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Universal Design for Learning

In previous posts, I introduced the concepts of expert learning and the learning triangle. As a quick review, fostering expert learning means building the requisite capacity and context so that people have both the will and skill to learn, improve, and thrive. This means addressing all three sides of the learning triangle – emotional, intellectual, and strategic – so that meaningful, lasting learning and improvement can occur.

But how do we do that intentionally and inclusively?

Enter Universal Design for Learning, or UDL for short. Developed by CAST, UDL is a framework for improving and optimizing training and learning for all people based on the science of how humans learn. It’s a human-centered, research-based approach that fosters expert learning in any context.

So what does science tell us about learning? For one thing, there are clusters of neural networks that interact with each other during learning. They are

  1. The Affective Networks – these cover why of learning, the emotional side of the triangle.

  2. The Recognition Networks – the what of learning, or the intellectual connection

  3. The Strategic Networks – the how of learning and, you guessed it, the strategic connection.

Upon first take, L&D folks may look at these networks and think of a standard flow in a formal training session – : get the learners interested (affective), provide them with content to learn (recognition), and then ask them to demonstrate understanding by completing some tasks (strategic). The networks are handing off learning responsibility to each other in sequence, like runners in a relay race passing the baton. Though a natural assumption, the truth is more intricate.

Although we’ve described these networks individually to help us understand their different roles in learning, they are constantly interacting. For example, to become interested in something (affective), we first need to perceive something that may be interesting (recognition) and decide whether to focus our attention (strategic). We can’t think only about emotions at the outset or neglect strategic thinking until the end. Put simply, network interaction is not a relay race, it’s a dance. The networks are affecting and reacting to each other. Sure, you may perceive that one network is leading at some point, but they’re all in the dance together. Finally, they’re always looking for engagement, not just during what others have designated as officially time for learning (workshops, training videos, and so on). These networks are responding to the world in real time.

If we want to help our people become expert learners, we must build their capacity to intentionally connect emotionally, intellectually, and strategically to learning. We also have to create and sustain more effective learning environments, especially those where learning happens most: during work. This way of thinking about how we support our people entails helping them to focus on the what of learning. It also entails helping them understand their own emotions and beliefs about their abilities, the why of learning. As their partners, we’re helping them help themselves to improve by engaging in the how of learning, transferring new knowledge and skills into authentic, impactful practice.

We also need to acknowledge, account for, and leverage the variability within our pool of learners. They bring different knowledge sets, experiences, interests, talents, and aspirations into the learning. UDL allows us to anticipate where those differences are most likely to show up in the learning, guiding us to strategically implement countermeasures – supports, options, etc. – to account for that variability.

So what can you do right now?

In future posts, I’ll go deeper into how to leverage the UDL framework to support learning, but for now, start with setting goals for why and how, not just what. Many learning experiences have goals centered on the acquisition of new knowledge and skills – the what of learning. That’s not wrong, just incomplete. Consider developing goals for the why – how do you want people to feel about the value of the learning, and what about their expectations of success for applying the learning to their work? Going further with application, write goals for how they will bridge the gap between knowledge acquisition and authentic transfer. How do you want them to think strategically about using their new learning to improve in their actual work?

Next, consider what you know about your learners – what variability might you expect in:

  1. Their interest or perceptions of value they play on the learning

  2. Their beliefs about themselves as learners and their role in learning

  3. Their prior knowledge of the content, specific vocabulary, and language conventions they’ll encounter in the learning?

  4. Their ability to connect the content to their practice

  5. Their ability to think and act strategically – how, when, and why to apply their new knowledge of what

Finally, with that variability considered, think about where barriers to learning might pop up in the learning experience. For example, is the value explicitly communicated, and is that value proposition relevant and authentic to the entire audience? If so, great, but if not, what could you do to make that connection more clear and applicable to the breadth of your audience?

Feel free to connect with me and share your ideas, questions, and even objections to this approach. I’d love to connect, learn from your perspective, and perhaps offer some contextualized ideas based on your needs. In any case, I’ll be back next week with another post, diving more deeply into learner variability and how it shows up in the workplace.

James McKenna

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Until next time,

James McKenna

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I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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