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How to Host a Good Dinner Party with Universal Design for Learning

A woman named Sarah was known for throwing the most extravagant dinner parties in town. She would spend weeks planning out the menu, the decor, and the guest list to ensure that everything was perfect.


One day, Sarah decided to host a dinner party with a twist - she would only offer one option for the meal. "It will be a surprise!" she exclaimed to her guests. But when they arrived, they were less than thrilled to see that the only option was a vegetarian lasagna. Some of them were vegetarians, but the others were meat lovers and were quite disappointed.


Determined to make things right, Sarah decided to give everyone what they wanted for the next dinner party. She asked each guest individually what their preferred meal was and made sure to prepare it for them. But to her surprise, even though everyone got what they wanted, they still weren't satisfied. Some complained that their food was too spicy, some wanted more options, and still, some were in the mood for something else.


Feeling defeated, Sarah confided in a friend who suggested that she try using Universal Design for Learning in her meal planning. Sarah was confused - how could that apply to dinner parties?


Her friend explained that UDL is all about recognizing that all learners have different needs and wants, so why not be proactive and create the same for her eaters? Sarah decided to give it a try and the next time she hosted a dinner party, she offered a range of meal options - vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and meat-based. She even provided a build-your-own-salad station with a variety of toppings. She wanted to make sure that no matter what her guests preferred that night, everyone would leave happy and full!


To her delight, everyone was satisfied with their meal and even thanked her for accommodating their preferences. Sarah realized that she didn't need to be a mind reader or try to please everyone individually - she just needed to be proactive and remove barriers that could prevent everyone's needs. From that day on, Sarah became known for her Universal Design Dinner Parties where her guests always left satisfied!



In this blog post, we will check out:

  • Understanding Universal Design for Learning.

  • The benefits of UDL.

  • How to begin implementing UDL today.



woman hosting a dinner party.


Understanding Universal Design for Learning

Imagine hosting a dinner party like this?! Anyone that has ever tried to feed a toddler can relate. Yesterday’s Mac N Cheese was a hit, but today they refuse to even touch it! Similarly, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) recognizes that learners have unique needs, interests, and backgrounds. These preferences can even change daily. When universally designing a lesson, just ask, “What is the goal?” Then remove the barriers to help the learners reach that goal. Just like a thoughtful host is considers their guests' needs when planning a dinner party, UDL encourages educators to design learning experiences that meet the diverse needs of their learners. It is a proactive approach to education that prevents barriers before they even exist. UDL is not just about accommodating students with disabilities, but about designing for the variability that exists in all learners.



Access to a challenging and age-appropriate curriculum should not be limited to certain students. It is a fundamental right for all learners, regardless of their perceived readiness.


UDL is a framework that originated in the field of architecture and was later applied to education. For example, just as ramps, elevators, and wider doorways in architecture provide access for people with mobility impairments, providing materials in different formats, such as audio, visual, or tactile, in UDL provides access for learners with different learning needs. Additionally, providing flexible seating options, similar to the adaptable furniture in architecture, can provide learners with different preferences and needs the opportunity to engage in learning in a comfortable and supportive environment.


What UDL is Not

Before diving into the specifics of UDL, it's essential to clarify what it is not. UDL is not a rigid curriculum or a simple checklist to follow. It is not just for special education students or those grouped by ability. Rather, UDL emphasizes providing multiple pathways for all learners to meet and exceed learning standards and goals. It recognizes that each student has unique learning needs, and rather than treating them all the same, UDL provides options and choices to create a more inclusive learning environment.


Many educators confuse UDL with Differentiated Instruction (DI). UDL and DI are both great, and can work wonderfully together, but they are not the same. DI is a reactive approach where teachers differentiate instruction based on individual student needs. In contrast, UDL is a proactive approach where teachers design instruction to provide multiple options and choices for all students to self-differentiate their learning journey.


While the use of UDL best practices can result in good teaching, it is not synonymous with it. Similarly, UDL is not the same as personalized learning, although it does allow students to personalize their learning journey. UDL is a comprehensive approach that takes into account the diverse needs of all learners and aims to provide equal opportunities for each of them.


Lastly, UDL is not just for special education students. UDL strategies benefit all learners by creating a more inclusive and accessible learning environment. The ultimate goal of UDL is to ensure that all students feel supported and challenged to reach their full potential in becoming expert learners.


3 Core Components of UDL

  1. Variability

  2. Firm Goals/Flexible Means

  3. Expert Learning

Access to a challenging and age-appropriate curriculum should not be limited to certain students. It is a fundamental right for all learners, regardless of their perceived readiness. As educators, it is our responsibility to identify and address any knowledge gaps, while providing appropriate support to enable every student to engage in rigorous academic coursework.


Variability: Think Starbucks

Learner variability refers to the unique factors in a student's life that impact their ability to learn. Every student is unique and comes to the classroom with their own set of strengths, challenges, experiences, interests, and cultural backgrounds. Variability recognizes that each student learns in their own way and at their own pace (and may even change from day-to-day), and that these differences should be celebrated and accommodated rather than ignored or treated as deficiencies.


