Part 3 of 3: Understanding and Meeting Learners Where They Are using the UDL Lens

Designing for EquityIn the CompetencyWorks paper based on the 2017 National Summit on K-12 Competency-Based Education, Designing for Equity, one of the four key issues in advancing competency-based education is “meeting students where they are.” It describes that a high quality competency-based system connects learning in relationships and requires educators to understand their learners as individuals and then select strategies based upon that knowledge. Before we look at how to meet learners where they are, let’s review what has presented in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

In Part 1, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) was introduced as the pedagogical approach based on the learning sciences to create an inclusive learning culture with educational equity at the center. In Part 2, we described how using the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express can help build the skills of agency and self-advocacy for every learner in addition to creating partnerships in learning, an essential element for a high quality competency-based system. In the this last part of this series, the focus is how do we know where learners are, what do we do once we know where learners are, and how do we move them forward?

In order to meet learner where they are, districts and schools need to create a learning culture that is built from a shared pedagogical philosophy based on the learning sciences that will enable strong partnerships in learning. This learning culture must recognize that every individual is a learner and is valued in the community, and that each learner will have a voice to share ideas and opinions and will be supported to take risks. The next question is…

How do we know where learners are?

In Part 2 of this series, the Learner Profile based on the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express was introduced where the learner shares their story of who they are, what they aspire to be, what they care about, and how they learn. Next, teachers have conversations with the learner about strengths, challenges, preferences, and needs and begin to build a better understanding of the learner. Most important in this process is that the learner is sharing what he or she understands about their own learning, for the first time often revealing the social and emotional side of their learning. This new insight of the learner alongside the numerical data that is collected from testing and the data on the competencies they have mastered offers a fuller picture of where the learner is, what skills they need to develop to support their challenges and enhance their strengths that will lead to agency, and what hopes and dreams they may have.

What do we do, once we know?

Once we know who our learners are, we need to consider how we design our lessons and projects, and how we design flexible learning spaces to support the learners and activities in our classrooms each day. Consider…

Lesson Design with all learners in mind

Now that we know who our learners and how they learn, the question is how do we take this information about our learners and develop instructional methods, materials, and assessments each day in our lessons and projects so that we are responsive to the way they learn? In an elementary classroom, understanding each learner using the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Expresstm is an important tool in deciding on the instructional methods, the materials that you will use in a lesson, and the assessments that would be most effective. In a middle school and high school, a Class Learning Snapshot can be applied by taking the Learner Profiles of four learners from both ends of the learning spectrum in your classroom. The learning spectrum in a classroom may span from learners who have cognitive or learning challenges on one end to self-directed learners on the other end. Keeping these four learners in mind will help you better design instruction for the entire class. Todd Rose, author of The End of Average, notes in his 2013 TEDx, The Myth of Average, “Design to the edges and we will reach them.”

Next, take any lesson and use the Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm to decide and intentionally design the instructional methods, materials and assessments you will use.

Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm

UDL Lesson Review Process

Here is one example of what this Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm may look like in a sixth grade literature lesson on Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

UDL lesson review process


The Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm, when applied in daily practice, will meet learners where they are by providing every learner access to the curriculum, by including different opportunities to engage with the content, and by offering ways for each learner to express what they know and understand. Above all, by using this four-step process, you are designing your lessons and projects to reduce barriers to learning as well as to optimize the levels of challenge and support to meet the needs of all learners from the start.

If we are to meet learners where they are, then we need to co-design flexible learning environments with our learners to support the variability in their learning and the pace they need to learn. This is where learning spaces are designed for learners to have autonomy in where they need to learn alongside areas for collaboration, creativity, and individual and large group instruction. Having flexible learning spaces consistently offers each learner the opportunity to have the choices in daily activities with the options to work collaboratively, communicate with peers, and engage in critical thinking.

What do we do to move every learner forward?

Once we know where learners are, then next we need to help each of them to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions so they can progress in the way they learn and offer ways and opportunities for them to connect with their passions, interests, and aspirations. Using the Learner Profile is the starting point where learners share what their interests are or have been, what they aspire to be, how they want to contribute to make it a better world, or maybe what issues they are passionate about with beliefs that can change the status quo. We need to seek opportunities for each learner to follow their passions, interests, and aspirations so they can find their purpose. For the first time, we have the ability to meet learners where they are, to design and engage learners in the ways that they learn, to design learning spaces that support the learner, and to respond to learners as they learn.

So let’s turn to the essential question in this series:

How can we create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center?

