Tools and Materials That Support the Learning Brain

Article excerpt

Rapid advances in science have helped reveal many of the secrets of how our brains work. These new insights have given us new ways to understand individual differences in learning.

We now know that there are three brain systems involved in learning tasks: recognition systems identify patterns, telling us what and where an object is; strategic systems generate patterns, telling us how to do things; and affective systems determine priorities, telling us which objects are important and interesting. Though interconnected, these systems are all unique. Their role in learning, and how they explain variations among learners, guide the Center for Applied Special Technology's (CAST) concept of Universal Design for [Learning[TM] (UDL). UDL is a framework for responding to individual learning differences through the use of technology.

In order to reach learners of varied backgrounds, interests, abilities, and levels of expertise, learning "tools" and materials must be flexible in ways that support the three brain systems involved in learning. Some ways to achieve this include the following approaches:

* Multiple representations of content, providing options to suit various recognition systems.

* Multiple means of expression and control, providing options to support different strategic systems.

* Multiple options for engagement, which act upon the affective systems, providing alternative ways to attract and hold the student's attention and motivating them to learn.

There is always an ongoing search for the right combination of materials that will work, since no single curriculum or software program can provide all of the flexibility needed to create a UDL environment. This requires assembling a variety of tools--computer devices, software programs, materials, and Web sites--that can be used in different combinations for different learners and for different teaching purposes. The flexibility comes in part from the collection itself, which enables varied approaches for reaching a given instructional goal, and in part from the inherent flexibility of each component.

Consider Martin and Euie--two students for whom universally designed tools and materials offer greater access to learning.

Representing content in multiple ways

Martin plays sports, listens to music, and enjoys his friendships. Reading is not the way he commonly gets information or enjoys himself. There are few books in Martin's home. Though smart and curious, Martin has difficulty in school with courses requiring extensive reading. When his class studies the human body, Martin has difficulty grasping the major organ systems and their interrelationships, primarily because this information is being presented exclusively via a printed textbook.

Martin might be able to understand the human body more easily were he able to use a program such as A.D.A.M., the Inside Story (A.D.A.M. Software, Inc.). This CD ROM program presents information in multiple media, including still pictures, animations, speech and text. Unlike Martin's science textbook, where printed words and illustrations are the only alternatives for conveying critical content, programs like A.D.A.M. can use animation to demonstrate relationships, speech to reinforce concepts, and color, sound, and other media to highlight important facts. The essential information is represented in multiple ways.

There is no one way of representing information that is ideal, or even accessible, to all learners. Some students thrive in lectures, others obtain information effectively from text, while still others learn best through visual media such as diagrams, illustrations, charts, or video. One student with a proclivity for art may find an image easier to comprehend than a verbal description; another who is deaf will be shut out completely if only a verbal description is provided.

Universally designed materials accommodate this diversity through alternative representations of key information. …