Because everyone is so multifaceted, a UDL teacher embraces variability and aims to design flexible and inclusive learning environments that can adapt to the needs of all learners, regardless of their individual differences.


Imagine this - you and I head to Starbucks to use one of the many gift cards we got from our awesome students (seriously, they're the best!). You always get your go-to iced coffee with three pumps of sugar-free vanilla, while I typically order an extra hot cappuccino. However, today I'm feeling like switching things up and getting a pumpkin spice latte instead.


But just imagine if the barista said to me, "No way! You're the cappuccino guy, and you can't have anything else!" That'd be pretty ridiculous, right? Well, the same thing applies in the world of Universal Design for Learning.



How are we embracing the variability in our learners to ensure that we're providing them with the best chance to succeed?


In UDL, we celebrate the uniqueness of every student and understand that their needs can change from day to day. We don't tell a student who needs closed captions, "Sorry, you're not on a specialized plan, so you can't have that." Instead, we embrace the variability of all learners and recognize that what's good for one student is good for all.


So the next time you're at Starbucks, take a look around and notice how they embrace the variability of all their customers. It's similar to how we approach learning in UDL - we strive to create an inclusive and welcoming environment where everyone gets what they need to thrive.



boy painting at school with his teacher


Firm Goals/Flexible Means: Getting Grandma to the Top of the Mountain

Teachers that implement Universal Design for Learning have firm goals for all of their students. They believe that every student can reach these goals, regardless of the path that they take to get there. While there will be barriers on the journey of reaching the goal, the teacher proactively removes them so that everyone has the opportunity to achieve success.

Picture this: UDL Dinner Host Sarah is back, but this time she is spending time with her family.


The family had planned for weeks to hike up the mountain to take a family picture at the top. It was a tradition they cherished, but this year was different. Sarah's dad had recently passed away, and they wanted to honor his memory by taking the picture at his favorite spot.


As they gathered at the foot of the mountain, memories of their father flooded their minds, and some family members couldn't help but shed a tear. Sarah's brother, who was always the life of the party, was noticeably quiet, and her aunt with a visual impairment seemed anxious about the hike.


Sarah knew they had to make this hike memorable and accessible for everyone. She remembered her experience with Universal Design for Learning and suggested they take a different route that had options for accessibility. They found a path that had a paved trail that was more accessible for her brother, and a guided trail with audio descriptions for her aunt.


Sarah's sister had brought a backpack carrier for her dog, who was too small to hike up, while her other sister had a dog that loved to run, so she let her off the leash to race to the top. The dogs' excitement was contagious, and the family laughed and cheered them on.


Grandma opted to take the Gondola to the summit, and some of the younger family members decided to run up the hill, while others preferred to hike at a slower pace. Sarah and her husband carried their youngest child for most of the way, but also gave him opportunities to walk and explore along the path.


As they finally reached the summit, they all took a family picture together, happy and proud of their accomplishment. Sarah felt a sense of peace knowing that they had honored their dad’s memory in a way that was accessible and enjoyable for everyone, including their beloved dogs.



What do we want everyone to know and do, and what are the potential pathways to get there?

Do you know what makes a great teacher? One who believes that every student has the potential to reach their goals, no matter how they choose to get there. Teachers who implement Universal Design for Learning are exactly that - they have firm goals for all their students and actively work to remove barriers that may prevent them from achieving success.


Now, we know that the journey to achieving goals isn't always easy. But that's where the magic of Universal Design for Learning comes in. Teachers who use the flexible means approach are proactive about identifying any potential barriers and finding ways to overcome them, ensuring that all their students have the same opportunities to succeed.


So, whether a student learns best through a digital medium rather than a paper medium, Universal Design for Learning allows teachers to adhere to every student's unique needs and abilities.



family hiking in the woods to the top of a mountain


Expert Learning: Getting Them Ready to Leave the Nest

Have you ever seen a mother bird preparing her young to fly? She guides and teaches them until they become independent and ready to leave the nest. Similarly, great educators aim to provide the necessary tools, skills, and guidance to help their students succeed and become independent learners.


The ultimate goal of Universal Design for Learning is expert learning. If teachers constantly tell their students what to do, it creates a culture of compliance rather than a culture of creation. Instead, teachers should help their students make and create their own choices and scaffolds that will best help them learn. Over time, these supports can be removed so that students can take agency over their own learning. However, the supports will always be available if the students need them.



Ask students, “What are you going to choose today, and why is that what you need?”


Throughout this process, students have the opportunity to choose how they want to learn and in what way they can show their learning. These potential pathways to success allow students to discover what works best for them and when. For example, some students may prefer to work alone, while others may like working with a partner. Some may prefer digital resources, while others may prefer reading on paper. Regardless of their preferences, students are given control over their learning. These choices help them self-differentiate their learning and, over time, enable them to become expert learners.



