Universal Design for Learning Literature Review

Brain Research and its Application for Designing Curricula

While doing Psychology 476: Assistive Technology for Students with Special Needs at Athabasca University, I had a eureka moment. If our school system was not primarily text based, favouring read-write learners, we would have different "learning disabilities". Imagine, for example, that we were primarily audio based. When our learners failed to learn, we might compensate by letting them take notes! As ridiculous as this sounds, (pun intended), when learners cannot read, we currently offer them the compensation of listening.

When I ask educators how the brain learns, I always get a list of the learning styles; visual, auditory, read-write, and kinesthetic. This goes back to our Industrial Age mentality and our desire to standardize learners. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) however uses an understanding of the learning process based on brain research. This research shows that there are not four, or five, or even six learning styles. There are as many learning styles as there are learners.

The individual uniqueness of learning styles stems from the complexity of the learning process. Learning is the interaction of three brain networks; the recognition, strategic, and affective.


Recogniton Recognition networks are specialized to sense and assign meaning to patterns we see; they enable us to identify and understand information, ideas, and concepts.
Strategic Strategic networks are specialized to generate and oversee mental and motor patterns. They enable us to plan, execute, and monitor actions and skills.
Affective Affective networks are specialized to evaluate patterns and assign them emotional significance; they enable us to engage with tasks and learning and with the world around us.

Retrieved on 07-Aug-2008 from http://www.cast.org/teachingeverystudent/ideas/tes/chapter2_2.cfm.

Each of these networks has a multitude of hierarchical and lateral processes and these can change over time.

How to prepare for this multitude of learners? Offer multiple forms of presentation, multiple forms of expression, and multiple forms of engagement. Although engagement is mentioned last, it is actually first. It is at our peril that we focus on the recognition and strategic networks and ignore the affective network. The truth is that it does not matter whether the learner has a supreme recognition network or a superior strategic network, if they are not engaged, they will not learn. They may pass the test but soon forget the content. But more importantly, a learner will overcome any problems in their recognition and strategic networks if they are engaged.

How to prepare these multiple forms? This is where the architectural concept of "universal design" enters. When the United States legislated accessibility, architects made an amazing discovery. By designing for the disabled, they improved accessibility for everyone. When they sloped a curb for someone in a wheelchair, they helped seniors, mothers on strollers, cyclists pushing bikes, and others. By removing the barrier for the disabled, they had removed it for others too.

This is the basis of Universal Design for Learning. By removing barriers for the learning disabled, we can remove them for others too. Let us return to our imagined scenario of an audio based school system, rather than our current read-write based. Why do we persist in relying on read-write when we know that this will fail a great number of our learners? Once digitized, our read-write material can be listened to with a screen reader. We can use charts and images to remove barriers for our visual learners. By making things interactive, we can remove barriers for our kinesthetic learners.

All brains do learn, yet all brains learn in different ways. As you design learning experiences, remove those barriers to learning by imagining not that you are learning disabled but diversely learning enabled.

Yes, it takes work to collect these multiple forms but again, where do you want to put your time and energy? In proactively preparing accessible curricula for everyone, or reactively developing education plans for individuals?

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