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In the contemporary world, the audiences of learners in all types of educational institutions, ranging from kindergartens to universities, tend to become more and more diverse. Because of the differences between various learners, it becomes increasingly inadequate to utilize the same instructional methods for all the students. Therefore, a need arises to use instructional methods and techniques which would be either flexible enough to suit all students or would allow for adapting instruction to individual learners. This paper examines two instructional techniques, namely, Differentiated Instruction and the Universal Design of Learning, which is aimed at satisfying the diverse needs of the contemporary learners of virtually all educational levels. After discussing Differentiated Instruction and the Universal Design of Learning separately, the paper compares the two techniques to find out which similarities and differences these two approaches possess.
Generally speaking, it is possible to define Differentiated Instruction (DI) as an approach to providing instruction to students in a manner which would take into account the peculiarities of each student and adapt the teaching materials and techniques to these peculiarities to find a match for each learner (Dixon, Yssel, McConnell, & Hardin, 2014; Ernest, Heckaman, Thompson, Hull, & Carter, 2011; Taylor, 2015). However, it should be stressed that researchers have different opinions about what aspects of instruction should vary in DI according to the peculiarities of a particular learner. According to some authors, differentiated instruction can take into account such individual aspects of learners as culture or ethnicity, gender, learning style, and so on (Dixon et al., 2014; Ernest et al., 2011). On the contrary, other authors, such as Pham (2012), state that the concept of “learning styles” has a poor evidential basis and should not be employed in differentiated instruction.
Instead, the author suggests that the teacher should emphasize the identification of the level of the readiness of their students; modify the contents, process, and products of instructions that they deliver; and improve collaborative efforts and autonomy in the process of learning (Pham, 2012). It might be possible to state that Pham (2012) argues that taking into account these three factors may allow for providing high-quality instruction for any student by estimating how ready these students are to learn; adjusting the instruction accordingly to meet these readiness levels; and enhancing both the individual and collective efforts of students to learn (Pham, 2012). On the other hand, such authors as Ernest et al. (2011) also propose to concentrate on other aspects of differentiated instruction, such as changing four main components of instruction chosen from a particular area: content, product, process, learning environment. On the whole, however, the crux of differentiated instruction is that this approach attempts to take into account the needs of virtually every student in this or that way, and adjusting the instruction to the needs of that particular student.
Universal Design of Learning
When it comes to Universal Design of Learning (UDL), this notion can be defined as one that denotes an instructional framework which is used as a guide for developing the curricula and teaching practices while taking into account the needs of the learners, therefore providing all the learners with the access to the curricula, eliminating obstacles to learning, and supplying alternative methods for providing instruction to students (Abell, Jung, & Taylor, 2011; Edyburn, 2010). On the whole, it is possible to state that UDL accomplishes the goal of making instruction appropriate for every learner by designing it in a manner which would allow for a high degree of flexibility in the provision of instruction, as well as for eliciting student response and promoting learner engagement via proactive planning (Courey, Tappe, Siker, & LePage, 2012; Spencer, 2011). It focuses on such aspects of teaching as expression, representation, and engagement (Spencer, 2011).
It should be pointed out that the framework of UDL has found its uses in a wide array of instructional techniques in both sciences and arts. For instance, Katz (2013) and Spencer (2011) proposes to use it in inclusive classrooms; Marino, Black, Hayes, and Beecher (2010) offer to employ this technique in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), in particular, in such a field of science (or, more specifically, in such a branch of physics) as astronomy. Such methods as the utilization of arts (Glass, Meyer, & Rose, 2013) or assistive learning technologies (Messinger-Willman, & Marino, 2010) are proposed to be integrated into instruction to make UDL more effectual in engaging learners.
Generally speaking, it may be stated that the crux of UDL is the creation of a single but very universal approach to instruction tailored for the given audience, one that would permit for effectually teaching all the learners thanks to the great amount of flexibility of that approach (Courey et al., 2012; Spencer, 2011).