Several of the quality design principles highlighted in Designing for Equity are instrumental in creating the environment to meet every learner where they are, move them forward, and create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center:

  • Recognize and nurture every child and adult as a “learner” to create an inclusive learning culture. Culture Design Principle – Equity, Learning and Inclusivity; Structure Design Principle – Educators as Learners.
  • Focus on having each learner develop agency and to take ownership of learning so that they can self-advocate, self-regulate, and ultimately self-direct their learning. Keep in mind that in order for ownership of learning to occur, it is required that each learner needs to understand how they learn using the UDL Lens. Teaching and Learning Design Principles – Based on Learning Sciences and Student Agency and Ownership.
  • Create a learning orientation classroom where meta-learning is practiced. Meta-learning means “learning about learning” that promotes the ability of a learner to plan, monitor, reflect, and think deeper in one’s learning. (Watkins, 2010). Teaching and Learning Design Principle – Rigorous High Level Skills
  • Develop daily practice to help learners make sense of their learning:
    • notice learning,
    • have conversations about learning,
    • reflect on learning, and
    • make learning an object of learning. (Watkins, 2011) Culture Design Principle – Growth Mindset
  • Establish a system to provide learning opportunities for learners to have experiences inside and outside the classroom that is responsive to their interests, passions, and/or aspirations. Culture Design Principle – Relevance
  • Intentionally design instructional methods, materials and assessments using the Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Processtm by understanding the strengths, challenges, preferences, and needs of your learners. Teaching and Learning Design Principle – Responsive; Structure Design Principle – Flexibility
  • Set a goal along with a set of actionable steps in your school or school district this coming year, in collaboration with all stakeholders, to commit in creating an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center. Structure Design Principle – Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning  

The work of educators at the district, school, and classroom level is to keep equity in the center of decision-making.

When the UDL Lens is used in daily practice by teachers, learners, and the learning community, equity and inclusivity becomes the learning culture.


*The UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express and Four-Step UDL Lesson Review Process are trademarks of Kathleen McClaskey.


Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2017). How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Lopez, N., Patrick, S. and Sturgis, C., Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed, 2018.

Rose, T. (2013, June 19). The Myth of Average: Todd Rose at TEDxSonomaCounty.

Watkins, C. (2010). Learning, Performance and Improvement. INSI Research Matters, 34, International Network for School Improvement Web site:

Watkins, C. (2011). Learning: a sense-maker’s guide. Professional Development Series,

Part 1 of 3: Understanding the Pedagogy of a Learning Science to Nurture an Inclusive Learning Culture

The Essential Question for this 3-part series is:

“How do we create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center?”

Creating a culture of learning and inclusivity, a non-negotiable for competency-based schools, is a tall order for most K-12 public school systems. As schools move from a traditional system to a personalized, competency-based system we need to evaluate the tools we have used around learners and learning, teachers and teaching and learn about how a learning science can be used to nurture and build a culture of learning and inclusivity. One approach that is based on research in the learning sciences and that has been around for over 25 years is Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

This three-part series explores how Universal Design for Learning can strengthen teaching and reinforce a culture where every learner feels that they are valued, belong, and is learning.


Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an educational framework based on research in the learning sciences, including cognitive neuroscience, that guides the development of flexible learning environments that can support the variability of learning in the classroom. Recognizing this variability in the way learners learn, the UDL framework was first defined by David H. Rose, Ed.D. of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the 1990s. It called for creating curriculum and instruction from the onset that provides:

  • Multiple means of representation to give learners different ways of accessing information and processing it into usable knowledge,
  • Multiple means of expression to provide learners ways to express what they know and understand, and
  • Multiple means of engagement to use a learners’ interests, talents, and passions to engage them in content and concepts and motivate them to learn.

These three principles noted above parallel the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky’s three essential processes for learning. These processes include “recognition of the information to be learned; application of strategies to process that information; and engagement with the learning task” (Vygotsky, 1962).

From this early work at CAST on UDL, these three principles of UDL are used today along with a set of UDL Guidelines that can support schools and educators to universally design curriculum and instruction that addresses learner variability at the beginning of the design or planning effort. The UDL Guidelines are designed to assist educators to develop curriculum goals, methods, materials, and assessments that would guide the design of learning environments and experiences that would reduce the barriers to learning and maximize the levels of support and challenge to all learners.

In December 2016, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) defined and endorsed UDL as “a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practice” and to personalizing learning—stating that it provides flexibility and supports for all learners and reduces barriers in instruction. ESSA calls on states and districts to incorporate principles of UDL in assessment design and technology adoption. As of September 2017, the majority of states have incorporated Universal Design for Learning into their ESSA State Plans. The question is:

Where do states and districts begin to use the UDL principles in practice to create an inclusive learning culture?


The UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express: Bringing Research to Practice

The UDL principles can serve as a framework for curriculum and instruction but how can we take UDL that is grounded in the learning science and use it in daily practice to create a culture of inclusivity? To develop an inclusive learning environment a common language needs to be used by everyone in the school. New terms were developed for the UDL principles in 2012 by this author who introduced the UDL Lens of Access, Engage, and Express*. Using these terms around the UDL principles would give everyone in the school culture a way to have daily conversations, a common language, about learners and learning, instructional methods, materials, and assessments. Above all, it would build an understanding and appreciation of the variability that each learner has in their learning.

What does it mean to use the UDL Lens?

