Thursday, March 24, 2016

Universal Design for Learning

Today’s post features a guest blogger, Deborah P. Waber, Ph.D., Director of the Learning Disabilities Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Waber wrote the following explanation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in response to a post on the International Mail List for Pediatric Neuropsychology questioning the usefulness of UDL, the role of legislation that supports UDL, and whether UDL can be supported by brain imaging studies. This response was posted jointly by Dr. Waber and Dr. Paul Yellin, who both serve on the Board of Directors of CAST.

I am so glad that you brought UDL to the attention of this listserv. So few of us are familiar with it, yet it can be hugely beneficial to the children we serve as pediatric neuropsychologists.
UDL (Universal Design for Learning) provides a comprehensive framework for education of diverse learners of all ages.  It is not a specific “intervention” like Orton-Gillingham, but a practical tool to enable diverse learners to access curriculum and demonstrate knowledge and skills.

UDL is a variation on the “universal design” concept in architecture, which provides access to people with disabilities who would otherwise be unable to have physical access. Here is an analogy that you may find helpful: If a child has a disability that impairs the ability to walk into a school, one approach would be to provide intensive physical therapy, hoping that someday the child will learn to walk. In the world of learning disabilities, this is analogous to our current practice of providing daily reading support to build reading skills so that the child can one day access the general education curriculum. For the individual who is unable to walk, however, the Americans with Disabilities Act legislates that we provide a ramp so that the child can gain access to the school building in a wheelchair. UDL, similarly, asks what needs to be done to provide the child with LD access to the content of the curriculum, even though he or she is unable to independently read and write at grade level (and frankly may never do so). 

Within the UDL framework, learning problems are not conceptualized solely as a function of the disabled learner, but also as a function of a fixed medium (e.g., text) that is inaccessible to that learner. Technology, however, now affords us flexible media that can be manipulated in a variety of ways that can provide access to the learner on an individualized basis. For example, the student with a reading disability can access content above his or her reading level if provided digital text.  A wide range of supports can be embedded in digital media (e.g., definitions, translations, and links to other media) to make content accessible to a wider range of learners. Moreover, in a well implemented UDL classroom, the “disabled” learner is not singled out for specialized treatment (as you know a big issue for older children) since all students use the same platform but in different ways that are most compatible with their learning profiles.  Thus, the “disabled” learner can become an equal participant in the classroom, rather than the broken child who needs to be fixed.

Although there are certainly reading and writing interventions that have been successful, the reality is that for a significant number of children with learning disabilities, the interventions do not “normalize” their performance even though they may continue to gain skills. Randomized clinical trials for children in this older age range have most often yielded disappointing results. By the late elementary and middle school years, this situation often becomes highly discouraging and demoralizing with the ongoing struggle and stigma of being “different,” with negative social and emotional implications. The UDL framework provides strategies for allowing all students to engage with curriculum in ways that are most compatible with their learning profiles.

Now for outcomes: neuroimaging is cool and interesting, and it has served two important purposes in our field. The first is to inform the models or metaphors we use to understand the behavioral phenomena we observe. The shift from modular models to distributed network models is a good example of this. The second is to confirm or give depth to behavioral observations. For example, while it is very cool that we can document changes in brain function after a reading intervention or a working memory intervention, I have actually not seen instances where the neuroimaging suggests truly innovative ways of approaching intervention. Indeed, if we found that an intervention was effective behaviorally yet we could not document a change in brain function, we would be ill advised to abandon the intervention.  So even though UDL is informed by a brain model, there is no reason to think that neuroimaging is needed to document its value.

In the case of UDL, outcomes can be defined in a variety of ways that are not measured in growth of specific academic skills but rather in increased access to curriculum and especially academic engagement and self-efficacy. The reality is that if a child has been in special education for five years or so and is not independent in the curriculum (and we all have seen tons of these kids), it’s time to shift into a different mode.  UDL can give these students access to curriculum (a ramp) by leveraging the malleability of the digital medium and providing tools and frameworks for teachers to engage these discouraged learners.  With UDL, outcomes are measured in metrics such as time on task, engagement, and social/emotional state, not in the traditional metrics we are used to (how did he do on the Gray Oral?).

I am honored to be a member of the CAST Board and hope that as a neuropsychologist I can make a unique contribution to their work. What they are about is novel, innovative and frankly quite refreshing. It also interdigitates well with my and my colleagues’ understanding of learning disorders, which is that LD’s reflect normal variation in the human brain and its capacities in the context of a rigid educational structure that attributes the “problem” to a disabled learner rather than to a disabled curriculum.

We should welcome the prospect that with the new legislation the UDL framework and UDL designed media will become available to all children, and that (especially for older students) they have options to engage with the curriculum even though they do not have “grade level skills” and frankly may never have them. Moreover, we are giving teachers tools to engage with these students in a positive fashion that they find exciting and rewarding.

One of the great frustrations in my clinical practice is that I can recommend UDL for students who have long standing learning problems and who will continue to struggle with these problems as long as they have to go to school, but have no assurance that teachers will know what it is or be able to implement it. With the new legislation, I can hope that when we recommend UDL, teachers will have the wherewithal to provide it. As neuropsychologists, we should cheer this new legislation and learn more about it so that all the children we serve can be educated in UDL classrooms.

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