Understanding by Design
The understanding by design model (UbD) of curriculum development was put forth in 1998 by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design (UbD). Also called the backwards design model, UbD approaches curriculum development by beginning with desired learning outcomes and objectives, then working backwards to define assessment modalities and finally daily lessons and instructional activities. By developing curriculum in this manner, teachers are better able to clarify enduring understandings, essential questions, and unit questions towards the ends planning instruction and designing accurate and meaningful modes of assessment.
Keywords Breadth of Curriculum; Constructivist Approaches; Depth of Curriculum; Enduring Understandings; Essential Questions; Rubrics; Six Facets of Understanding; Uncovering Curriculum; Understanding by Design (UbD); Unit Questions
Curriculum Organization: Understanding by Design
Basics of the Understanding by Design Model
"Understanding by Design (UbD)," also known as the "backwards design model," was first introduced by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in 1998. The model encourages teachers to plan lessons and units backwards, starting with final learning outcomes and then working backwards toward individual daily lessons that aim to achieve teachers' desired results. Briggs (2007) indicates that UbD asks questions such as:
• What aspects of learning will be relevant to students in the future?
• How will students be able to see the bigger picture?
• How will teachers know that students have achieved desired learning goals?
Wiggins and McTighe (1998) simplify the UbD model into three stages including identifying desired results, determining acceptable evidence that students have achieved desired results, and planning each learning experience and instructional activity to help students achieve desired results (pg. 9). To further clarify, Wiggins and McTighe (1998) indicate that UbD requires the designer to begin with an end in mind and map back from the desired result to daily lessons in order to determine the best way to reach the intended outcome(s) (pg. 146).
Kolenda (2007) asserts that UbD provides the framework necessary to develop strong units of study filled with essential understandings and authentic assessments. Kolenda (2007) further claims that UbD fosters inquiry, constructivism, and student engagement. The model also helps tailor lessons to meet students' myriad learning styles and needs.
Stage 1: Identify Desired Results
The first stage of the UbD model requires teachers to identify desired learning outcomes by beginning with what they want students to understand at the end of a learning experience or unit of study. Some guiding questions for the identification of desired results are:
• What should students know, understand, and be able to do?
• What is worthy of understanding?
• What enduring understandings are desired? (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, pg. 9).
Wiggins & McTighe (1998) indicate that at this stage of planning, teachers must consider their goals as well as examine national, state, and local published content standards of learning (pg. 9).
Golland (1998) discusses the critical importance of having an aim, purpose, or objective when planning a unit of study. He further asserts how important it is for teachers to be clear with regard to final learning outcomes in order to be able to develop meaningful learning experiences that contribute to overall understanding. With a strong purpose or final learning objective, teachers are prepared to work backwards to design the types of learning experiences which will be most beneficial to students.
Wiggins & McTighe (1998) suggest that teachers think of this stage in terms of identifying what students should be familiar with, what is important from them to know and do, and what is essential to their lifelong, enduring understanding (pg. 9). When considering what students should be familiar with, teachers should list everything from a unit of study that could be worthwhile for class discussions, activities, etc. However, as Wiggins & McTighe (1998) indicate, it is often impossible to cover all of the ideas and topics a teacher might consider worthwhile. Teachers can further narrow the list by determining what students need to know and be able to do. This level of analysis includes facts, concepts, principles, and skills (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, pg. 9). However, facts and concepts are not easy to retain if students are unable to relate them to a larger picture of understanding and real life application.
For these reasons, it is essential for teachers to narrow down learning outcomes to the most important, enduring understandings that should remain with students throughout their lives. Wiggins & McTighe (1998) refer to enduring understandings as "big ideas"; they are the concepts that teachers want students to get "inside of" through a unit of study. Wiggins & McTighe further clarify that enduring understandings are what students should retain even if they don't remember the details (pg. 10).
Determining What is Worth Understanding
Wiggins & McTighe (1998) suggest a framework for determining what qualifies as an enduring understanding, and what teachers should identify as final learning outcomes and desired results. First, they suggest that teachers analyze whether or not an idea, topic, or process represents a "big idea" that will have value beyond the classroom. Second, the authors recommend considering whether the idea, topic, or process is central to the discipline. Third, teachers should think critically about whether the idea, topic, or process requires "uncoverage." Finally, they should consider whether or not the idea, topic, or process offers potential for engaging students (pg. 11).
By using these filters to determine what is essential to student understanding, teachers can identify unit goals that can guide instruction for a unit of study. Wiggins & Grant (1998) emphasize the critical importance of specificity with regard to development of such goals. The authors articulate three levels of specificity including topical statements, general understandings, and specific understandings. For example, Wiggins & Grant (1998) assert that "Students will understand the Civil War" is a topical statement that barely gets to the heart of the unit goal. "Students will understand the causes and effects of the Civil War," is more specific, but still general in terms of the actual modalities of learning that will take place. "Students will demonstrate through historical and social analysis and role-plays their understanding of the Civil War as a struggle of state versus federal power over economic and cultural affairs that continues to present day," however, represents a specific understanding that serves as a guiding focus for the unit of study (Wiggins & Grant, 1998, pg. 24).
Once learning outcomes, unit goals, and enduring understandings are identified, teachers need to think critically about the essential and unit questions they will use to guide their instruction throughout the unit of study. Wiggins & Grant (1998) highlight the difference between essential and unit questions. They assert that essential questions grant insight into deep and enduring concerns (pg. 28). Furthermore, they assert that essential questions reveal the richness and complexities of the subject material, can be returned to repeatedly, and can occur across the curriculum over many years (pg. 28). Unit questions are slightly different in that they provide subject and topic specific paths to essential questions. For example, an essential question may read as "Who is a friend?" or "Must a story have a moral, heroes, and villains?" whereas a unit question may be "What is the moral of this story?" or "Are Frog and Toad true friends?" (Wiggins & Grant, 1998, pg. 31).
What Constitutes Understanding?
Wiggins & McTighe (1998) also provide a strong theoretical framework to help teachers determine if students understand what teachers identify as worthy of enduring understanding. The authors assert that students truly understand a matter when they can explain, interpret, apply, demonstrate a perspective, empathize, and display self-knowledge (pp. 47-57).
According to Wiggins & McTighe (1998), students demonstrate understanding when they can explain their own theories and ideas, link facts with larger ideas, justify their conclusions, or effectively show their work (pg. 47). Students demonstrate understanding by creating their own interpretations rather than uncritically accepting what a teacher says is true (pg. 51). Moreover, they demonstrate understanding by applying their knowledge to real-world problems and by adapting it to different contexts (Wiggins & McTighe,...
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