Universal Design for Learning—also known as UDL—plays an important role in promoting inclusion and antiracism in classrooms. The underlying idea is that students come to us with a unique mix of strengths, weaknesses, values, and lived experiences—and we need to honor these in our teaching.
To reach every student, educators cannot just adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction. That approach reinforces the institutional racism that has historically been present in education because it caters to a mythical “average” learner—one who is white, middle class, self-regulating, and learning on grade level.
To eliminate barriers to learning, Universal Design for Learning empowers all students by providing multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of expression. This means that students will have more ways to interact with content, more ways to personalize their learning, and more ways to show what they know.
By embracing UDL, teachers gain a powerful tool for creating a learning environment in which every student feels welcome, and their unique gifts and capabilities can shine.
Here are three key steps to incorporate antiracism UDL in your school or district.
Step 1: Self-assess
The first step is to take stock of where you are currently as a school system. This sets the stage for meaningful changes in practice.
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Have you listened to racially and culturally diverse voices in designing your curriculum? Are people of color reflected in the curriculum as subject matter experts? In other words, do students learn about Black and brown mathematicians in their math classes? How often are the voices of Black and brown family members, community members, and other stakeholders invited to the table and included in the decisions you make?
Identifying what you’re doing well and where there is room for growth will show you how to improve.
Step 2: Confront biases
Many of the barriers to learning arise from teachers’ own expectations of what their students are capable of. Being aware of their own implicit biases helps educators intentionally design instruction to be more inclusive for all learners.
Educators should ask themselves: What thoughts do I have when I hear that a new student is coming to me with an IEP? Do I automatically think about how to dial down the rigor instead of thinking of various ways to communicate the standard clearly? What do I expect from children of various races and ethnicities? Do I stereotype different groups of students based on what I think they’re like or what I assume their preferences are?
In 2018, Black students were suspended at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts. When we look at how discipline rates and special education referrals vary dramatically based on the color of a student’s skin, it’s clear how much work we must do to eliminate bias from our education systems.
Step 3: Connect
Successful UDL involves designing learning experiences for all kinds of learners. This is easier when educators know their students well. To support this, K–12 leaders should foster a culture of connection—where teachers actively work to build relationships with all of their students.
When teachers can effectively design activities that play to students’ strengths (and minimize barriers that could stand in their way) students’ outcomes are more likely to reflect their true capabilities.
Breaking down barriers
UDL addresses systemic barriers to learning for students of color by ensuring that every student feels supported, welcomed and valued. When implemented well, it’s a critical antiracism solution that gives all students a chance to blossom and learn with the brilliance they were born to show.