In Jennifer Pusateri’s experience, it's rare to encounter teachers who jump right into using universal design for learning strategies that remove education barriers in the classroom.
Teachers most often build up understanding over time about the benefits of UDL, recognizing that barriers to learning are in the classroom and not in the student, said Pusateri, a universal design consultant for the University of Kentucky's Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. Pusateri shared this during a virtual session of the 8th Annual CAST UDL Symposium Wednesday. CAST is a nonprofit education research and development organization.
Removing barriers to learning could mean optimizing access to assistive technology, clarifying vocabulary in text, offering different ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge, or a host of other adjustments to help meet diverse learning needs in a classroom, according to CAST.
Sometimes, a teacher's UDL journey begins with skepticism and cautious hopefulness before growing into emergent proficiency, said Pusateri, a former teacher and current school board member for Kentucky's Danville Independent Schools.
"I really feel like those are the critical periods where if teachers don't get the support they need during that developmental time, as they're starting to learn about using UDL, a lot of times they get overwhelmed, and they turn away from UDL completely," Pusateri said.
Successful use of UDL requires teacher buy-in for the approach or for the theory it can reduce inequities to improve student learning, she said.
Hesitation about UDL can come from a variety of angles, including the thinking that it's not applicable to all students or that it's just a passing education fad, Pusateri said. To help build a UDL mindset, she suggests having teachers examine what works well in their classrooms and what are some pain points.
For example, are there certain students who are struggling or certain instruction strategies that aren't resonating? Is the classroom layout making learning more difficult?
She also suggests teachers ask themselves what are the prerequisite skills they expect students to have to be successful in their classrooms and whether a teacher is making assumptions about students' skill levels.
"It's not a blame game. You're trying to find the facts," she said.
Teachers should also acknowledge the aspects they can't change, such as classroom location, required curricula, the number of students in the classroom and the hours of the school day.
Once teachers commit to a UDL mindshift, they also need the methods to help implement UDL practices in the classroom, Pusateri said. CAST's UDL Guidelines and resources, such as graphic organizers and checkpoints, can help teachers find solutions and plan and track their efforts to improve access to learning, she said.
"No one is meeting every single need of every student in the class, but we can always be working toward removing more barriers for our students in our classes," Pusateri said.