Dr. Elizabeth Berquist, Assistant Professor of Special Education at Towson Univeristy

Ask Liz Berquist about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and you can hear the excitement in her voice. UDL works, and Berquist wants her fellow educators and parents to know about it. As a leader in the UDL field, her mission is to spread the word about how this philosophy for curriculum design provides a framework for success for all learners, from preschool to college, from the special education classroom to the gifted classroom. Maryland Learning Links caught up with Dr. Berquist to hear how implementing UDL is not as hard as many may think.

What is the history behind UDL?

During the 1980’s, educators at CAST began to examine their conceptions of disability.  The group began with a focus on helping individuals adapt or “fix” themselves, essentially working toward overcoming their disabilities in order to succeed in general education settings.  They quickly determined that this focus was too narrow and did not consider the important interaction between the individual and his or her environment.  UDL evolved from this work and CAST pioneered the UDL framework.

How has UDL changed since its early days?

It had changed so much. Now it’s not a special education initiative at all. It’s actually something we look at in general education. UDL has connections to architecture, in universal design, which focuses on access. Universal Design for Learning extends this thinking by building on our knowledge of cognitive neuroscience and encourages educators to think beyond access and consider how careful design of the learning environment can support variability.

What role does Maryland play in UDL and its development?

We’re the first state in country to have legislation about UDL. By the 2014-15 school year, all superintendents are required to make sure everything is looked at through a UDL lens, meaning UDL must be used in the development of curriculum and selection of instructional materials. Regulations include the integration of UDL principles into the development of curriculum, instructional materials, instruction, professional development and student assessment by 2014. Also, UDL is formally defined in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.

How does it differ from other types of curriculum/curriculum planning?

It’s not something that you buy. It’s not a checklist. It’s a philosophy for instructional design. It’s a way of thinking about teaching and learning, putting in flexible options from the beginning to accommodate all students. A one size fits all model doesn’t work. No longer do we say, “If I have a kid who is different, I’ll adjust the curriculum or lesson after the fact.” We think about the kids in the margins and design around them; what’s good for them is what’s good for everybody. Variability is normal; it’s a good thing.

How does UDL benefit learners?

When I go into classrooms and see UDL at work, kids are more engaged. They are not sitting and they are not passive.  We know so much more than we ever did about engagement. We know how important it is to increase and retain interest.
A UDL classroom looks messy at times. There are things going on. Everyone is not doing the same thing. There are more choices, more tools for students to use. There may be kids using technology while others use pen and paper. Ultimately, this leads to higher levels of engagement for everyone and opportunities for participation, so that in UDL classrooms I see students with disabilities included more frequently.  A child with disabilities and a gifted child can exist in same classroom. It’s scary for parents of a child with a disability to think of the child being included, and for parents of gifted children it’s scary that the gifted child won’t be with other gifted kids. In a classroom where the UDL framework is used to build the learning environment, there are multiple pathways that support all learners.   With UDL, kids with lots of different backgrounds and skills can exist in the same world. We don’t have to compartmentalize. It’s like the real world. You also can see multiples educators in the classroom at the same time. You get more when you work together.

What are some examples of UDL in instruction?

Let’s take history for example. Teachers start with a standard.  When you are working within the UDL framework, you need to ask yourself, is this a method standard or a content standard.  In a classroom designed using UDL, these are separated and the means are not embedded into the goal.    If you’re embracing the UDL framework, you can have more ways to tell about the Civil War. If your goal is to have students tell you the causes of the Civil War, they should be able to get info from a video, a book, going online, among others. That’s a very different goal from just reading. The UDL approach includes kid without reading ability.

Let’s take another example for younger kids.  In a preschool classroom, you might have a station for coloring, but you are going to have a kid who doesn’t want to color; they may not want to color right then or they may not want to color what the teacher is offering.  So you need to think about what your learning goal is – is it coloring, is it doing something related to a broader topic, or is it following directions?  Define what your learning goal is, and then have flexibility – give choice of what is colored or when.  Or if it is following directions in general, avoid a power-struggle and give the child a choice of activities – maybe from a menu of options.  It’s much easier to get the child to follow through on the direction of “pick an activity” versus arguing over whether they do the only choice you give.

