Sunday, July 7, 2013

Understanding by Design

This course will make use of a curriculum writing framework created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (1999) called Understanding by Design (UbD).  The following notes are taken directly from an ASCD white paper available in its entirety at:

The framework is based on 7 key tenets:
  1. Learning is enhanced when teachers think purposefully about curricular planning.
  2. The UbD framework helps focus curriculum and teaching on the development and deepening of student understanding and transfer of learning (i.e. the ability to effectively use content knowledge and skills).
  3. Understanding is revealed when students autonomously make sends of and transfer their learning through authentic performance. Six facets of understanding - the capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess - can serve as indications of understanding.
  4. Effective curriculum is planned backward from long-term, desired results through a three-stage design process (Desired results, Evidence, and Learning Plan).  RATIONALE: This process helps avoid the common problems of treating the textbook as the curriculum rather than a resource, and activity-oriented teaching in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent.
  5. Teachers are coaches of understanding, not mere purveyors of content knowledge, skill, or activity.  They focus on ensuring that learning happens, not just teaching (and assuming that what was taught was learned); they always check for successful meaning-making and transfer by the leaner.
  6. Regularly reviewing units and curriculum against design standards enhances curricular quality and effectiveness, and provides engaging and professional discussions.
  7. The UbD framework reflects a continual improvement approach to student achievement and teacher craft.  Adjustments are made so that student learning is maximized.

The Three Stages of Backward Design

Stage 1—Identify Desired Results

Key Questions:

What should students know, understand, and be able to do? (Before beginning the unit of study and through the process of participating in the unit.)
What long-term transfer goals are targeted?

What essential questions will be explored in-depth and provide focus to all learning? 

What meanings should students make in order to arrive at important understandings?

What knowledge and skills will students acquire?

What established goals/standards are targeted?

What enduring understandings are desired? 
Stage 2—Determine Assessment Evidence

Key Questions:

How will we know if students have achieved the desired results?

What will we accept as evidence of student understanding and their ability to use (transfer) their learning in new situations?

How will we evaluate student performance in fair and consistent ways?

Are the assessments aligned to all Stage 1 elements?

When someone truly understands, they:
  • Can explain concepts, principles, and processes by putting it their own words, teaching it to others, justifying their answers, and showing their reasoning.
  • Can interpret by making sense of data, text, and experience through images, analogies, stories, and models 
  • Can apply by effectively using and adapting what they know in new and complex contexts.
  • Demonstrate perspective by seeing the big picture and recognizing different points of view.
  • Display empathy by perceiving sensitively and walking in someone else’s shoes.
  • Have self-knowledge by showing meta-cognitive awareness, using productive habits of mind, and reflecting on the meaning of the learning and experience.

Stage 3—Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

Key Questions:

How will we support learners as they come to understand important ideas and processes? 

How will we prepare them to autonomously transfer their learning? 

What enabling knowledge and skills will students need to perform effectively and achieve desired results? 

What activities, sequence, and resources are best suited to accomplish our goals? 

How will the unit be sequenced and differentiated to optimize achievement for all learners?

How will progress be monitored?

Are the learning events in Stage 3 aligned with Stage 1 goals and Stage 2 assessments?


  1. Do I understand that UbD would allow me to FIRST design a final project for the students, make out a rubric to evaluate it, and then work backwards to teach this - that is - design the whole curriculm framework to help students succeed with this final project?

    1. That's exactly what they mean by backwards planning. Many teachers plan individual lessons first and then find themselves "running out of time" towards the end of unit and the students are kind of rushed into the end product.

  2. From #5, how do I truly know that understanding has taken place in 25 different sturents in one classroom?

    1. I think that's the "essential question" at the center of teaching. Students will frequently nod and tell you they understand when they do not. The key, I think, is a variety of performance assessments, some in the SOL multiple choice format and others in terms of written products and presentations (with or without PhotoStory or PowerPoint). When you spend too much time doing formal assessment you lose instruction time that you will need. Sometimes just having to explain the information to a partner while you float around the room might give you an opportunity to "float" by your quietest students and see if they are understanding or struggling.

  3. I enjoyed the article and understand how planning needs to be done. One of my big questions from this is from Stage One- the essential question that everything is built upon...I think I need to gain some confidence in how to create an essential question correctly so that everything else will flow from that question. It seems that planning can go awry if you do not have a question that is very straightforward, making you hare off in directions you don't really wish to go in order to meet a poor essential question. Once I actually begin using this technique, I may be less nervous about my ability to write good questions, but I think it would benefit me if we could talk about how to write a good essential question. The assessing of the students, using multiple types of assessment is not a problem for me, then working my lesson to match my assessment, it is just my weakness in creating a good question that has me worried. Any suggestions or tips?

    1. As we talked about in class having 3 or 4 essential questions for a unit may be the best way to go here. One of the essential questions can certainly be broader than others, but as you look at the Standards of Learning the subpoints under some of the broader standards might provide guidance to develop those more focused essential questions that are necessary to understand in order to develop understanding on the overall (overarching) essential question.

  4. In review of the UbD Framework article the basic principles seem very practical to teachers and or teams who are constructing their curricular pacing guides for a year. With that line of thinking a couple of questions arise. How often should the framework be reviewed, when standards change, each academic year with a new group of students? Also, especially in secondary classrooms how does UbD fit in with tracking or homogeneous grouping of students... In my first thoughts it seems logical that teachers need a time line that would include a period to find out a student's "starting point" for the best individual learning development.

    1. Certainly any time standards change you need to revisit the framework to make sure your essential questions are still in alignment with the new standards and what kind of tweaking they might need.

      The other logical point is right after teaching the unit ... though that might not be convenient for teachers worried about the next unit they have to teach. However, if they could just meet for 30 minutes to dissect the unit with a simple two column chart of what worked well and what didn't and then come back to revisit that chart later when they have more time to dig in to fix problems that initial time investment will be beneficial.

  5. Paul I agree, good questioning is essential to spark thinking in all the variety of learning styles and abilities found in single typical classroom. Each student has to find a connection in the question that they can "take off and run with". I believe suggestions can be made but trial and error may be necessary especially when teachers initiate use of the UbD framework.

    1. I agree with Billy here, that any time you are developing curriculum there will be a learning curve where you will have a little trial and error of some of those essential questions that you will fine tune as students work through the activities and discussions in class.


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