Learning for All: How UDL and CRT Makes Education Accessible

Recently, I read a comment that compared teachers to doctors.

Teachers, like doctors, have the task of understanding and helping various individuals with limited information, except a teacher is charged with performing that task for multiple individuals at one time.

This comparison highlights the importance of presenting new concepts in various ways so all students find a lesson engaging and accessible, known as universal design for learning. However, UDL is typically implemented in such a way that limits its universality.

Culturally responsive teaching, “a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students' cultural references in all aspects of learning,” complements UDL as it ensures content is accessible to all students, regardless of background. “Learning happens in culturally appropriate social situation.”  We wholeheartedly agree.

 Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) seeks to take the whole student into account-- family, culture, expectations, religion, and traditions-- to promote learning. CRT doesn’t seek to force cultural assimilation or create a homogenous group of learners, rather it embraces cultural differences to enhance all students’ learning experience. Without pedagogies such as CRT and UDL, we can miss out on valuable opportunities to ignite students’ passion for learning.

 For example, a teacher may not know that a student’s family prioritizes cultural or religious commitments over school work, leaving a student lagging behind in her studies. Similarly, that student may feel pressure to abandon her culture in an effort to adapt. However, a teacher could encourage that student to develop a history project centered on her religious holidays, thus creating a bridge between her life and school. Another common challenge teachers encounter is developing rigorous standards for their English learning students. Unfortunately, a teacher’s intent to help students can be interpreted as low expectations by students, which can demotivate them. But, as a teacher walks through the differences and similarities of a student’s past and present school systems, they can discuss meaningful and achievable goals and expectations. Tailoring education to individual students is imperative, but we don’t have to write a new lesson plan for every student to make that possible.

 Ronald L. Mace, architect, product designer, and educator, pioneered accessible buildings in the late 1960s. His philosophy of purposefully designing accessible structures for all people is reflected in various developments in education, such as universal design for learning.

Just as a building may have ramps, stairs, and escalators, UDL and CRT also create various entrances for all students to embark in their learning process, without needing to create new buildings.

Universal design for learning becomes completely accessible with culturally responsive teaching. Both pedagogies together help students learn and demonstrate what they’ve learned in a variety of ways. High and clear expectations can be established and met. Both give students and teachers the latitude to incorporate culturally relevant components into curriculum while making it accessible. Just like a thoughtfully designed building enables people to easily navigate in a space, both UDL and CRT enable students to navigate their own learning in an accessible, relevant space.