UDL and Differentiation: Finding Harmony

My work in the area of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) brings me into many conversations about differentiation. While some educators try to understand the difference, others see the two ideas as the same. And some people believe one is better than the other. When I look at the UDL framework and a concept map of differentiation, I see how they complement one another and together can lead to improved student outcomes.

The Big Picture

The UDL framework asserts that lessons and environments should be designed to be accessible to all students regardless of their learning needs. In fact, because all students learn differently, we shift our thinking away from categorizing our students toward planning for their inevitable, variable needs. We design our lessons and environments (e.g., classrooms) to include a variety of ways students can become connected to the information (the principle of Engagement), learn the information (the principle of Representation), and show what they learned about the information (the principles of Action and Expression).

Differentiation recognizes that not all students learn the same way and we need to actively plan for those differences. In a concept map, Carol Tomlinson refers to an educator mindset and how it intersects with principles of differentiation. Differentiation principles guide the design of scaffolding and supports, and include respectful tasks, quality curriculum, teaching up, flexible grouping, continual assessment, and building community. Educators choose scaffolds and supports based on their knowledge of student needs. They know where the students are and where they need to go in their learning (Readiness). What educators work to do is raise students’ levels of motivation by connecting to their interests (Interest), and they help students figure out ways of learning that work for them so they become more efficient learners (Learning Profile).

The Harmony

A surface comparison links differentiation’s student characteristics with UDL principles, guidelines, and checkpoints.

Differentiation: Readiness

  • Guideline(s): Representation
  • Guideline(s): Options for Comprehension
  • Checkpoint: Activate or Supply Background Knowledge

Differentiation: Interest

  • Guideline(s): Engagement
  • Guideline(s): Options for Recruiting Interest
  • Checkpoint: Optimize Relevance, Value, and Authenticity

DifferentiationLearning Profile

  • Guideline(s): Action & Expression and Engagement
  • Guideline(s): Options for Executive Functions and Options for Self-Regulation
  • Checkpoint: Support Planning & Strategy Development and Develop Self-Assessment and Reflection

This simple comparison initially shows some—but not all—of how differentiation and UDL complement each other.  For instance, other similarities include the mindset of differentiation, which aligns with the mindset recognized to support the implementation of UDL. Both mindsets describe educators more likely to expand their design and include options from the UDL framework including:

  • sustaining effort and persistence;
  • perception;
  • language, mathematical expressions, and symbols;
  • physical action; and
  • expression and communication.

Both UDL and differentiation recognize that some students’ needs are more significant than others’. Differentiation is built upon this recognition and UDL provides guidance in the types of options that would benefit specific students. Thus, educators seeking ways to differentiate can look to the UDL framework for ideas.

UDL and differentiation share the overarching beliefs that all students benefit from a flexible learning environment and that educators should design environments with expectations for student growth and achievement. Both recognize that students need meaningful learning experiences to maintain their motivation and a variety of choices so they can determine their preferred ways learning needs.

Although UDL and differentiation are not the same frameworks, they are not competing structures. I encourage educators to recognize the overlaps and how each supports the other as we work together for improved outcomes for all students.

Want to read more about this subject? Read CAST’s “UDL Intersections: Universal Design and Universal Design” or “Differentiated Instruction and Implications for UDL Implementation.”

– Loui Lord Nelson

Photo of blog author.Loui is the UDL Specialist for SWIFT as well as an international consultant specializing in the area of UDL. A former teacher, she was the UDL Coordinator for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus, Indiana, and wrote Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning while working on her post-doc at CAST. You can follow her on Twitter at louilordnelson.