How does UDL connect with the Common Core?

UDL is aligned with everything we are doing. The ‘what?’ in our classroom are the College and Career Readiness Standards.  People say, “How am I going to teach the Standards?” The ‘how?’ is through the UDL framework. UDL helps establish multiple pathways to different levels of engagement. I would hope that students get to learn the relevancy of why they are doing something: “I’m solving a real problem” that the teacher has rooted in College and Career Readiness skills.  That’s what we’re supposed to do with common core. UDL forces you to do that when you do it well.

Does UDL only benefit children?

UDL supports preschool students all the way through adult learners. One challenge in higher education is student attrition. We have learned from students that instruction may not be meeting their needs. UDL is a way to redesign the learning environment in higher education to reach those students in the gray zone who need more support. A simple example is for an instructor to assign a note taker for every class and have them post the notes whether people want them or not, accepting that people take in and process information in different ways.

How do teachers benefit from UDL?

There are tools and strategies you can put in your classroom every day, including multiple modes of response. The only way to respond shouldn’t be talking. If the goal isn’t public speaking that day, why can’t students use white boards and markers? A cell phone to text an answer? We want to help students use tools to figure out how they learn the best.  There’s a teacher that I work with that uses flip cards in red, yellow and green. Red means “I need help right now”; yellow means “I need help but can keep working”; and green means “I can keep working.” This offers another way for students to communicate without having to automatically disrupt the flow of the lesson.

Isn’t UDL a lot more work for the teacher?

UDL is really a framework on which you can hang all the other good things you do. If you know positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS), that connects to UDL. If you’re talking about evidenced-based practices, that fits with the UDL framework. It really helps you clean house. You are probably doing these great things that are not connected. UDL helps you connect them.

If you’re just beginning to think about UDL don’t get hyper-focused on adapting every lesson and unit. Think about your learning environment first. You don’t need to go back and revise every lesson. It’s bigger than a lesson or a unit. See what options you have to support students. What do you have for access? If you present something visually, do you have something auditory too?

The first thing to consider, before you even think about the work piece, is your personal beliefs and knowledge. UDL is really forcing people to make a shift. We talk about UDL as a conceptual change. If you’re a teacher who thinks, “This kid has this, I need to fix/change him,” you need to change your focus to looking at the learning environment.  Instead of planning a lesson, then going back and modifying for student A, B or C, you modify your learning environment from the beginning. You start to think about things you can before you start the unit.  So it is less about being more work, but changing work habits.

What should parents know about UDL?

Parents need to know that UDL doesn’t look like what they may have traditional thought of as what happens in a classroom. Some parents, when they go to see kids at school, think rows of seats and folded hands. With UDL, it looks like the student is doing more work than the teacher. The teacher plans multiple pathways for students and faciliates learning- this is a departure from the traditional stand and deliver model.

Are there opportunities for professional development?

We found that professional development as a one-shot experience isn’t sustainable. UDL is a big thing. You can’t learn it in a one-day professional development session. There needs to be ongoing support and opportunities to learn.   CAST is working on a coaching guide to help support long term UDL implementation. We really want professional learning communities that are coached and span over a year or more. The objective is to train people to facilitate learning communities.  Our leadership at the State Department (MSDE) is emphasizing a coaching model and working to support professional learning communities that are teacher driven.

At Towson we have built a UDL professional development network that focuses on utilizing the UDL principles to design instruction.  Towson is the first university in the State, one of the first in country, to have a cross-disciplinary learning communit focused on UDL.   In the past, faculty only learned about UDL in teacher education programs. We currently have 80 faculty members from every college in the University learning about UDL to support their practices.

We need more context for what this is – is it open to the public or just TU staff?  How does this fit within the broader context of the UDL-PN?

Additionally, MarylandLearningLinks.org has an amazing UDL section for teachers and parents. It includes case studies, a UDL simulator, and a UDL interactive.  CAST is constantly putting out new tools. Many of them are free. There is the UDL exchange which includes a scaffolded lesson building tool, UDL book builder, UDL science writer, and new tools, like Udio which will launch soon.  CAST also offers free online professional development. (udltheorypractice.cast.org).

