At its heart, a universally designed classroom focuses on the creation of a healthy learning environment. It is a place for all students to reach their learning goals in flexible ways. Where a teacher does not attempt to force understanding but instead attends to the conditions so student understanding can naturally bloom.

The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) remind us to minimize threats and distractions for all students. So they can set meaningful, authentic goals and plan to reach those goals while building rich understanding. These three principles: provide multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression guide the design of instructional goals, assessments, methods, and materials that students can customize to meet their individual needs. When students direct their own learning experience, they are expert learners.

An expert learner is someone motivated to improve and develop their skills continuously. Expert learners don’t necessarily start with the highest level of ability or knowledge – but they never give up and work hard to reach their goals. Every single one of our kids has the potential to become an expert learner when provided with a motivating environment that values the process of learning more than the mastery of specific knowledge.

Multiple pathways for students are created for themselves and their peers when teachers make instructional decisions that provide options in engagement, representation, and action and expression. If we believe that all our students have something to offer, then we must ensure that educators learn more about UDL. Then, apply those principles into an instructional design that considers not only the intellectual environment but the physical and social-emotional environment as well.

But how can we support teachers in building their own understanding of the framework so they can implement it in their learning environment? The answer may be at Project Zero. Project Zero is a research center founded in 1967 at Harvard University that explores topics in education, such as deep thinking, understanding, intelligence, creativity, and ethics. One of the main themes at Project Zero is teaching for understanding. After all, if we are not teaching for understanding, what are we teaching for? 

Teachers explore the idea of understanding and how it develops when asked three basic questions:

  1. What is something you understand well?  
  2. How did you develop this understanding?
  3. How do you know you understand it?

What is intriguing about the answers to these questions is that regardless of what people select in the first questions, the responses to questions 2 and 3 are always similar. For example, responses to question 2 might be: I had a need or want to learn it; I read about it; I watched someone do it; I asked questions; trial and error and more trial; I had others give me feedback; I talk to others about it; I saw a video, etc. Responses to question 3 are typically: I can do it; I can explain it; I can talk about it; I can teach it to someone else; I can break it apart; I can do it in different ways; I can write about it; I can diagram/sequence it, etc. 

Primarily, deep understanding develops because of expert learning and personalized opportunities to learn. If this is the essence of learning, and teacher professional development should reflect the best learning experiences we create for our students, it naturally leads us to consider how these three questions can be adapted to get teachers to start thinking about the three UDL principles.

The next time there is a professional development opportunity for teachers, ask teachers to consider the questions above as well as three basic UDL-aligned planning questions, adapted below:

  1. Why will my kids care about this lesson? (Engagement)
  2. In what ways can I share the information and ideas in this lesson? (Representation)
  3. In what ways can students develop and demonstrate learning through this lesson? (Action + Expression)

These questions help to build an understanding of UDL. They ask teachers to connect to their deep understanding of a concept that is relevant, authentic, and meaningful. They provide scaffolding and model UDL while reflecting on their potential impact on students.

When teachers provide choices for students to engage with their learning, build comprehension by personalizing their pathway, and expressing what they know in their own way, both expert learning and deep understanding will result. Of course, these questions are not the complete journey, but it’s a step in the right direction. It may inspire further exploration to develop and demonstrate their understanding of the framework.

Katie Novak, Ed.D. is an assistant superintendent of schools in Massachusetts, an internationally recognized leader in Universal Design for Learning (UDL), mother of four young children, and an author of four books, including UDL Now!: A Teacher’s Guide to Applying Universal Design for Learning in Today’s Classrooms (CAST Professional Publishing).

Steven Van Rees coordinates UDL efforts to support student learning in Calvert County, Maryland. He is a faculty member at Harvard’s Project Zero Classroom Institute. Since 2007 Steve has served as an instructional coach for the courses Teaching for Understanding, Leading for Understanding, and currently Creating Cultures of Thinking through the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 2012, he was named as a fellow at Harvard’s Project Zero Future of Learning summer institute. Steven also teaches graduate courses in curriculum analysis at McDaniel College and has been on the faculty of the Washington International School Summer Institute for Teachers: Connecting DC Educators with Project Zero Ideas. He is passionate about making student thinking visible in the language arts classroom.