How to Support Math Students with the Universal Design for Learning Principles
Introducing Eureka Math2™ — an exponentially greater math curriculum, written to unlock greatness for every student.
Read more to learn how the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) makes this possible.
DOWNLOAD THE ARTICLE AS A FREE PDF
every child is capable of greatness.
How do UDL Principles Apply to the Design of the Cockpit of a Fighter Jet and a Math Lesson?
First, let’s provide a bit of context. In this popular Ted Talk video, best-selling author and Harvard professor Todd Rose tells the story of a problem the United States Air Force faced in the 1950s. Despite having good pilots and better planes, they were getting poor results. After ruling out other possible causes of declining performance, such as the pilots themselves, the technology, and the flight instructors, the air force realized that the problem was with the cockpit in its fighter jets. It didn’t fit the pilots.
The thinking behind the existing configuration was that a cockpit designed to fit the average-size pilot would accommodate most pilots. As part of the troubleshooting effort, a researcher measured 10 different body dimensions (height, shoulders, torso, etc.) of over 4,000 pilots to determine how many pilots had average measurements of all 10 dimensions. The air force discovered that no one had average measurements of all dimensions; there was no average pilot. In fact, every pilot had what they described as a “jagged size profile”—some measurements were average, some above, some below. As a result, the air force banned designing for the average, instead requiring companies that built the planes to “design to the edges” of pilots’ dimensions, ensuring that the cockpit would fit the variability of pilots’ sizes. The result was a cockpit that accommodates all pilots by providing flexible components such as adjustable seats.
Just as the air force discovered that there is no average-size pilot, neuroscience research tells us that there is no average learner. As an article by CAST, a nonprofit education research and development organization, explains, no two brains are alike (2018a). Therefore, instruction should not be designed for the “average learner.” Instead, instruction should provide flexible options—just like the adjustable seat in the cockpit of a fighter jet. CAST’s Universal Design for Learning Guidelines (2018b), help educators design instruction that proactively addresses barriers to learning by designing for the predictable variability of all learners.
Why is the Universal Design for Learning Important?
UDL is a framework based on current research from cognitive neuroscience that recognizes learner variance as the norm rather than the exception. The guiding principles of the UDL framework are based on the three primary networks of the brain.
The Affective networks
Provide multiple means of Engagement (the why of learning)
The Recognition networks
Provide multiple means of Representation (the what of learning)
The Strategic networks
Provide multiple means of Action & Expression (the how of learning)
(Image Source: CAST)
According to CAST, the UDL framework “offers an overarching approach to designing meaningful learning opportunities that address learner variability and suggests purposeful, proactive attention to the design of goals, assessments, methods, and materials.” (n.d.) The UDL Guidelines provide a set of concrete suggestions organized by the three guiding principles: Engagement, Representation, and Action & Expression. Educators can use the UDL Guidelines to evaluate their goals, assessments, methods, and materials and identify potential barriers to student learning. Teachers can then proactively design instruction that maintains desirable challenges and eliminates unnecessary barriers. Here is an overview of each guiding principle and its instructional implications.
- Provide Multiple Means of Engagement: Learners differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn. Use a variety of methods to engage students. For example, provide choice, address student interest, and arrange for students to monitor their own learning, such as with goal setting, self-assessment, and reflection.
- Provide Multiple Means of Representation: Learners differ in the ways they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. Use a variety of strategies, instructional tools, and methods when presenting information and content.
- Provide Multiple Means of Action & Expression: Learners differ in the ways they can navigate a learning environment and express what they know. Offer students a variety of strategies and instructional tools and allow for multiple ways to demonstrate new understanding.
What is the Importance of Universal Design for Learning in Math
So back to our original question, how is a Eureka Math² lesson like the cockpit of a fighter jet? Just as the United States Air Force provided options to address the variability of their pilots, Eureka Math² lessons provide options to address the variability of learners. Rather than designing for the illusory average student, Great Minds® prioritizes learner variability, recognizing that average is a myth and variability is the norm.
Although the concept of UDL has roots in special education, UDL is for all students. When instruction is designed to meet the needs of the widest range of learners, all students benefit. This is especially important since, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities report The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5, “1 in 5 children in the U.S. have learning and attention issues, but only a small subset are formally identified with a disability in school … while millions of children with learning and attention issues are not formally identified.” The report recommends policy changes, one of which is to “drive innovation for effective teaching and learning.” A key aspect identified to accomplish this change is to use UDL to reach every student. As the report states, “Children with learning and attention issues are as smart as their peers and, with the right support, can achieve at high levels” (Horowitz, Rawe, and Whittaker 2017).
Learning Acceleration for All: Planning for the Next 3–5 Years, a recent report by TNTP, an education nonprofit, cautions school systems to recognize and address pitfalls that may hinder their long-term learning acceleration strategy. One of these pitfalls is “centering on the mythical “average” student rather than considering how to plan for high expectations for a diverse set of learners.” TNTP recommends that school systems work “in partnership with parents, teachers, students, and community partners to develop a comprehensive education support plan that will provide equitably high-quality academic experiences to all of [their] students.” A critical component of a high-quality academic experience for students is a high-quality curriculum that is explicitly designed to attend to the needs of all learners in its instructional design, not just the “average” learner because the average does not exist. Each student arrives to school with their own strengths, areas for growth, and approach to engaging with academic content. School systems can be confident when selecting Eureka Math² that the curriculum materials were designed to address learner variability from the outset.
Interested in learning more about designing UDL-aligned lessons? Check out these planning questions our writers used to plan for learner variability.
Allsopp, David, LouAnn Lovin, and Sarah van Ingen. 2018. Teaching Mathematics Meaningfully: Solutions for Reaching Struggling Learners (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Brookes.
CAST. n.d. Frequently Asked Questions. https://udlguidelines.cast.org/more/frequently-asked-questions.
CAST. 2018a. “UDL and the Learning Brain.” https://www.cast.org/products-services/resources/2018/udl-learning-brain-neuroscience.
CAST. 2018b. Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org.
Horowitz, Sheldon H., Julie Rawe, and Meghan C. Whittaker. 2017. The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities. https://ncld.org/research/state-of-learning-disabilities/.
IRIS Center. 2021. “What evidence-based mathematics practices can teachers employ?” Supporting Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Vanderbilt University. https://iris.peabody.vanderbilt.edu/module/math/cresource/q2/p05/#content.
Rose, L. Todd. 2013. “The Myth of Average.” TEDTalk at TEDxSonoma County, June 13, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eBmyttcfU4.