Humans have a tendency to fall into patterns of behavior. For teachers, that means that if we’re not careful, we begin to teach things the same way every year. This is comfortable for us, but it can result in a rigid curriculum that may not work for all students—and traditional classrooms are curriculum-centered already, not easily adapted to the differing needs of individual students. Instead, students are required to adapt to the curriculum.
As a special education teacher, part of my job was helping students who had a diagnosed learning disability access the general education curriculum, so I frequently found myself co-teaching with a math or English teacher. When students with learning differences are placed in the general education classroom, they often receive accommodations and services. However, when those accommodations are paired with—and constrained by—a traditional, rigid curriculum, the result can be the opposite of inclusion, in my experience.
Teachers in this situation may become frustrated because trying to accommodate each child individually creates a lot of stress and often an unmanageable workload. Another issue I saw at the middle school level is that despite teachers’ best efforts, students with learning differences often feel singled out, and as they get older they may reject accommodations in order to fit in—even though that means forgoing supports that could help meet their learning needs.
The majority of students need something different, but how can you design a curriculum that works for all students—and for the teacher?
In working together, the general education teacher and I would work out ways to flex and adapt our teaching styles to fit our students’ needs. As a team, we modified our instruction based on what worked and what didn’t. We used what we learned to design instruction that could change based on students’ needs.
All of this work was based on the well-known, flexible model called Universal Design for Learning, which can be used in any classroom to make instruction more accessible.
3 Ways to Implement Universal Design for Learning
1. Teach content in many ways: In a traditional classroom, planning for the lesson is done with the “typical” student in mind. Often, there is one way for all students to learn the material, such as a lecture or a slide presentation.
Instead, try to plan the lesson with all students in mind. Survey students to find out what they already know and questions they have about the new topic. Use that information to scaffold instruction and make lessons more relevant to students. You can also vary the methods that you use to deliver the direct instruction portion of your lesson—try showing a demonstration or video clip for one lesson, and have students participate in stations or listen to a podcast for another.
If possible, use more than one modality within a lesson, and think about supports that students may need for learning. If students are moving around the room, have clearly defined procedures and a goal at each learning center. If they’re listening to you or a podcast, it may be helpful to provide an outline where they can add notes or sketch visuals while they listen. If they’re reading texts, you can allow them to partner read or use technology to adjust the font and text size.
2. Provide choices to sustain student engagement: Allow students to choose an activity. For guided practice, they could decide whether to answer questions independently and receive feedback, play a game, do a role play, or practice in a group. To demonstrate their understanding of a concept, they could decide whether to create a poster or construct a model, write a paper, make a video or podcast, or do a presentation. Making choices allows them to relate to the content in a way that sparks their interest.
Teachers can often offer students other choices in the classroom, beyond instruction. For example, you may be able to provide flexible seating, allowing students to choose a quiet area of the classroom to finish up an assignment on their own, or to sit at tables for group work, or to grab a seat at a computer to watch a video, print a new worksheet, or read a digital textbook.
3. Provide accommodations for all students: Instead of providing accommodations only to students with an IEP or a 504 plan, think about accommodations that such students frequently need and make them available to all students.
For example, if you often have students who need a copy of the notes, using a site like Blackboard or Google Classroom to post each slide presentation and assignment makes it easier for everyone to access those materials. Students who are absent, lose their copy, or have trouble taking notes can use the online notes and documents. Having documents available online also makes it easier for parents, special education teachers, and paraeducators to help students without making extra work for the teacher.
Another example would be teaching students to use a free text reader like the Read and Write extension for Google Chrome or a voice-to-text tool like those available in Google Documents. Students may choose not to use them, but they’re a good option for students who happen to retain information better when they hear it or who have a disability that interferes with writing.
Universal Design for Learning allows instruction to become student-centered by creating a more welcoming and flexible classroom environment and a curriculum that is more accessible to all students. Flexible instruction should lead the student to be more personally accountable for their learning: Instead of the teacher expecting all students to learn in one way, the student sets their own goals for how they will learn the required material.
The student becomes an expert not just on the content but on how they learn. Once the content has faded from their memory, this is the skill that will allow them to acquire the knowledge necessary for whatever endeavor they decide to pursue.