What are the top things teachers should know about UDL?

It is like anything in teaching—it takes time.  Allow yourself time to explore and prepare before you integrate.  UDL will push you to “re-vision’ your classroom learning environment.  Start with the guidelines and think about what you are already doing that applies UDL.  How are you already offering students options?  Be proud of what you already do—use the guidelines as a protocol for examining your practice and growing. It’s important to realize that you don’t need to change everything at once. Teacher A may start with things in her environment that are teacher controlled, like offering options for perception, physical action and recruiting interest.  Another teacher may want to challenge herself to plan one lesson a week that incorporates all nine guidelines. Implementing some of the UDL guidelines each day will make a difference in student engagement and achievement. These tiny victories keep you motivated to incorporate more guidelines.  It is most important to find other like-minded educators.  UDL is truly a conceptual shift—rather than change our students, we are designing flexible goals, materials, methods and assessments.  Becoming part of a professional learning community interested in building these types of student-centered environments is so motivating.  We learn best from each other.

How does being a parent influence your take on UDL?

As a parent, we never do one-size fits all.  Think about planning a birthday party or giving directions; you never do it the same way. Options are good for all students. When my daughter was in first grade, she wanted to be a scientist and write about her observations. One day I heard her outside hitting a rock with a field hockey stick. She broke open the rock and spent thirty minutes writing about her observations in her journal. When it was time to do  her to do her homework, which was a writing prompt about a fox and a cat, she had no interest in writing, yet she had been working on a similar task minutes before.  Solving problems, making meaning and finding relevancy is essential in motivating learners- UDL forces curriculum to work harder—I want my children to learn how to solve problems and think critically, not fill out worksheets.  My oldest daughter is now in the third grade, and I have seen a major shift in her level of engagement.  Her teacher focuses on a skill, but she has a choice in the topic in which she researches.  When she struggles in math, she is being given multiple methods to solve.  It is not easy, but there are multiple options to help her  achieve the same goal.- UDL emphasizes this flexible approach to getting to the same goal.

How did you become interested in UDL?

I started out in Baltimore County as a social studies teacher in an inclusive setting.  I went to graduate school for a master’s degree in special education to help me figure out how to better meet the needs of my students with disabilities.  However, a lot of what I learned benefited all my students. Why offere options for five kids when it helps everyone? That’s UDL – flexible options for everyone.

What is most rewarding about your work?

Two things:  When teachers say, “I didn’t think this would work. I thought you were crazy and then I tried it, and now I want you to come see me do it.”  I love to work with people over a period of time, building those relationships around examining the scholarship of teaching and learning.  I have crossed paths with some outstanding Maryland educators who continually push themselves and their colleagues to learn and grow together. The other reward is seeing students benefit from well-designed learning environments.  One of our PLC teachers embraced the UDL framework and truly changed her practice in the course of a school year.  She began designing online learning modules that were scaffolded, developing rubrics to offer choice in assessments, and she moved from teacher directed to small group/stations.  She had a student ask her why all of his classes were not as fun and interesting… he noticed the changes that she had made and was able to distinguish between a UDL environment and a non-UDL environment.

What is your hope for UDL in the future?

I have been working with Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Indiana—half of their teacher evaluation is based on UDL and they utilize problem-based learning and they are great supporters of technology-enhanced classrooms.   We went on learning walks in six schools—not a head was down—kids were up, moving and engaged.  They were working in small groups, using a variety of tools and solving real problems—it was so inspiring and I feel like many of our schools are right on their heels—we can have classrooms that look like that, and think we are already on our way in many places.  I think that the UDL framework can move us forward as educators.  It encompasses all of the good things we are already doing and gives us a common language to discuss our practice.  On a personal level, I think UDL supports inclusion of all learners—those who are gifted and those with specialized learning needs.  I have a godson with a genetic disability who had to ride the bus for 90 minutes to school because his home school was not able to meet his needs. When we understand and embrace the UDL framework, we recognize that learner variability it the norm, and not the exception, and we can design learning environments that support ALL children.

by Laura Lewis Brown, Maryland Learning Links Staff Writer