Universal Design (in the classroom)

I first learned about the concept of Universal Design in college. The term was coined by Ron Mace, the architect at North Carolina State University. A very simplified definition of Universal Design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” —Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, Ron Mace Initially this was applied to the design of buildings to legally meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Architects quickly realized that it is significantly cheaper to design a building with an elevator and a handicapped accessible ramp than it is to add them in after the fact.  


Universal Design has since been applied to learning as well. Rather than accommodating students after the fact, lessons and curriculum should have multiple components already “designed in” to address the specific learning needs of every student in the classroom. Research shows that every student has different learning strengths and weaknesses. Gifted students have weak areas while students with learning disabilities have soaring strengths. Therefore information cannot be presented in only one way. In addition we cannot expect students to express what they have learned in only one way.


The old adage “one size does not fit all” should be applied in our classrooms! Todd Rose, a high school dropout turned Harvard faculty, addresses the challenges that schools face when they design a learning environment to fit the “average” student. As he so eloquently states in his Ted Talk on June 19, 2013 at TedxSonomaCounty, “we’ve created learning environments that because they are designed on average cannot possibly do what we expect them to do.” I encourage you to watch the video of Todd Rose’s Ted Talk in its entirety: https://youtu.be/4eBmyttcfU4 In his example of a classroom that embraced trying a new approach, Rose makes abundantly clear that “simple solutions can have a profound impact on individuals.” Let us not be afraid to make changes in our classrooms and homes that allow our students the opportunity to excel.