Empowering learners in Sao Paulo: How the UDL Framework advances literacy among marginalized young people.

By Dr. Sean Bracken

Empowering learners in Sao Paulo: How the UDL Framework advances literacy among marginalized young people.

The promise for enabling access to education for a growing cohort of diverse learners right across the world requires urgent attention. This is especially the case at this time when a global health threat endangers those who are most vulnerable in our societies. The coronavirus pandemic may lead to a situation where social and educational services become even more difficult to attain for marginalized individuals and communities.

Yet, in this time of crisis, there is much to be celebrated as adherents for Universal Design and Universal Design for Learning are creating ever more dynamic networks of dedicated colleagues eager to make a positive contribution to realizing a more socially just and equitable learning environment across the globe. The pandemic has highlighted that, as a global community, we can only overcome common challenges through empathy, collaboration and the sharing of scientific research and solutions to problems that may seem intractable. 

Recently, I’ve spent time with learners and academics in Sao Paulo and Brasilia as a guest of Professor Elizabete Costa Renders who teaches undergraduate, graduate and post graduated courses for Inclusive Education at University of São Caetano do Sul. At the outset of my visit, Elizabete hosted a shared Saturday morning workshop with about 20 students and educationalists. All are active in an established community of learning practitioners fostering reflexive action through research and by discussing how best to overcome challenges faced in varied teaching contexts. This supportive cohort of learner practitioners use the UDL Framework made available by CAST as a critical lens for their praxis. 

Photo of researcher practitioners part of the ACCESSI group

Three of the colleagues participate in a small-scale research project applying Design Based Methodologies to iteratively hone their expertise in responding the learning requirements of learner variability. For example, Valquenia is a teacher working with students in their early teens living in significantly socio economically deprived areas known as ‘favelas.’ Unfavorable learning conditions for many students in the favelas have resulted in high levels of illiteracy. 

For Valquenia, the initial steps in her pedagogical journey with the learners concerned is to actively engage with the learner voice and experience to establish what will spark their interest in literacy learning. Valquenia cultivates a healthy learning environment by paying close attention to learners’ affective domain. Drawing on her knowledge of how best to apply multiple means of engagement, she garners learners’ interest, encourages effort and promotes learner self-reflection and self-regulation. 

The iterative design process revealed that the young learners had a rich cultural tradition of expression through popular graphic art in the favelas. They were also resourceful in their uses of information technologies. Skillfully, as part of the research project Valquenia is further enhancing these attributes of learner strength and the students are now developing graphic e-books that tell of their experiences. UDL in this context is not an abstract academic exercise; it is a powerful pedagogical process that extends the life chances of a group of students that might otherwise face insurmountable societal challenges. Through growing access to literacy, these learners are better equipped to author their own futures.

Having spent a little time gleaning an insight into the practical ways that the UDL framework is being implemented, it’s clear that the framework can assist in further promoting Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is concerned with realizing a quality education. As explained in the Goal description, in order, ‘to reduce inequalities, policies should be universal in principle while paying special attention to the needs of disadvantaged and marginalized communities.’ Valquenia is adopting the UDL framework in an innovative way to meet the particular learning requirements of her learners, and in doing so she inspires practitioners throughout the world. 

United Nations (2019) Sustainable Development Goals. Accessed from:  15th March 2020 https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/inequality/ 

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