From the discussion above, it is clear that both approaches to instruction, DI and UDL, are aimed at supplying the learners with the opportunity to achieve the best learning outcomes by designing instructional activities, materials, etc., in a manner that would be suitable for those learners. Therefore, a common feature of both DI and UDL is that they stress the importance of custom-tailored instruction for learners, instead of using only a single curriculum that would be non-flexible, and would not be adjusted to the peculiarities of the audience of the instruction (Dixon et al., 2014; Ernest et al., 2011; Marino et al., 2010; Spencer, 2011).
However, DI and UDL are different in the manner in which they approach tailoring the instruction to different learners. Indeed, DI proposes to take into account the individual differences of learners, such as their learning styles, cultural or gender specifics, and so on, by continuously assessing their needs, and to adjust the instruction for each student individually (Dixon et al., 2014; Ernest et al., 2011; Taylor, 2015). On the other hand, UDL is aimed at making the instruction more universal by enhancing its flexibility and adapting it to potential peculiarities of different learners (Courey et al., 2012; Spencer, 2011). Nevertheless, both approaches to instruction are effectual when teaching different audiences a variety of subjects (Ernest et al., 2011; Katz, 2013; Spencer, 2011).
All in all, it should be stressed that both DI and UDL are aimed at modifying instruction in a manner that would allow for satisfying the educational needs of diverse learners. However, DI does so by constantly monitoring the needs of individual students and adjusting instruction to their learning needs, whereas UDL creates instruction that is flexible enough to be able to accommodate the teaching to the needs of all the learners. Both DI and UDL are important ways that permit adapting education to the needs of modern society, which becomes increasingly diverse as time passes.
Abell, M. M., Jung, E., & Taylor, M. (2011). Students’ perceptions of classroom instructional environments in the context of ‘Universal Design for Learning’. Learning Environments Research, 14(2), 171-185.
Courey, S. J., Tappe, P., Siker, J., & LePage, P. (2012). Improved lesson planning with Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Teacher Education and Special Education, 36(1), 7-27.
Dixon, F. A., Yssel, N., McConnell, J. M., & Hardin, T. (2014). Differentiated instruction, professional development, and teacher efficacy. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 37(2), 111-127.
Edyburn, D. L. (2010). Would you recognize Universal Design for Learning if you saw it? Ten propositions for new directions for the second decade of UDL. Learning Disability Quarterly, 33, 33-41.
Ernest, J. M., Heckaman, K. A., Thompson, S. E., Hull, K. M., & Carter, S. W. (2011). Increasing the teaching efficacy of a beginning special education teacher using Differentiated Instruction: A case study. International Journal of Special Education, 26(1), 191-201.
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Glass, D., Meyer, A., & Rose, D. (2013). Universal Design for Learning and the arts. Harvard Educational Review, 83(1), 98-119.
Katz, J. (2013). The three block model of Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Engaging students in inclusive education. Canadian Journal of Education, 36(1), 153-194.
Marino, M. T., Black, A. C., Hayes, M. T., & Beecher, C. C. (2010). An analysis of factors that affect struggling readers’ comprehension during a technology-enhanced STEM astronomy curriculum. Journal of Special Education Technology, 25(3), 35-48.
Messinger-Willman, J., & Marino, M. T. (2010). Universal Design for Learning and assistive technology: Leadership considerations for promoting inclusive education in today’s secondary schools. NASSP Bulletin, 94(1), 5-16.
Pham, H. L. (2012). Differentiated Instruction and the need to integrate teaching and practice. Journal of College Teaching & Learning, 9(1), 13-20.
Spencer, S. A. (2011). Universal Design for Learning: Assistance for teachers in today’s inclusive classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning, 1(1), 10-22.
Taylor, B. K. (2015). Content, process, and product: Modeling Differentiated Instruction. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 51(1), 13-17.