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Chapter 5: UDL Assumptions and Beliefs

UDL is clear in its assumptions and beliefs.


When we read them we (or others) may totally agree... with a "but" on the end:

  • "Yes, we must remove barriers BUT we have to be careful not to give an unfair advantage to some students."

  • "Yes, we must provide options and choice BUT only when it comes to low-stakes activities."

UDL is clear in its assumptions and beliefs. There is no "but".

Ground the work you do in these UDL "truths". Wrestle with them. Share them with colleagues. Explore them with students. We can always improve our practice but only when we acknowledge our actions do not (yet) fully align with UDLs assumptions and beliefs.


Recognize that implicit bias, (some students struggle, students wouldn't fail if they tried harder, tests are the best way to assess learning, etc.) hidden at the unconscious level, will take work to acknowledge and change. 


​Recognize there is always room for growth. As the image below demonstrates, there is often more than one barrier. When we address one, another barrier may present itself, perhaps one more deeply embedded within the system, or within our assumptions and beliefs.

Apps and Resources

Pause and Reflect

We've compiled the pause and reflect questions from the book into a Google Doc. 


Feel free to make a copy and work inside the document, or record your thoughts using another form of media. 

Chapter 5 - Pause and Reflect


"...dynamic, flexible learning environments are needed to respond to the natural 

variability of learners. Expert learners come in many guises, and our educational 

environments should nurture and validate them all. This vision is a significant 

shift from the traditional mentality of education systems as they currently exist. 

The framework of universal design for learning can enable that shift." 

Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice - page 27


Wade In
Assumption 1: Disability Is often a Construct of Design

Universal Design for Learning is based on the belief that learning is the dynamic interaction of the individual with the environment or context. In other words, when we think about learning, we also have to think about the environment or context where that learning is happening. 


Learner ability or perceived disability is at that intersection where the individual interacts with the environment or context. 


The Understood website has a number of simulations. As you listen to the students and try the activities, consider where and when they are "disabled". In what environment or context are they not disabled? What is the intersection? What can we change about the environment and context to support these learners? What technology might "level the playing field"? for learning and attention issues.

Understood website offers simulations to let you explore issues though your child's (or student's) eyes.

Assumption 2: Barriers Are Embedded and Layered 

In this video John Almarode talks about focusing on the barriers we can control and letting go of the ones we can't. He explores barriers such as the labels we use for students, wasted time on things that don't improve learning and viewing diversity as a barrier rather than an asset. 

At the end of the video, John asks 3 questions:

  1. If you were a student would you want to be in your classroom?

  2. Would you want your own children to be in your classroom?

  3. If the answer to any of those questions was no, what do you need to do to change it?


Shallow Swim
Separate Learning Goals from Skill Goals

Universal Design for Learning makes the assumption that knowledge goals, related to the understanding of concepts, content and fact should, when possible, be separate from skill goals. Often goals are combined or the means of attaining one goal is linked to achieving the goal.


When we compound goals it is difficult to determine whether a student was unsuccessful because of lack of understanding or if they had difficulty with the means of expressing what they know. 


Below are two typical compound goals. The skill goal is in blue text and the knowledge goal is in red text. 

Black and white photo shows a group of railroad workers on one side of the tracks pulling on a rope while another group fixes a section of track.

The student will present a 3-minute speech on the importance of a national railway to Canada's development as a nation.

The students will express their understanding of the Civil War in a five paragraph essay.

When possible separate the two types of goals. Provide multiple means and let students choose. However, there are times where students will need to write an essay or give a speech. Provide access to apps and online tools such as Inspiration Maps, Voice Dream Reader, PaperPort Notes and Read&Write for Google Docs, and teach students how to use them effectively, to help ensure all students can show what they know. 

What other apps or online tools might support them?

Assumption 4: Learners Need Options and Choice

Providing "Multiple Means" asks you to provide options: 


  • To tap into learners’ interest, offer appropriate challenge and increase motivation. 

  • To give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.

  • To provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know.


Giving students choice in the tools and methods they use is an important step in creating a UDL environment. 

When the guidelines first came out, it was challenging to provide students with tech options that allowed them to access, process, produce and share their learning.


Today there are a plethora of mobile devices, tablets, apps and online resources. As such, it is important to explore, build (and cull) your technology toolkit periodically.


Avoid content or drill and practice apps. Instead focus on "tool" apps that provide students with different ways to access information and to show what they know. Ask: Who might not be able to use this app and why? Then provide alternatives or find a more inclusive app.


Deep Dive
Assumption 5: Variability is Expected and Embraced

Cognitive neuroscience proves that no two learners are alike. Designing for a "mythical" average (as Todd Rose explains in the Myth of Average) is to design for no-one.


If we asked a group of people to run a race and then provided everyone with the same, average size shoe, it would soon become apparent the majority would struggle to finish the race. If we also assessed running abilities based on this "test", we'd quickly recognize its inherent bias.


As Dr. Rose notes, we immediately understand foot size variability but, as evidenced by our education system, assume learners' brains are somehow "similar".


We can in fact plan for learner variability from the outset so that less students struggle with a one-size-fits-all curriculum and assessment. 

Assumption 6: Developing Learner Expertise is a Right

Universal Design for Learning makes the assumption that the purpose of education is to develop expert learners.

This process needs to be intentional and happens over time. As students are given access to learning, build their skills and strategies and come to understand themselves as learners, they develop learning expertise.

There's lots of background noise in this video (so use captions!) but all of the definitions are worth listening to as they each state the idea in a slightly different way. 

When done create an "elevator pitch" to define an expert learner. Share it with your students, parents, other teachers and your administration, to start talking about what this means in the classroom and for the types of experiences students need to develop these skills.

Join the conversation on Twitter.

UDL has 6 Assumptions & Beliefs about learners and learning.

What are yours? #DiveIntoUDL: 

1. (Dis)ability is often a construct of design     

2. Barriers are embedded and layered
3. Separate learning goals from skill goals   

4. Learners need options & choice
5. Variability is expected and embraced

6. Developing learner expertise is a right

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