Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Overview and Future Direction

September 7, 2023, The IRIS Center

Lindsay Jones, Chief Executive Officer of CAST, explains the benefits of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In addition, she discusses how UDL is embedded in educational policy and legislation, as well as the future direction of UDL (time: 12:51).

Questions asked of Lindsay Jones in this audio:

  1. You have extensive experience advocating for and designing systems that include all learners. But for those of us who could use a little more background knowledge, can you describe Universal Design for Learning and the benefits it presents for students and teachers?
  2. You mentioned that UDL is a framework that helps teachers design their classroom environments so that they can reach all students. This sounds like it may be difficult, being that all learners are so different. Can you discuss how UDL addresses learner variability?
  3. Another term that we hear a lot when discussing UDL is learner agency. How does UDL promote learner agency?
  4. I’d like to turn for a moment to policy. How is UDL embedded in educational policy and legislation?
  5. CAST has been a leading organization for inclusive, accessible education for all students. Can you discuss the future direction of UDL?

Transcript: Lindsay E. Jones, JD

Narrator: Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Overview and Future Direction

Lindsay Jones, Chief Executive Officer of CAST, explains the benefits of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). In addition, she discusses how UDL is embedded in educational policy and legislation, as well as the future direction of UDL.

This interview is brought to you by the IRIS Center, a national center funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

Question 1: Lindsay, you have extensive experience advocating for and designing systems that include all learners. But for those of us who could use a little more background knowledge, can you describe Universal Design for Learning and the benefits it presents for students and teachers?

Lindsay Jones: UDL is an approach. It’s a framework. It’s based on research in neuroscience about how our brains learn. And it helps educators intentionally design learning experiences and learning environments so they’re accessible, they’re available, and they honor student agency. They empower students to understand how they learn.

UDL benefits students and teachers in some really important ways. When students are included in classrooms, specifically students with disabilities, but also students with a range of issues who we typically think of as at the margins of our education system, there are great benefits for all of those students. And I spent a long time pushing for policies, along with the whole community, to make sure that our system could be designed to include students. But that means that we have to change the design of what teachers are able to do, what their environments are structured like, how we’re supporting them, so they can support all those students in the classroom. Universal Design for Learning, it’s a framework. It helps them design their environments so they can reach all those students in the classroom. And we know that that’s why teachers get into teaching—to reach students and to help them grow. So I think it helps teachers because, currently, we have a system where they’ve got a classroom full of students that they have to teach, and those students have a range of needs. UDL can help teachers design the learning environment and the learning experiences to maximize that for all of those students. And so then the benefit for students is clear. They can actually access the learning. There aren’t barriers to what they can achieve in the classroom. It’s the next step of, “How do we create supportive structures and environments in schools to meet the promise of inclusion?”

Question 2 (Narrator): You mentioned that UDL is a framework that helps teachers design their classroom environments so that they can reach all students. This sounds like it may be difficult, being that all learners are so different. Can you discuss how UDL addresses learner variability?

Lindsay Jones: Learner variability is so important for Universal Design for Learning and for all of education and workforce and what we know about the world because what science tells us is that brains are as different as fingerprints. And if you know that going in, then you can intentionally design for that learner variability. You know that all the students in the classroom will be different. They’ll hear, they’ll interpret and perceive data and information differently, they’ll engage with it differently. So learner variability is the core concept that science has given us to say, “We know that every brain is different. What can we control in the environment?” Well, we can control the design of the curriculum. We can control the tools that we use in the classroom. We can control the different flexible ways we present content and the ways that we allow it to come in and allow students to engage with it. It’s important for learning in general and it’s important for systems to be designed with the assumption that each learner is different. And they’re not designed that way in our schools right now. They’re more designed toward a concept that some students will be really smart in your classroom, some students will not, and there is a big sort of messy middle. And we know that from brain science that that is not true. So we have to prepare teachers to have the reality of what’s in their classrooms. Learner variability is a concept that we must understand, accept, and build and design for.

Question 3 (Narrator): Another term that we hear a lot when discussing UDL is learner agency. How does UDL promote learner agency?