The Benefits of Universal Design for Learning

The concept of UDL is rooted in the idea that diversity is a natural and valuable aspect of the human experience. It acknowledges that all learners are unique and have different needs, interests, and backgrounds. UDL is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a mindset that guides teachers in designing inclusive learning experiences. As the saying goes un UDL, “What is good for one, is good for all.”


Inclusive Learning

UDL helps create a more inclusive learning environment that is accessible to all learners, including those with disabilities, different learning preferences, and diverse cultural backgrounds. By removing barriers and providing multiple means of representation, action, and expression, UDL allows all learners to participate in the learning process and reach their full potential.


Engagement & Motivation

UDL empowers all students, including those with disabilities, to access course material through flexible learning options. This leads to higher engagement, motivation, and achievement, as learners feel more invested in the learning process. By expanding the choices and approaches available for learning and assessment, UDL increases learners' agency and can lead to deeper understanding and higher-quality work. When students have more control over their learning, they are more likely to take ownership of their outcomes and achieve their full potential.


Standardized Tests

Ah, standardized tests, the bane of many students' existence. We all know that they can be about as accessible as a locked vault, and about as culturally responsive as a cardboard box. That's not good! If students can't access the test, they can't show off what they know and what they can do. And if we're not teaching in a way that works for everyone, well, we're in a bit of a pickle, aren't we?


Enter Universal Design for Learning, the hero we need (and deserve). By providing multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement (think retakes, solution keys, manipulatives, and collaborative work), we can help all students access the material in a way that makes sense for them. It's like giving them a secret key to that locked vault! And once they have that key, they can show off their knowledge and skills, and build confidence in their abilities. We can gradually remove those supports, and help students become independent learners.


So, let's ditch the cardboard boxes and locked vaults, and embrace Universal Design for Learning. Our students will thank us, and who knows, maybe we'll even have a little fun along the way!



Use these questions when using Universal Design for Learning. 1.) What is the goal? 2.) How am I embracing the variability of the people I serve? 3.) What are the potential pathways to reach that goal?


4 Steps to Getting Started with Universal Design for Learning

Implementing Universal Design for Learning in the classroom requires a shift in mindset and a commitment to designing inclusive learning experiences. Follow these steps to implement UDL today.

  1. Start by identifying class objectives and goals that apply to all learners. (Firm Goals)

    1. Write clear learning objectives: Use specific verbs and measurable outcomes so that the objectives are easy to understand.

    2. Align objectives with standards: Make sure the objectives you set are in line with state or district academic standards.

    3. Share with students: Make sure the objectives are transparent and understandable to students from the get-go.

  2. Consider alternative pathways to achieve those goals, taking into account potential barriers that some learners may face. (Flexible Means)

    1. Diverse Resources: Provide materials in various formats like text, audio, and video.

    2. Flexible Assessment: Use multiple means of assessment, not just traditional tests. Think portfolios, oral presentations, and interactive projects.

    3. Accessible Technology: Ensure all digital resources are accessible, such as screen-readable texts or videos with captions.

    4. Adjustable Seating: Consider classroom seating that can be adjusted to accommodate different learning needs.

  3. Offer voice and choice to learners, using prompts such as "Would you rather?” or have them finish this statement “It would be great if…”. These allow for self-differentiation. (Expert Learning)

    1. Choice Boards: Use choice boards where students can pick activities that align with their interests and strengths.

    2. Self-Assessment: Introduce self-assessment tools so that learners can understand their learning needs and preferences.

    3. Collaboration: Allow students to work in groups based on their shared interests or complementary skills.

    4. Personal Projects: Let students come up with their own projects that still align with the overall learning objectives.

  4. Seek feedback from learners on what worked well and what could be improved.

    1. Surveys: Use surveys to collect candid and/or transparent feedback.

    2. Focus Groups: Hold focus group sessions with a subset of students to dive deeper into specific areas.

    3. Peer Review: Allow students to review each other’s work, emphasizing what was effective and what could be improved.

    4. Reflection Journals: Have students keep a journal where they reflect on what they learned, what challenges they faced, and how the process could be improved.



unique and carefree kid riding a scooter


When it comes to education, every student deserves an equitable opportunity for success. That's where Universal Design for Learning comes in. UDL is a proactive approach that recognizes the diverse needs of learners and creates an inclusive and accessible learning environment. It's not just for special education students but for everyone who may have different learning needs, preferences, and abilities.


It allows teachers to remove barriers and provide multiple pathways for learning, allowing each student to reach their full potential. By recognizing variability, setting firm goals with flexible means, and providing opportunities for expert learning, UDL empowers students to take ownership of their education and become lifelong learners.

Just like Sarah's Universal Design Dinner Parties, you can create a learning environment where everyone leaves happy and satisfied with their learning experience. With that being said, it has to be asked…


…If UDL makes learning accessible to all students, then why wouldn't all teachers use it?


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