For UDL practitioners, the three UDL principles are central to our design choices when designing learning experiences.
- Provide Multiple Means of Engagement
- Provide Multiple Means of Representation
- Provide Multiple Means of Action & Expression
These principles, when applied intentionally as part of comprehensive design are intended to remediate inflexible learning environments, experiences, methods, and materials. In effect, according to the UDL guidelines, the antithesis to inflexibility appears to be multiplicity.
This is interesting because, obviously, the more natural antithesis to inflexibility would be … well… flexibility. Right? So, to achieve the goal of enabling all students to learn by removing inflexible barriers, should the UDL principles be rephrased as “Provide flexible means of…”? Does it matter?
Consider these two parallel scenarios:
- A literature 101 instructor is aware that there is at least one student in the classroom who struggles significantly with reading comprehension and fluency. Proactively, she frequently creates a “reading cycle” in class in which students move in groups through three “steps.” Step 1 involves silent reading of a complex passage of text with intent to apply a specific critical approach, Step 2 involves the instructor reading the same complex passage aloud to all students, and they simply listen and think, reflecting on their initial ideas and notes, then Step 3 involves small and large group discussion as students share out their ideas. The instructor feels that by offering the reading both visually and orally, she is applying checkpoint 1.2 (offer alternatives for auditory information) and 1.3 (offer alternatives for visual information), thus supporting the students with who need support with reading comprehension and potentially enhancing the learning for all of her students without resorting to individual accommodations.
- Same instructor, same students, same situation. But the students are equipped with mobile devices or laptops as well as headphones and are able to access the text in an HTML format. All students are taught how to use Texthelp’s Read&Write software to convert speech to text (with different speeds, in different voices and accents) at will. The students are briefly coached in the options for interacting with the text and taught how to use the tools. They are then given 15 minutes to read and/or listen to the passage and to collect their thoughts in graphic and/or textual notes. Then, small and large group discussion follows, whereby the students share their analyses and collectively draw conclusions. Again, the instructor feels that by offering the reading both visually and orally, she is applying checkpoint 1.2 (offer alternatives for auditory information) and 1.3 (offer alternatives for visual information), thus supporting the students with who need support with reading comprehension and potentially enhancing the learning for all of her students.
For each scenario, consider:
- Did the instructor’s approach likely address the needs of students who would have struggled to read the print text?
- Did the instructor’s approach likely have neutral to positive effect the learning experience for all other students?
- Would the instructor’s approach lead to transferable skill for students?
- Did the instructor’s approach likely have a negative effect on some students?
I suggest that this simple scenario demonstrates the powerful and important difference between multiple and flexible use of the UDL Guidelines. Scenario 1 above demonstrated multiple means of representation, whereas Scenario 2 demonstrated flexible means of representation. There were some key differences and implications for each.
When providing multiple means of representation (or engagement or action & expression), decision making is commonly still in the hands of the instructor. For example, in Scenario 1, the instructor decided what forms of representation would be offered (oral reading & print), when (in limited duration stations), how (silent reading, instructor reading), and for whom (everyone). Partially because of the fact that the instructor is a key decision maker, the transferability of the supports are limited. That is, if the students move into another class in which they may benefit from support perceiving and comprehending text used in class, they are still reliant on this second instructor to apply strategies for offering multiple means of representation.
When providing flexible means of representation (or engagement or action & expression), decision making is shared among instructor and learners. For example, in Scenario 2, the instructor thought in advance about how variable students with varying strengths and weaknesses could be supported in achieving the learning goal and determined ways to offer options in the learning experience. But the students then made choices as to which option(s) they would benefit from and pursued their choices with autonomy. Because of this co-decision making and skill building, the skills that the students developed to help them learn (e.g., learning when, why, and how to use the software to support their own learning), students may be able to transfer this skill to other contexts even when other instructors do not explicitly provide the option. For example, students who know how to use Read&Write can subsequently create their own audio-based reading experiences in the future, as needed.
Inasmuch as the end goal of UDL is to develop “expert learners” who are purposeful & motivated, resourceful & knowledgable, strategic & goal directed, instructors may begin with providing multiple means of engagement, representation, action & expression, but should ultimately work toward giving students choices and coaching them in decision making. These flexibility-enhancing practices push students toward the mastery we hope for with UDL and help maximize transfer to other classes and settings as students embark on their journeys as life-long learners.