Charting the pathway to inclusion
These days, I spend much of my time meeting with teachers administrators sharing ideas about how to apply Universal Design for learning as a philosophy and framework for a research-based approach to meeting the needs of students with diverse learning needs.
As most people are aware, Universal Design is known more as an architectural concept that an educational one. But, in actual fact, the principles used in designing buildings, or innovative assistive technology or personalizing learning are much the same. The basic precept is that "what is necessary for some" is potentially beneficial for all. Automatic doors at the grocery store allow people with mobility issues to enter easily but also open up to ensure that I can get out with my giant shopping cart or arm-load of impulse bought packages. Close captioning for hearing impaired individuals provides me with the ability to read the news broadcast on the ceiling of my dentist's office, or "hear" the play by play of a baseball game in a noisy sports bar. My school is ramped to be accessible, but most of the use of those gentle slopes is to move furniture and supplies easily in and out of the building. In short, often innovations designed for one specific purpose have a host of spin-offs that benefit a much larger target group.
In my former school we adopted a universal design approach to how we teach, provide supports for students who are struggling, organize our timetables and design and furnish our classrooms. Our programme is characterized by direct instruction based upon cognitive load theory; daily one on one tutoring which utilizes the lessons of Ebbinghaus's "forgetting curve" and the mechanics of systematic phonics for children who are struggling to read. We draw upon such disparate sources as Daniel Pink (When) and the research on timing, pacing and the use of physical breaks in the out of doors; Andrew Solomon (Far from the Tree) who looks at parenting neurodiverse children; the outstanding brain research of Stanislas Dehaene (Reading in the Brain; How we Learn); Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational); and even Neil Postman (Building a bridge to the eighteenth century).
So how does Univeral Design fit in to all of this? UDL reminds us that, while "one size does not fit all", teachers, and classrooms and schools need an all-inclusive framework that allows for the variances in student needs and gives the learners options that will help them (with teacher direction and support) to construct a personalized programme approach that will work for each and every one of them. That personalized approach applies a "trifecta" of strategies including: direct instruction; cognitive load theory; and, social emotional support.
Our school was "exclusive" in that we only admitted students with identified learning challenges. Having said that, it was also incredibly inclusive because when we recognize that everyone is following their own unique learning path, being "different" becomes the norm.
The ultimate goal of our programme was to ensure that every student was provided with the guidance and support to master the requisite academic and social skills that would make them able to be successful in any post-secondary pursuit.
This site shares some of the ideas about teaching and learning that we have explored and applied over the years.
Dr. Jim Christopher
Head of School (retired)