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Universal Design for Learning Across the Disciplines

The California Subject Matter Project has been hearing from teachers all over the state that 2021-2022 was the most challenging year so far: after two years of pandemic-related learning challenges, students needed support to accelerate them to grade level; with record-breaking inflation and housing shortages, students experienced increased food and housing insecurity; and behavioral challenges have shown an increased need for social and emotional support.  These pandemic-related circumstances have further complicated the challenges to standardized education, exposed gaps in accessibility, and clarified the need to create learning environments that are flexible and can accommodate all students. Many teachers and leaders continued designing choice and multi-modal activities into our lessons to keep struggling students engaged in new ways. As the classroom environment changed and ping-ponged into and out of the virtual world, this flexibility became essential.  Designing a learning environment that prioritizes student choice to develop and sustain engagement and heighten content and skill development is a key component of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Consequently, CSMP wanted to take this opportunity to share specifically what UDL is, how it might look in different classrooms, and where you can find additional resources.


Universal Design for Learning is a research-based strategy for creating a fully inclusive classroom and was developed by CAST, an education research and development organization in 1984.   It does away with the myth of “the average student” by encouraging teachers to design the learning environment to the needs of each student. Universal Design for Learning acknowledges that learning looks different for every student and offers specific ways to adjust lessons and classroom curricula that you already have in place. To streamline the integration of UDL into our classrooms, CAST developed The UDL Guidelines (pictured below) in 2009. These guidelines provide specific ways to help educators design their instruction with more flexibility. This flexibility empowers students’ choice-making skills that support meeting their learning needs and goals. The guidelines break down learning to help students grasp the “why,”  “what,” and “how” of learning by providing options for understanding and comprehending content. 


The California Subject Matter Projects employ UDL in many of our resources and workshops to help teachers create a classroom that supports all learners in achieving grade-level standards with appropriate accommodations. An elementary math lesson on patterns might be complemented with a lesson on the underground railroad by the book The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom, by Bettye Stroud. Through the tactile experiences of quilts and the story of the underground railroad, children learn to recognize patterns and make meaningful connections between math, the past, and the world around them. UCB History-Social Science Project recently held a workshop with the San Jose Museum of Textiles and Quilts, during which they considered how “textiles connect people to family and culture, making them an ideal bridge… [to consider] often unrecognized contributions, especially those by women, to the body of historical evidence that helps us understand other times and people.” 


UDL offers a straightforward way to diminish the barriers in our classrooms and are appropriate across all disciplines. At first glance, UDL might not seem like a smooth fit for mathematics, but  The California Math Project developed the program, Math Success For All (MFSA) which interrogates the learning environment and its barriers. MFSA uses the principles of UDL to interrogate individual learner needs so that all students can achieve success.  Shifting the focus toward the learning environment rather than the learner “requires us to understand students’ areas of variance, including disabilities, as well as their individual variances.” In doing so, we as teachers can cultivate “mathematical mindsets through sensemaking opportunities…[and] provide growth opportunities for all students that help them become expert learners.” 


Below is a brief list of additional resources supporting Universal Design for Learning that our projects designed, supported, or participated in:


California History-Social Science Project:

The California Arts Project

California Physical Education-Health Project

California Writing Project

California Reading and Literature Project

California Science Project

California World Language Project

California Global Education Project

CGEP at Long Beach worked with elementary teachers and students in the Teaching for Sustainable Communities program at CSU Long Beach. Together they worked to address food and materials waste through lunch sorting stations, recycling, composting, school gardening, and more. Here is a short video of their results.

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