it’s just become so much more explicit and so much more intentional that UDL is a framework for designing more inclusive, more equitable learning environments. So through my work at CAST, we have the opportunity to partner with and support lots of educators as they’re working to learn about UDL and start to apply it to their practice. And we’ve learned from some educators that by learning about UDL, they’re starting to kind of see themselves in a different way, and they’re starting to tell us that, “I’ve never thought of myself as a designer, but UDL has helped me to think of myself as an educator but also as a designer.” And it’s been so interesting to us to learn that UDL has this potential to prompt educators to think about their professional identities in new ways and really experiment with that identity as being a designer. And recognizing that there are certain decisions that they can make around reducing barriers and increasing access that they have control over and that they can kind of experiment with and wrestle with some of the problems of practice that they might be encountering in their classrooms. And that UDL can be this framework to support them. So I think that’s another piece of how UDL might be changing. I think that focus on design was always there, but it really has become so much more explicit, and it’s so exciting to see teachers now coming to kind of see themselves as designers in this process of learning about UDL.
And then I also see the UDL framework itself as an iterative process. We are constantly evolving the framework based on new research, based on different perspectives that stakeholders and practitioners are sharing with us. We don’t imagine UDL or the associated UDL Guidelines to be a static document or a static framework or a static tool. We constantly need to be evolving and iterating based on new learning from research, based on new learning from individuals who are in the communities trying UDL out in their practice.
Question 3 (Narrator): Jenna, it can seem overwhelming when first considering how to apply the UDL principles and Guidelines to learning experiences. What advice would you offer educators?
Jenna: I think from kind of an educator perspective or a practitioner perspective, imagining UDL as an iterative process is just such a great way to think about experimenting with UDL. I think sometimes there can be this pressure on educators to start applying UDL to their practice, and [they] get overwhelmed with these nine guidelines and 31 checkpoints. And it feels a little bit overwhelming. But I think approaching UDL as this iterative process where we’re constantly identifying the goal, but then experimenting. What are the different UDL Guidelines and checkpoints that can reduce those barriers and increase access? And getting into kind of that playful, almost experimentation mode with UDL, I think, can be such a great way to start out with UDL and take away some of that pressure that you feel like you have to do UDL in a specific way.
Question 4 (Narrator): Nicole, do you have additional advice for educators who are beginning to implement UDL?
Nicole: I think also at the core of applying the UDL framework is this opportunity for whomever is designing the learning environment or the learning experience to recognize barriers that aren’t barriers for them. That’s really where the Guidelines and the checkpoints come in is to consider barriers that aren’t issues for you. Because left to our own devices, we’ll design the best experiences based on what’s comfortable to us or based on what we experienced in school or just the way we’ve always done things. And so that process of really widening our vision and considering things that might not be barriers for us and also considering aspects of variability that might be unfamiliar to us, that’s part of the beauty around UDL. But it’s also an iterative process because you’re now having to take on this idea of, “Okay, let’s try this. I may not know why this is essential for some, but let’s try this. Then get a different result. Then reflect on those results and iterate and refine.” And it’s always going to be that type of process whenever you’re trying something that is unfamiliar to you. Where we have challenges in education is by thinking that we can be stagnant with anything. We can’t prepare students for our past. We’re helping them be ready for their future. And that’s going to require iteration. That’s going to require growth. That’s going to require trying things and getting a different result and then reflecting on that.
Narrator: Thank you for listening to this IRIS Center interview. For more information about the IRIS Center and its resources, visit us at www.iriscenter.com or https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/.