Universal Design for Learning

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Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has been on my radar since a piece in The Conversation cited UDL research in a discussion of differentiation. 

The citation immediately struck me as odd. Take a look. There are a series of papers listed that seem to show that providing students with choice is a good idea. Then, as Pedro de Bruyckere points out, there is a request for more evidence, “Do you have additional evidence to support this Checkpoint? Tell us!”

This does not represent the standard approach to science which, if anything, should seek disconfirming evidence (here’s a review paper critical of student choice, for instance).

If you look on ERIC for peer reviewed studies of UDL you will find few that test its effectiveness in terms of the learning of students. This entry is fairly typical and describes a trial to see how well teachers who were trained in UDL then implemented its principles. 


The UDL Center appears to be the main website providing information to teachers (although it also links to the CAST site). According to the UDL Center:

“Individuals bring a huge variety of skills, needs, and interests to learning. Neuroscience reveals that these differences are as varied and unique as our DNA or fingerprints. Three primary brain networks come into play.”

It then goes on to list these three networks as: ‘recognition networks’, ‘strategic networks’ and ‘affective networks’. Each of these is illustrated by a picture of a brain with a different area coloured-in. 

We should be pretty sceptical at this point. I’ve written before about the way that neuroscience is sometimes used to justify particular teaching methods and I recently came across a paper by Jeffrey Bowers that makes this case much better than me.

Bowers explains that neuroscience is often used to support claims that are trivially true, such as that we learn less well under stress, and claims that have already been established through basic psychology research, such as the efficacy of phonics instruction. Neuroscience is also sometimes used to support practices in ways that are unwarranted. To Bowers, neuroscience has so far added nothing of use to teachers and is unlikely to do so in the future. 

This seems true of the way that neuroscience is used to support UDL. The claim that we should use multiple representations of material seems either trivially true or known to us via psychology (although there are good and bad ways of doing this). The claim that we need to give students choices of how to act, express themselves and engage with content might be unwarranted.

Accommodate or address?

Bowers discusses the case where we find that a particular learning issue is linked to abnormal responses in a certain part of the brain. He asks what we should do about this: should we work on developing the functions associated with that brain part or should we look to develop workarounds? Neuroscience cannot tell us.

I would characterise this as the fundamental question of differentiation: do we accommodate the difference or do we address it?

Clearly, if a student is blind then we cannot expect him to read visual text. We have no choice but to accommodate the disability and offer an alternative. 

But we can fall into error if we extend this logic to a student who has difficulty writing. Do we give her the option of recording her thoughts as an audio file? This would provide her with a different means of expression that she may prefer, given the difficulties she has with writing and particularly if sanctioned and encouraged by teachers. Yet this won’t address her writing difficulty. She will never improve at writing if she avoids writing. And she will fall further behind her peers who are practising more writing than her.

Perhaps this represents the difference between a disability and some other form of difficulty: the former must be accommodated but the latter should probably be addressed.


I have only dipped my toes in the water of UDL. The websites recommend various books. Perhaps these offer clear guidance on how to avoid some of the potential pitfalls. However, the invocation of neuroscience is at best unhelpful. And if teachers who just dip in their toes like me go away with the message that students should be offered lots of choice in how to complete activities then there is potential for harm.


12 thoughts on “Universal Design for Learning

  1. The Coopers says:

    In your example of a blind student hopping right to accommodations. You missed stating that you would teach them to read Braille and also allow accommodations. For a Dyslexic from K-their need, Orton Gillingham systematic instruction or Structured Literacy should be provided along with audio books. Both should be taught, but when grades count, on high stakes exams that effect that student in High School it should be the student with the disabilities choice how to best ensure their results and projects accurately represent their knowledge and they may very well chose accommodations like text to speech, some may chose braille…some dyslexics may chose extra time, some may chose text to speech. You should be using UDL to reach and teach in multiple ways and then the choice is not forced on the student.

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