Originating at Harvard 20 years ago by neuro scientists and neuro psychologists, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a robust personalized learning model intended to increase access to learning by reducing physical, cognitive, intellectual, and organizational barriers to learning. The model accomplishes this via a curriculum and approach that provides:
- Multiple means of representationto give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge,
- Multiple means of expressionto provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know, and
- Multiple means of engagementto tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn. (1) (2)
For years, UDL has been in practice around the globe, yet it has been silent on the significant impacts that space design can have on learning. Two years ago, Gould Evans began a partnership with the UDL-IRN (Implementation and Research Network) to remedy this gap.
As Gould Evans continues our design work with multiple inner city schools, and hosts enrichment programs through our own STEAM Studio, we continually see educators attempting to teach to the average student, and as a result, students are getting lost through the cracks only to become disenfranchised by the education system. This is because “the average student” is a myth. Sadly, far too many of these disenfranchised students are the kids that quickly find themselves in the “school-to-prison pipeline” according to many research studies.
It is urgent that all educators recognize the different types of learning barriers experienced among the diversity of learners in our schools, especially those in undeserved neighborhoods – racial barriers, ethnic barriers, language barriers, cultural barriers, family barriers, and so forth. A highly adaptive model for personalized learning is critical to reach the multiple needs of these learners, delivered by well-trained educators. However, space is often overlooked for the value it plays in creating positive and effective learning environments.
Many administrators and educators know a more personalized approach to learning is urgent, and have responded with a heavy focus toward evolving pedagogies. Too often, they overlook the power of the built environment. In our minds, the learning space establishes a behavioral role model for all those using it. Chris Fink, a founding faculty member at Stanford University’s Design School, states it eloquently:
“Space is the body language of an organization. Intentional or not, the form, functionality, and finish of a space reflect the culture, behaviors, and priorities of the people within it.”
In addition, a 2011 article in the Harvard Business Review makes the argument that:
“Culture trumps strategy every time!”
Therefore, if we accept that space affects behaviors, and behaviors, over time, affect culture, and culture trumps strategy, then hadn’t we better make sure our learning spaces are in alignment with our learning strategies?! We can create all the educational strategy we want, but without proper alignment of the spaces we teach and learn in, we’ll be fighting a continual uphill battle – our efforts with our instructional models will be discordant with the spaces they occur in.
Enter the UDL Learning Spaces Idea Kit!
Designed through an interdisciplinary collaboration of architects, educational researchers, educators, and learners themselves, the Idea Kit is a tool to help educators amplify their efforts with UDL practices via strategic design of their learning spaces. It gives everyone a common design language to share. And it sparks new ideas, helping educators and school leaders become more attuned to the ways that space design stimulates, or impedes, the positive learning characteristics proven effective through research.
The cards in the Idea Kit are comprised of three categories; blue cards are ideas relating to student learning experiences, green cards are ideas relating to educator-to-educator strategies, and orange cards are ideas relating to paradigms and the overall culture of the school. Users are encouraged to be creative in their use of the deck. The ideas on the cards are only thought starters, not intended as an all-inclusive set of design approaches to better support personalized learning. Among the ways the cards can be used are the following:
- inspire learning space hacks with idea starters that amplify UDL practices
- learn and reflect on UDL, instructional practices, tools, and space design—like flashcards
- support collaboration with colleagues
- develop a common language across design professionals and educators when working on renovations or new school designs
- develop inspiration for building level teams
- guide conversations with district leadership or school leadership
- support strategic planning with district teams such as curriculum, teaching, instructional technology, and facilities
The ideas on the cards are all cross-referenced to an online Reference Guide which links the specific space design ideas to UDL guidelines. This is valuable for those less familiar with UDL, yet, the simplicity of the cards also enables them to be used whether you’re a UDL practitioner or not. The Idea Kit will lend the most value to a school if utilized as part of a facilitated half-day workshop led by one of the team members who helped in the development of the kit.
We know through our work at STEAM Studio and in our Education Design Practice that space can be a powerful catalyst to help reluctant and discouraged learners rekindle their confidence and passion to become strong life-long learners! Help your students find this confidence and passion today!
Here’s what educators are saying about the Idea Kit on our Padlet feedback board:
“Where have these cards been? This is a great approach to engage professionals to drive conversations about the how, why, and what of learning experience. Love it!!!”
“Love these cards! I love the representation with real photographs and text options – I was drawn to the images right away.”
To find out more about organizing such workshops or obtaining your own Idea Kit, click here.
- Rose & Meyer, 2002, p. 75
- Cast (2008) Universal Design for Learning Guidelines 1.0. Wakefield, MA