UDL Lens of Access Engage and ExpressFrom the learner’s perspective, the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express in a Learner Profile would give him or her an opportunity tell their story of who they are, how they learn and what they aspire to be; in other words, their Identity. Each learner would…

  • share their strengths, challenges, preference and needs in how they Access and process information, Engage with content and concepts, and Express what they know and understand,
  • express their interests, talents, aspirations and passions,
  • set learning goals and actionable plans with teachers to support a challenge or enhance a strength,
  • have regular conversations about their learning with teachers, peers, and parents.

One important outcome of learners’ telling their story using the UDL Lens is that they feel valued. For teachers, understanding their learners can inform their daily practice so materials, methods and assessments are more effective. Finally, the UDL Lens becomes an essential tool to create an inclusive learning culture that supports a school’s values and beliefs where relationships are built on trust and respect.


Creating an Inclusive Learning Culture with Equity at the Center

educational equity defined

“Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.
– The National Equity Project

As defined in the Culture Design Principles, found in the seminal report “Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course For the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education”,

A school’s culture is the daily manifestation of its core beliefs; adults’ beliefs about themselves and their students; students’ beliefs about themselves and the adults around them…”.

With the first design principle of equity, the question is: “How can we create an inclusive learning culture with equity at the center?” Here are some thoughts on where to begin:

  • If equity is to be realized so that it becomes the center of an inclusive learning culture in a competency-based system, then all the stakeholders in a school community need to lay a foundation of a shared vision and a set of beliefs around learner and learning, teachers and teaching and the learning community.
  • Empower each learner (including teachers and administrators) to discover who they are and how they learn (strengths, challenges, preferences and needs) using the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express so they can become “self-aware, effective learners”.
  • Create opportunities to have conversations to develop meaningful relationships between teacher and learner and between learner and learner.
  • See everyone in your school as a learner.
  • Value every learner!

To achieve equity in an inclusive learning culture, values, beliefs, and practices need to be understood and applied daily by every learner. The first step is to begin.


Next – Part 2 of this 3-part series:

Empower the Learner – Building the Skills of Agency and Self-Advocacy using the UDL Lens

* The UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express is a trademark of Kathleen McClaskey.



Bray, B., & McClaskey, K. (2017). How to Personalize Learning: A Practical Guide for Getting Started and Going Deeper. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

How Has UDL Been Defined? (2013, April 17). Retrieved January 10, 2018, from

Lopez, N., Patrick, S. and Sturgis, C., Quality and Equity by Design: Charting the Course for the Next Phase of Competency-Based Education, 2017.

Personalization and UDL: The Perfect Match. ASCD Educational Leadership, March 2017.

The Three Principles. (2014, September 18). Retrieved January 11, 2018, from

UDL in the ESSA. (2016, February 17). Retrieved January 10, 2018, from

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1934).



Make Learning Personal


Make Learning Personal, we need…

to empower each learner with the skills to be Future Ready,

to transform teaching and learning practice, and

to embrace and value each learner!

Make Learning Personal logo

This puzzle logo with it’s multi-shades of blue represents that each learner is unique and multi-faceted in that they learn in different ways.  We see the importance for each learner to understand how they learn so that they can develop agency with the skills, knowledge and dispositions to have choices in college, career and life.


MLP Vision

Each learner…

  • is valued, supported and embraced.
  • understands how they learn.
  • is unique and develops the skills to support their learning.
  • advocates for their learning.
  • works at their own pace in a competency-based system.
  • follows their passions to discover their purpose.
  • takes ownership to their learning.
  • achieves agency.

MLP Mission

  • Empower each learner to be future ready with agency.
  • Support the transformation of schools to build and sustain personalized learning environments.
  • Create conversations and a community that supports personalized, learner-centered teaching.
  • Share research, resources and best practices of personalized learning across the globe.

MLP Core Beliefs

  • Every person on the planet is a learner!
  • Personalized Learning starts with the learner!
  • Personalized Learning and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) are the cornerstones to developing learner agency for every learner.
  • Learners need to be promised agency as they enter the schoolhouse door.
  • Every learner needs to use the UDL Lens for their Learner Profile to help them share their strengths and challenges in how they access information, engage with content and express what they know and understand along with their passions, interests and talents.
  • Each educator needs to discover the learner in every child by using the UDL Lens of Access, Engage and Express(TM).
  • When learners understand how they learn, they can begin to self-advocate and have voice and choice in their learning.
  • Each learner needs to develop a Personal Learning Backpack of skills, tools and resources to support their own learning.
  • Every learner needs to have a Personal Learning Plan to set goals and action steps, to measure their own progress and to reflect on their goals.
  • Learners need to work at their own pace in a learner-centered,  competency-based environment.
  • Learning spaces need to be designed to support the diversity of learners in the classroom.
  • Teachers are learners too so their professional learning needs to be personalized.
  • Technology can level the playing field by removing the barriers to learning and by creating opportunities for learning.
  • Personalized learning is based on relationships and a culture of trust and respect.
  • Use the term “learners” to describe anyone instead of referring to them as “students” that comes from the traditional system.
  • Schools need to create a culture and community of learners.
  • Learning is personal so Make Learning Personal!