This year marks my 25th year in teaching. It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s here. This year has been highly reflective. When I started teaching in public schools, I was in a self-contained program for learners with Autism. I remember consulting with a kindergarten teacher. We were discussing reading strategies and supports as she was challenged with learners who weren’t quite grasping the lesson. The conversation was rich and full of great ideas. What struck me the most about the discussion was the teacher’s statement:

“I was not trained the way you were trained.”

This has always stuck with me. How teachers are prepared in Higher Education are markedly different. There are these silos that happen. In the “regular education” silo, there’s typically one course in exceptionality. In the “special education” silo, there are courses that are around strategies to teach reading, math, to plan for the variability of learners with disabilities. Some courses sent the message to honor the individual and use strategies and supports to move learners forward, while other classes focused on a “deficit” model that felt more punitive rather than helpful.

We see this play out in our spaces in schools. Teachers are trained to teach to the middle, to the mythical average, or to some construct of what normal is. When a learner doesn’t understand a concept or “something appears wrong,” we refer.

We diagnose.

We treat.

We remediate.

It happens in separate spaces. It feels less than loving at times. What messages are sent to a learner when they are pulled outside of the classroom for instructional strategies and supports that can benefit all learners? What if we flipped this notion and were proactive in our instruction? What if we planned for learner variability in the least restrictive environment first rather than waiting for the test score to tell us otherwise? What if we provided options, choices, and flexibility to all learners as our foundational teaching practice?

What would that look, sound, and feel like?

It would look like love. It would sound like love. It would feel like love.

Providing access in this way is not a new idea. In fact, it’s been around since the 1980s. Universal Design for Learning, founded by David Rose, is a foundational framework that does just that.

In shortened terms, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is: A framework to optimize learning through the improvement of teaching based on how (individually) students learn. Its foundation is rooted in Neuroscience and is mentioned as best practice in ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act).

CAST (The Center for Applied Special Technology) is where UDL was born with its founder, David Rose. Focus on Engagement (Motivation), Representation (Presentation of Content), and Action & Expression (Demonstration of Knowledge).

Many of our best practices naturally integrate UDL guidelines. The UDL framework helps to plan for learner variability and remove barriers to learning proactively.

Universal Design for Learning is a flip in teaching and learning that requires a mindset shift, a willingness to be uncomfortable and to actively invite learners as a partner in their own learning. When we think of traditional school, teaching and learning are usually done TO learners. In a Universally Designed classroom, learning is done WITH learners. The goal of Universal Design for Learning is to develop expert learners that are purposeful and motivated, resourceful and knowledgeable, and strategic and goal-oriented. UDL places those strategies and supports that one may typically find in specialized settings, normalizes them, and makes them available to all.

This is the ultimate act of love. To provide access to learning in a Universally Designed manner, honors individual needs and preferences. UDL empowers learners to think, act, and grow in a way that makes sense for the learner- not what we may judge or believe that a learner is capable of.

UDL is more than just a framework that plans for learner variability. UDL is a healing work that schools desperately need to compete in a global society that honors the unique talents and gifts that each individual possesses. Inclusion is more than just providing access. It’s about honoring the individual, their needs, and preferences. It’s about helping learners realize their own potential as a learner. It’s about providing access in a way that makes sense for the learner, not what is most expedient for the teacher. It’s about giving access from a place of love. Access is love.

image of Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles

Hillary Goldthwait-Fowles, PhD. ATP is an accessibility accomplice providing training, support, and consultation to organizations around Assistive Technology, Accessible Educational Materials, and Universal Design for Learning. She is passionate about ensuring that learning is inclusive an accessible for all learners in the way that makes sense for them. She is an Assistive Technology Specialist for RSU 21 in Kennebunk, Maine where she is grateful to “be paid to think differently” and supports inclusive learning practices through the intentional use of AT, AEM, and UDL. Hillary has written and spoken in various spaces around AT, AEM, and UDL. She is also an adjunct faculty member for the University Of New England’s graduate certification programs in inclusion, as well as the University of Maine at Farmington’s graduate programs in Special Education. Home s where her heart is in Saco, Maine with her husband, son, and stepson (who have both left the nest) and cats.

Photo by Renee Fisher on Unsplash