Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a proactive approach to designing learning experiences to be accessible for all students, while differentiation is a reactive evaluation of the needs of individual students where adjustments are retrofitted into the learning environment. Some people use the terms synonymously, but they are different. However, UDL and differentiation belong together with each playing a significant role in providing access to the learning environment for all students. UDL addresses macro, upfront planning while differentiation is the micro-planning that occurs once teachers know the needs of the students in their class. Both UDL and differentiation focus on changing the learning environment to accommodate the student, rather than expecting the student to change to fit into the environment. Embedded within this approach is the rejection of the idea of the ‘average’ student, because no one fits the mythical ‘average’ (see Rose 2015). Our classrooms are diverse in many ways due to different experiences, socio-economic backgrounds, religion, race, gender and ability. Teaching toward the statistical average results in poor outcomes because the average student does not exist and therefore in reality we are teaching no one. However, when we acknowledge diversity and utilise the frameworks of UDL (see CAST 2019) and differentiation (see Tomlinson 2003) all students benefit. Consequently, UDL and differentiation are not only for students with disability, but provide benefit for everyone.
How do we approach using UDL and differentiation in the classroom? The three key aspects of Universal Design for Learning are:
Multiple means of representation-give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
Multiple means of expression-provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know.
Multiple means of engagement-tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.
The core aspect of UDL is that the learning goals are the same for all students, while providing different ways these goals are achieved. Let’s draw on UDL principles to approach the sub-strand of ‘responding to literature’ within the Australian Curriculum with a focus on the purchase of books for the school library.
The UDL principle of ‘Multiple means of representation’ can be met through the purchasing a range of books including large print, easy read formats, e-books, videos with subtitles and sign language, tactile books and braille books. These multiple avenues enable a greater number of students to access literature.
‘Multiple means of expression’ provides avenues for a variety of approaches for students to express their understanding of the text instead of the usual ‘read aloud’. These approaches could be via sign language, apps such as Proloquo2go, video, role play, board games and storyboards.
‘Multiple means of engagement’ means that a range of student interests and backgrounds should be incorporated within the texts to engage students. Penell, Wollack and Koppenhaver (2017) state that children’s literature tends to depict a narrow representation of characters. This can isolate students who fail to see themselves represented within literature, and it sends powerful messages about who belongs and who doesn’t. Incorporating quality literature into the school library is vital. However, many books that have characters with disabilities can be patronising or are written to explain the nature of a disability rather than portraying students with disability in a positive manner. These books can work against the premise of inclusive practice that is at the heart of UDL. Penell, Wollack and Koppenhaver (2017) list books that are respectful and inclusive of students with disability that should be available in all school libraries.
Providing a range of books and materials in the library via the framework of UDL will reduce the need for teachers to differentiate in their classrooms. However, there will always be a need to differentiate as UDL is unable to account for all diversity within the classroom. Tomlinson (2003) provides three areas to differentiate. These are:
Content: This aspect covers the ‘what’ the student is learning and ‘when’ the student is learning. It allows for a flexible approach to the breadth, depth and pace of learning.
Process: This covers the ‘how’ of learning and includes scaffolding, modelling and explicit instruction.
Product: This is the ‘evidence’ or outcome of learning and can be supported through technology, rubrics, think-alouds or alternative forms of assessment.
These three areas of content, process and product are differentiated in response to the readiness, learning profile and interests of students. Consequently, Tomlinson’s (2003) framework provides choices for students in how to approach and demonstrate their learning. An example is a grid by Erickson (2006) which is utilised to teach literacy in the primary classroom:
|Choose 1 “Character,” 1 “Setting” and 1 “Theme” activity from each row to help you and others think about your story. Talk to at least one other person about your chosen activity before you begin. Make sure that your work is interesting, full of details & describing words and imaginative.|
|Make a comparison chart about yourself and a character in the book. Divide the chart into 4 sections.
1) In the first two sections, explain how you and the character are the same.
Be sure to include the most important traits in each chart.
Hint: Look at the example of the comparison chart we created as a class to get ideas of how to create your own comparison chart.
|Write a newspaper report about the main character in the book that talks about what the character did, or is doing with his or her life, after the story ended.
In the article, explain how old the character is now, and what he or she has been doing since the story ended.
Has the character had any more exciting adventures?
Hint: Look at examples of newspaper articles to see how they are written. Also look at the example of the newspaper column we created as a class, to get ideas of how you might write your newspaper report.
|Write a description of a character from the story. a) Use lots of describing words to explain how the character looks and acts.
b) Draw a picture to match your character’s description. c) Then, write a descriptionof yourself.Hint: Look at the character description we created as a class, to get ideas of how to write your descriptions.
|Setting||Look at pictures from magazines, newspapers and the Internet to find a real- world location that looks similar to the setting in your story.
Use the pictures to create a collage that matches the setting of the story.
Then write a paragraph to explain the location of the pictures you chose, and describe how the scenery matches the setting of the story.
|Create 2 maps.
1) One of an important place in the book.
2) The other of an important place in your life.
Label the maps to help viewers understand what the places are like and why they are important in the book, and in your life.Hint: Look at other maps (on the wall of the classroom, or in books) to get an idea of the important features that maps usually have.
|Would this story have been different if it happened in a different time or place? Choose a new setting for the story that is different than the one it takes place in now. Choose 2-3 events in the story and explain how each event would be different in the new setting.
Then describe how your life would change if you lived in that setting, by explaining 2- 3 things in your own life that would be different.
|Big Ideas||Make a connection between a “big idea” in this story and another story that has the same message. Describe how the message is presented in each story. Do you feel that one story presents the theme in a better way than the other story?
Explain why or why not.
|Choose one important message or “big idea” in the story.
Explain in 3-4 sentences, what the message is, and how it is presented in the story.Then, with a partner, write and perform a short play or skit with the same message.Hint: Practice reading and performing your lines with your partner several (3 or more) times, before performing in front of an audience.
|Create a poster to advertise an important message from the book.
Your poster should include the following features:a) The message from the story.
b) A scene or picture (featuring characters from the story) that matches the theme. c) Important information about the book (eg: the name of the book, the names of the characters).Hints:
Interesting posters are often imaginative, colourful and exciting to look at and talk about. Try to include these features in your poster.
Look at the design and features of other posters (in the classroom or community) to get ideas of how your poster might look.
Hence, together UDL and differentiation provide a framework to support diverse classrooms by removing barriers to learning and facilitating an environment provides access to all students.
CAST (2019) http://www.cast.org/ accessed on 3rd June 2019
Erickson, C. (2006) Differentiated Instruction: Applying the Work of C.A. Tomlinson in the Primary Literacy Classroom Master of Education, Lakehead University
Penell, A.E., Wollack, B. & Koppenhaver, D.A. (2017) Respectful Representations of Disability in Picture Books in The Reading Teacher Vol. 71 No. 4
Rose, T. (2016) The End of Average New York: Harper Collins
Tomlinson, C. A. (2003). Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom: Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching.