Canadian independent schools have more and more students with unique learning needs. They primarily come with an educational assessment of a diagnosed learning disability. We’ll define a student with a learning disability (LD) as one “with average to above average intelligence who struggles in one or more areas of learning,” such as processing speed, executive function or academic underachievement due to dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc.
The gap between what we know these students are capable of and what they are able to achieve at the moment is where the “disability” lies. If these students are accommodated and supported, they are capable of exceptional levels of achievement in all areas of learning and life.
Depending on the intellectual, fiscal and physical resources available, schools are addressing the educational implications of teaching unique learners in a variety of ways. For instance, Bishop Strachan School in Toronto uses a supported learning model; Rundle College in Calgary created an entire school for students with learning disabilities; and Shawnigan Lake School on Vancouver Island has a dedicated professional and a learning resource centre. Each program is experiencing success; each has, at its core, the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
A Lesson for Educators on Universal Design for Learning
Ronald Mace, an architect and wheelchair user who founded the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, originally developed the principles of universal design, which were adapted by educators and instructional designers for UDL. A common and accepted definition of universal design, coined by Mace, is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
The idea of universal design really took flight not in education but in city planning to improve access through inclusive architecture and product design. For example, not that long ago, all of our sidewalks had curbs that were cut at a 90-degree angle. They seemingly served 95 per cent of the population very well, and most of us never thought twice about them. As time passed, it became obvious that people in wheelchairs and parents with strollers were struggling to get on and off of sidewalks because of the curb angle. To help those with special mobility needs, city planners started designing gentle sloping curb cuts. To their amazement, it was not just people with mobility needs who benefited from this simple accommodation: people with shopping carts, kids on scooters and elderly people with walkers did too. These “curb cuts” became so beneficial that lawmakers in the United States mandated in the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) that all new sidewalks must be made with these sloping sides.
The universal design lesson for educators: If we think about and plan the best way to deliver the information for all students, not only will our instruction improve but it will also be accessible to everyone in the classroom.
For UDL to be both effective and properly implemented, the practitioner needs to know the difference between accommodating and modifying learning. A fishing tale illustrates the distinction.
Take two individuals, both with no knowledge of how to catch a fish. Individual A is given a rod, reel and bait with instructions on how to use these tools to catch a fish. Individual B is given a net and access to a stocked pond from which he may easily hoist fish out of the water. Individual A has been accommodated: He has been supplied with tools and taught how to effectively use them to accomplish a task. Individual A will be able to use these newly acquired attributes to catch different types of fish in different locales. Individual B has had his fishing lesson modified: His learned skill will only be applicable to a limited and specific setting. Individual B will not be successful when challenged to catch fish in any environment other than the one he has experienced.
A UDL utilizing effective accommodations will cultivate a group of learners capable of experiencing success beyond the classroom.
Five UDL Tips for Teachers
1. Provide digital notes: This benefits students with fine motor difficulties and effectively engages students with working memory and/ or processing LD by enabling them to focus attention on lesson delivery rather than on paper and pencil. It may seem superfluous for students capable of note taking, but they will still benefit through personal annotations and reflections on their own learning.
2. Use screen readers/audio books: When reading is a challenge, providing materials in an audio format is empowering since it maintains a student’s independence while enabling access to the same information with little disruption and constraint.
3. Allow extra time: When evaluating the length and duration of assessments we often use the “average” student as a measuring stick. In a UDL model we recognize that outliers exist on either end of this “average.” Providing extra time for tests or exams serves many purposes— such as diminishing anxiety, giving greater confidence to slow processors and reducing the stigma of being the last to finish—and fosters a successful and safe learning environment where students will experience success.
4. Use noise-reducing technology: For students struggling with attention difficulties, completing a simple task or a major assessment can feel daunting if their environment is not still and quiet. “Ear defenders,” equipment more often used on airport runways, block out almost all background noise, allowing a student to focus completely on the task at hand. If wearing them may stigmatize the student, Bose manufactures noise-reducing headphones that have a similar effect.
5. Differentiate assessments: For students with LD, a distinction needs to be made between formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments evaluate the process of developing mastery of a concept; they may include quizzes, assignments, homework or any other task where the student may receive support or assistance in completion. Summative assessments are completed independently and reflect a student’s understanding of a topic or concept; most typically they include written examinations but are not limited to such a task.
Striking a balance between formative and summative assessments is the key to accommodation. For instance, a student with an organizational/spatial LD may find it difficult to complete assignments and hand in homework on time and, as a result, his or her overall grade will suffer. Conversely, this same student may be achieving at a high level on unit exams, demonstrating a developed understanding of the concepts taught. Is a formative-assessment course grade that’s significantly below a summative-assessment achievement level a true reflection of what the student is capable of? Differentiated assessments, which come in the form of accommodations such as audio tests or extra time, give students the best opportunity to demonstrate their true understanding of the topic they are studying.
In inclusive teaching environments, the UDL model is implemented widely. Special education teachers often use this philosophical underpinning without giving it conscious thought. The real challenge for all educators is to fully understand these principles and then consciously deploy them to improve the overall learning conditions for everyone. Ultimately, by making learning better for those who have unique learning needs, all educators have the chance of improving learning for all students.