Imagine walking into a classroom and seeing everyone engaged in learning, where some students are working in a group while others work independently. Some are sitting on bean bag chairs while others are standing while they learn. Maybe some students prefer to type while others write by hand or on a tablet, and some read traditional textbooks while others use e-readers.
And the teacher isn’t losing their mind while trying to keep every individual student on the same page at the same time.
My point is — if you are looking at a traditional classroom where all of the students are sitting forward attentively listening, you have the wrong idea on what inclusion really is.
[An audio version of this story is available at the end]
Last month, my story, “Dumping Kids with IEPs into General Education Classrooms is not Inclusion” went viral. It was shared and discussed by educators, many from paraprofessionals to teachers, and administrators even saw my perspective and admitted there is a problem.
That our system of educating is not working.
That all students are suffering, not just those with disabilities.
My post was even shared by principals and superintendents across the nation.
The big takeaway was that we need more training, more support staff, deeper considerations on the framework and participants, and to question the way we approach learning and inclusion practices. But what is the answer? I received countless tags, comments, and e-mails asking me, how would I solve the problem?
Well first, consider this — Diversity and disabilities have contributed to an ever-changing student population that isn’t being properly served or supported, and as time goes on, there will be even more diversity and disabilities in every classroom. Every classroom.
The CDC estimated that one in six children have a developmental disability and that 26% of adults in the United States have some type of disability. We can all agree that there are a lot of people, enough for every teacher to encounter plenty of students with disabilities throughout their career.
A big theme that arose from my story regards teachers who have the attitude that IEPs or students with disabilities are not part of their job description—and they are wrong. Educating all students is everyone’s job.
If you work in education and think you are going to somehow get around having students with disabilities in your classroom, you are in the wrong profession. There may not even be a profession for anyone wishing to avoid persons with disabilities as the world evolves and heads in the direction of accessibility. But back to the resolution…
First, smaller class sizes, hands-on training, and in-class support are needed without a doubt. But we still need to question our approach to learning.
With that said, Universal Design for Learning can change the world of education for students of all abilities in the General Education and Inclusion classroom settings. Since it could be done without a complete curriculum change and is more of an approach, we don’t need to hold our breath while waiting to abolish common core and is a fairly easy adaptation to make in your own classroom. Or in a whole district. It only requires you to forget everything you think you know about teaching general education students and to start over in a new frame of thinking that considers all students. All backgrounds. All abilities.
UDL is currently trending in higher education because the rates of students enrolling with disabilities are high and the amount of students self-identifying are low. If students cannot be successful, they don’t come back and when they don’t come back the system has failed and enrollment goes down. When enrollment goes down, the alarms go off and changes are made to bring students back. The concept of retaining students is unique to higher education but the need to deliver meaningful educational experiences should be unified across all ranks of schooling from K-12 and higher education, vocational, and so on.
What I love about UDL as an educator is that it forces you to be inclusive and grow professionally, also, the need to accommodate everyone is easier than changing to only accommodate a few students. This approach can ease the stress of integrating disabled and non-disabled students in the same setting, especially in places where there is no special education possible or where complying with the least restrictive environment (LRE) is determined for students.
While K-12 schools will always need to make additional accommodations such as (but not limited to) 1:1 support and scheduled therapies, the aspects of delivering lessons to students is still in the teacher’s control. Teachers can decide and plan how they deliver and assess their own lesson plans which leave the door open for an approach like UDL.
So how does it work? Well, first be flexible and transparent about your expectations and the learning objectives to your students. Universal Design for Learning is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that considers giving all students an equal opportunity to succeed.
Next, think about how you can implement the following into a new classroom environment (both literally and figuratively) that focuses on each individual student’s experiences as opposed to theories on what a group of textbook “average students” need.
Universal Design relies on three main principles.
- Provide multiple means of representation and give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge. What does that mean? Try a variety of ways to deliver the same lesson plan to engage learners whether it be visual, verbal, audio, or even physical.
- Provide multiple modes of expression with alternatives for students to demonstrate what they know. Understand that every student is unique. Some are better writers, speakers, and even test takers. But their strengths and weaknesses are all going to be different, therefore, focussing on variety levels the playing field for all students. Give them different ways to prove they learned the objectives.
- Allow for multiple means of engagement and offer appropriate challenges to increase motivation. This is where flexible tools, support, and individual academic levels and challenges come into play and where learning is fun and most flexible. This is especially where all students can benefit and experience a maximized opportunity to learn at their own pace and engage their interests.
In a Harvard University article, “The Importance of Universal Design for Learning,” Eva Chen stated, “UDL is the recognition that a standardized learning environment is no longer productive; it is vital — and, with today’s technology, possible — to acknowledge differences among students.”
UDL is Inclusion. While it was designed with disabled and underserved students in mind, it is also the forgotten framework to support and nurture all students in all classrooms where buzzwords like “inclusion” are being implemented blindly. Dumping students with IEPs into general education classrooms without considering an approach like UDL is like hosting a pizza party and only serving potato chips.
The biggest known obstacle in getting educators to positively participate follows the complaint about UDL being more work for teachers [and administrators] to learn and adopt changes. But consider this: Is it better to put the effort into improving yourself and your overall classroom as a whole to benefit every student, or, is it more productive to keep complaining that you can’t manage all of the IEPs and underserved students in your classroom?
An audio version of this story is available below; This audio link is private and can only be accessed from this article.
Capp, Mathew James  “The effectiveness of universal design for learning: a meta-analysis of literature between 2013 and 2016, International Journal of Inclusive Education,” 21:8, 791–807, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2017.1325074.
CAST, “5 Examples of Universal Design for Learning in the Classroom.” Retrieved from Understood. org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [2018 May 24]. “Disability Impacts All of Us,” Disability and Health Data System (DHDS). Retrieved from dhds.cdc.gov
Chen, Eva [Dec 20, 2008] “The Importance of Universal Design for Learning: Eliminating barriers in the design of the learning environment to make curriculum accessible for all.” Harvard Graduate School of Education, Usable Knowledge. gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/08/12/importance-universal-design-learning
Popham, James W., “Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality.” Vol. 56, pp. 8–15, Retrieved from ASCD.Org
Rao, K., & Meo, G. . Using Universal Design for Learning to Design Standards-Based Lessons. SAGE Open. doi.org/10.1177/2158244016680688
UDL: Principles and Practice , National Center for Universal Design for Learning, Retrieved from YouTube: youtube.com/watch?v=pGLTJw0GSxk