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​Universal Design for Learning: An Endless Possibility of Benefits

- by Maia Idzikowski

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a method of achieving inclusion of all students in the classroom, regardless of learning ability. It was inspired by the Universal Design movement in architecture, developed by Ronald L. Mace at North Carolina State University where "the design of products and environments [is] to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design”.

The MAUDeL (Manitoba Alliance for Universal Design for Learning) is promoting the Three Block Model to Universal Design. The Three Block Model is the educational framework required to implement UDL in the classroom.

I recently had the chance to talk with Dr. Jennifer Katz, a researcher in inclusive education at the University of Manitoba. She is also the founder of the Manitoba Alliance for Universal Design for Learning.

“Dr. Katz received her PhD in 2008 from the University of British Columbia in inclusive education. She is the author of “Teaching to Diversity: The Three Block Model of Universal Design for Learning” and "Resource Teacher: A Changing Role in the Three-Block Model of UDL". Dr. Katz has been a successful sessional lecturer, educational consultant, classroom teacher, editor, and guidance counselor. She taught in diverse classrooms from K-12 in Winnipeg and Vancouver for 16 years where she developed the Three-Block Model, including special education classrooms, inclusive classrooms, youth centres, and alternative high school programs” (MAUDeL Website).

Jennifer explained how she formed the Alliance with the goal to bring together a group of influential people to create and propel change within Manitoba’s education system. Representing the University of Manitoba, she brought together individuals from all three provincial universities, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, community groups, school divisions, and government representatives. Ultimately, these groups work together, with the current goal of becoming a non-profit organization.

What was Jennifer’s motivation for spearheading such a substantial and time-consuming project? She revealed that prior to the formation of the Manitoba Alliance for Universal Design for Learning, many schools would call her and ask for help regarding classroom inclusion. There was no organized plan to train teachers in UDL and review the curriculum. Consequently, schools would use limited resources to include individuals with disabilities as best they can. Jennifer, therefore, saw the need for a group to come together, and using everyone’s expertise, work within the system to create improvement and change.

The Alliance is sub-divided into committees. The Research and Development committee, for instance, is developing UDL as the methodology and framework for classroom education.

When discussing the goals of the Alliance, the long term vision is to promote and fully incorporate UDL into every classroom as a means to creating socially and academically inclusive schools. In regards to a short term goal, the board members are currently working towards becoming a non-profit organization. Other objectives include educating the public and advocating for inclusive education. It is critical to talk to parents of children with intellectual disabilities. Oftentimes, they fight UDL because they believe that their child needs an educational assistant as well as special programs. Historically, this is how education has been approached. The research, on the other hand, says otherwise. When a child spends 80% of their day with adults rather than interacting with their peers, that child will experience lower academic achievement, poor social skills, and a less successful transition to the community. In segregated classrooms, these children will not learn how to interact and live in the general population, increasing social anxiety.

A common assumption made by many educators is that children with intellectual disabilities need to learn job and life skills. While attending special programming to learn these so-called ‘crucial’ skills, the child is missing out on instruction in the classroom, thus leaving the child alienated from the rest of the class. All children will learn job and life skills through UDL as a result of the focus on social and emotional awareness and learning. Logically, a child cannot get a job if they cannot interact with co-workers and customers, and what better place is there to learn social skills than in the classroom? Parents and educators alike need to understand that global research indicates that in an inclusive classroom and with peer interaction, children with intellectual disabilities do far better not only in academics, but social and emotional awareness and life skills as well.

Another aspect of UDL that differs from the status quo is the utilization of an educational assistant (EA) in the classroom. UDL aims to minimize the time the EA spends with the disabled child at a 1:1 ratio, while using the EA to serve all members of the classroom.

Jennifer revealed that the Three Block Model will shift the balance of education in Manitoba. The Three Block Model does not introduce new content to the education system; it simply shifts the focus from rote academic performance and memorization to critical thinking, problem solving, 21st century skills and competencies, and social and emotional learning. In classrooms, students do not learn how to interpret emotions and establish morals and values. UDL and the Three Block Model pull us back into recognizing that while academic and intellectual development is important, students need to be immersed in an instructional climate where self-worth and belonging, and valuing of diverse others, for instance, are encouraged. Under the status quo, it is possible to instill these values in students in spite of systemic shortcomings. However, the Three Block Model utilizes the system to support and encourage students to learn these fundamental values.

For students who are intellectually disabled, this is a huge shift. Block 1, for instance, focuses on the goal of self-worth and belonging. If the individual is at the back of the classroom with an EA, this goal cannot be fulfilled. At best, ‘helper’ relationships can be established between the individual and his/her classmates. Classmates will never see that individual as a peer. To remedy this, the Three Block Model pays attention to how we integrate students as part of the classroom and activities. In typical classrooms, individuals with intellectual disabilities are often underestimated, and not given the opportunity to rise to meet his/her potential. When we shift towards including these individuals into the classroom in universally designed ways, they become problem-solving, critical thinkers, and play a socially valued role in the classroom. This will set them up for success and independence in further life.

UDL and the Three Block Model benefit all, and impact everyone. Through the Three Block Model’s holistic approach, students will see gains in self, concept, and engagement, in addition to academic achievement. While UDL may be more important with students with intellectual disabilities, it still serves all students. Many students that currently are successful are not engaged and do not enjoy school. UDL will engage more students, and provide them with an experience different from the one they are currently receiving. Teachers are also supported by UDL. Shockingly, 47% of teachers leave their profession before retirement age. The Three Block Model provides the teacher with the resources to accommodate and support all students, resulting in an increase in positive behavioural and learning outcomes. This will decrease the teacher’s stress levels, and provide a more rewarding work environment.

When discussing the challenges associated with incorporating UDL into classrooms using the Three Block Model, Jennifer discovered that coming from a system standpoint, we have to rethink how we teach, as well as eliminate stereotypes. It is really about shifting the values and beliefs towards inclusion, and eliminating the entrenched beliefs surrounding the limitations we believe that individuals with different learning abilities possess.

Another upside to incorporating the Three Block Model is that it does not add any additional expense to the education system. While it would cost a substantial amount to provide teachers with training, the long term benefits are substantial, even economically. A reduction in teacher leaves and illness, student behaviour and failure, and the need for segregated programs with low teacher-student ratios reduces costs. In a sense, we merely have to shift the budget around. For instance, there is a significant portion of the budget going towards bussing in special education programs, and this is something that would be eliminated should UDL be incorporated into classrooms.

I asked Jennifer, additionally, about her current projects regarding the Manitoba Alliance. Communication and advocacy are a major focus right now. The Alliance is trying to raise awareness through their blog, website, newsletter, and conferences about the Three Block Model as a method for achieving inclusion. THIS Conference (Transforming Hearts, Instruction, and Soul) is also coming up from August 24th-28th at the Caboto Centre. THIS Conference features a variety of sessions geared towards parents, educators and anyone interested in UDL and inclusive education. Deb Dykstra, a Community Living Manitoba board member, is delivering two sessions at this conference: Parent Perspectives on UDL and Including Students with Developmental Disabilities. This is an event you will definitely want to check out!

In closing, Universal Design for Learning is a celebration of diversity. The Three Block Model helps design a classroom that clearly embraces the leading notion that all students have something to offer.