SWIFT Talk Blog

Re-imagining education.

It's All About the Design

For over half of the year, many of us in the United States participate in the weekly ritual of mowing the lawn. When finished, we bask in the feeling of a task completed, and possibly a good looking lawn. To enhance our experience, there are gas-powered, electric-powered, and human-powered mowers. There are push mowers, riding mowers, mowers that can be attached to wheelchairs, mowers that can turn on a dime, and mowers that can cut down thick brush.

I’ve seen red, blue, green, orange, black, and pink mowers, and some had racing stripes or flames painted on the sides. Mowers can be accessorized with cup caddies, radios, muffler silencers, and arm rests. In fact, there is even a league of enthusiasts who race their lawn mowers.

Returning to those of us who just plain mow, we only have one goal—to make our grass shorter. It sounds pretty straightforward, but manufacturers have figured out that we like to design our lawn mowing experiences. All of these lawn mowing accoutrements create an opportunity for people to perform and enjoy the task of mowing because these choices and accessibility are already present. In comparison, the learning and brain sciences underlying Universal Design for Learning (UDL) compel us to design accessible, diverse, and rich learning environments and lessons so all students can be successful from the moment they walk into the instructional environment.

With mowing, the goal is straightforward—the grass needs to be shorter. In the classroom, the instructional goals need to be just as straightforward.

A big goal can help you move learners into a task while giving them multiple ways to achieve that goal. Now, you’re ready to do some designing.

Three principals guide the implementation of UDL: Engagement, Representation, and Action and Expression. Under Engagement, you design the learning environment and lessons so students are interested in becoming involved and, ultimately, take responsibility for their own involvement and academic growth.

Under Representation, information and skills are not only provided in a way that all students can begin to grasp them, but all students become familiar with their own learning strengths and needs. Through guidance, they collaborate with others putting into action those strengths and needs to enhance collective learning. Every student is valued because every student brings something unique and powerful to the work.

Finally, under Action and Expression, students have access to a plethora of tools and strategies that allow them to demonstrate their understanding of a topic or the application of a skill. Ideally, all students will be able to gauge their ability to communicate their understanding and continue to grow in their capability to manage their time and resources so they can fully demonstrate what they know.

These three principles come together because as the designer, you know that you will always have a variety of learners.  There has never been a typical learner and UDL helps us recognize and plan for the ever present variability. Just as the lawn mower manufacturers do, educators provided learners options. Depending on situation and student need, those options are expanded or appropriately contracted, but they are always purposefully chosen.

Until the early 1900’s, the only way to mow your lawn was to manually push a mechanical lawn mower or own a herd of grazing animals.

Today’s mowing experience greatly differs in both action and attraction and it’s because of the available designs, the ability to personalize the machine, and the quality of the machines. Likewise, UDL provides a way for us to closely investigate the design of our environment and lessons so all students are active participants in learning. The UDL framework moves us to offer appropriate choices to our students, select and implement evidence-based practices, and allow students to own their learning.

I invite you to explore the UDL framework, choose a principle, choose a guideline under that principle, bring it to life in your learning environment, get feedback from your students, and carefully watch the student outcomes that result. Watch for the greener grass to appear on your side of the fence. 

 - Loui Lord Nelson

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.