Lindsay Jones: UDL promotes this core concept of learner agency. Sometimes we call it expert learning. It’s really about empowerment. It’s really about developing learners that can effectively operate in a dynamic, information-based society, which demands lifelong learning. And when you think about how fast technology has changed society, the environment students are going to move into and have to manage their whole life, they need to know how they learn best. And learner agency is about developing that self-awareness in students. We know that we can teach that to students. And Universal Design for Learning, as a framework, is focused on ensuring educators can help students become aware of their learning, so they can choose how they want to learn in different environments. And that’s a skill that we know they’re going to need their entire life span.

Question 4 (Narrator): I’d like to turn for a moment to policy. How is UDL embedded in educational policy and legislation?

Lindsay Jones: Universal Design for Learning has been embedded throughout federal education policy and many state laws in the United States. In addition, most recently, it has been adopted by several global agencies, including USAID and UNESCO. So first, in terms of nationally in the United States, Universal Design for Learning appears in the Higher Education Act; the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is the largest education law for K-12 systems; the Perkins Act, which is critical because it focuses a lot on career tech and other types of career prep for students and others. And then, in addition, several states have embedded UDL either in guidance or in state statutes. So it’s used and cited throughout legislation in the United States. And then, as I mentioned earlier, globally, for many years, the global education environment has focused on a concept that is termed “inclusion,” inclusive education, which is a little more broadly defined than we look at it here in the United States because it’s not just based in disability; it’s based in ethnicity, culture, race, gender. It’s a very broad definition of inclusion. And I think it’s no surprise that you see these important international global agencies, UNESCO and USAID, include Universal Design for Learning in their grantmaking, in their goals. And that’s because this framework, although it’s rooted in disability, goes so far beyond it. So Universal Design for Learning is well-embedded in policy and legislation. And as a result, I think you’re seeing its increased use not just in the United States but throughout the world.

Question 5 (Narrator): CAST has been a leading organization for inclusive, accessible education for all students. Can you discuss the future direction of UDL?

Lindsay Jones: The future of Universal Design for Learning is focused on the broadest definitions of inclusion. It is focused, and will be continuing to focus, on changing the structures in systems that hold people back from learning. And so I think the next 10 years of Universal Design for Learning will see more focus on three things. First, culture, ethnicity, race, ways in which the framework can help educators who have lots of different students in their classrooms and who need to have multiple means offered to those students as they all try to reach a similar goal. And there are many hidden barriers in the way, not just disability. So though Universal Design for Learning was rooted and began 40 years ago with a focus on “We don’t think students are broken, we think environments can change. The environment around that student is actually not well designed. It’s broken.” And that was the theory of it. And it really was looking at students with very significant cognitive and physical disabilities. But now, fast-forward, we are seeing that there are barriers all throughout that many people who are teaching today or are creating the systems or embedded in systems aren’t seeing. So the future of Universal Design for Learning first will be helping individuals and systems meet a much broader definition of inclusion.

I think the second area is the rapid technology that we’re seeing in artificial intelligence. It is coming into education at breakneck speed. And we know that many pits and downfalls can come from poorly designed technology. And I think Universal Design for Learning must be included, and the principles and frameworks have to be embedded in any new technology that comes forward. That’s a definite part of the future.

And the third thing I’d say is I deeply believe that Universal Design for Learning will help us convince more people that we don’t need to rank and sort our students, and that that is not helping us to achieve [laughs] the goals that we have and prepare the workforce of the future and the citizens of the future. Fundamentally, every individual has strengths. Every individual has weaknesses. And in fact, in a workforce environment, we don’t even worry about that. We want certain things for certain jobs. Every job is different. And yet in school, we still have a structure that’s very rigid and labels and sorts. And so I think the third focus for the future of UDL is to help people change the mindset that some of the kids in your class will never achieve, and some of the kids will achieve amazing things, and most of them will just get by. I think UDL holds promise that everyone is unique, and we need all of those unique capabilities to attack some of these huge problems that we face as a society.

There’s one trend currently in education that I think UDL is uniquely positioned to amplify, to help, and that’s social emotional learning. We have seen parents, educators, everyone recognize the mental health concerns and issues that our students are bringing into the schools. And we have seen great progress in the adoption of social emotional learning. And I do think that’s one area where Universal Design for Learning, and the science behind it, always has embedded the affective networks of the brain. So the one trend area that I’d look at in our immediate sights for where we should be naturally embedding UDL more is for districts that are using social emotional learning, making sure that those types of curriculum they’re using are universally designed. It’s just a really natural fit because of the way that UDL embeds throughout the affective networks of the brain as well.

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/.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email