Cult of Pedagogy Search

Understanding by Design, Introduction and Chapters 1-4


Can't find what you are looking for? Contact Us


Buy Now


[Note: All links to this book are Amazon Affiliate links. If you click any of these and make a purchase from Amazon, we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!]

Here we go!

If you’re just joining us, this is the beginning of our study of Understanding by Design, (Expanded 2nd Edition). I chose this book for group study because it introduces some pretty revolutionary ideas about how we approach instruction, but because the reading can be challenging, working through the book with the support of a group seems to be the best way to learn the concepts.

To get us started, I will offer my own comments on each chapter: a brief summary (more extensive summaries are available at this site), a few notes on things that made an impression on me, then a question or two for you.

Jump into the conversation however you’d like: Provide your own reactions, ask your own questions, or answer some of mine. And be sure to talk about things that confused or frustrated you, so we can all learn more together. If your interpretations differ from mine in any way, please say so: I’m making my best guess here and would love to hear how others are understanding the book.

One way you might approach this study is to look at it through the lens of a unit you’ve taught in the past that didn’t go as well as you hoped — by applying UbD principles to that unit, you’ll be able to apply what you’re learning, and end up with a fresh new unit to teach next school year.

[If you’re ready to talk about Chapters 5-9, click here.]


Most of us plan students’ learning experiences in a way that does not actually result in deep understanding, focusing instead on “activities” or on simply covering lots and lots of information.

Personal Notes: Two things made the biggest impression on me in the introduction:

The twin sins of design. This section really struck a chord with me, because I have long been bothered by activity-focused teaching. It’s always bugged me when I see “interdisciplinary” units where inter-content connections are flimsy and superficial. Coverage-focused teaching has also always seemed wrong to me: When I hear colleagues talk about how many chapters they still have to get to, it sounds like a race with no real learning happening. It’s a relief to see both issues being addressed here and knowing that a better alternative is going to be presented in the book.

The cautions and comments near the end. I appreciated that the authors noted that not ALL teaching has to aim for deep understanding, that the UbD approach is compatible with standards-based teaching, and that it does not prescribe any specific teaching methods. I think all of these are important to know going in.

Questions for You: Which of these sins are you most guilty of? When you read about the “twin sins,” did you feel defensive at all? What arguments, if any, came up in your mind to defend these approaches?

Chapter 1: Backward Design

Instead of using the traditional approach to teaching, where we plan readings, activities and lessons, then consider how to test what students have learned, we should take a backward design approach: clearly defining what students should know and be able to do at the end of a unit, designing the summative assessment(s), THEN planning the learning experiences that will lead to success on those assessments.

Personal Notes:

This chapter will cut deeply for some teachers, because it may make them defensive about the idea that they have been doing something “wrong.” I hope people can see this as an opportunity to build units that have a more lasting impact on student learning, rather than a personal attack on their teaching.

This makes me think about the way I used to “teach” novels. We would “do” S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, a unit I looked forward to every year. I would pull vocabulary and plot-based comprehension questions from each chapter, and students would be quizzed mostly to make sure they were reading. We had a few discussions (or maybe it was mostly me “discussing”), and then we’d finish with a unit test and a movie day, where I’d get to introduce a whole new generation of kids to the glory that was young Matt Dillon. But if you asked me why we read it, what students were supposed to get out of that unit, I would probably say something about it being a classic coming-of-age story and how it was important to expose students to good books. I never really had to articulate bigger understandings, what students should understand and be able to do by the time they finished. With the UbD approach, I would still probably include The Outsiders as an option for reading, but it would be part of a larger unit of study that addressed richer, more complex goals.

The UbD template and example (Bob Jones’ nutrition unit) are where readers sometimes start feeling overwhelmed. My advice is to take these slowly, and read the Bob James stuff carefully – following his example is a really good way to start internalizing the UbD approach; if you skip it, you’ll start to feel lost. Also, know that most of the elements they introduce in this chapter are just previews – they go into more detail about all of them later on.

Questions for You: Tell us about one of your units that has never quite produced the results you hoped for; either students performed poorly on the test, they didn’t retain the information later, or you just felt dissatisfied in some way. How might the backward design approach change the way you teach it?

[Discussion of Chapters 2, 3, and 4 can be reached by clicking on the page numbers below…look below the social media icons!]



  1. shayneswift says:

    Good Afternoon,

    I finally got all caught on the reading for Chapters 1-4 in Understanding by Design.

    1. This book reminds me of Course Design by Posner and Rudnitsky: A Guide to Curriculum Development for Teachers, Gardner’s TFU approach with Project Zero, and DuFour’s 4 Essential Questions (I used this and ask teachers in my department to use it as well). Additionally, our district just had a CC training and we discussed learning targets.

    2. I have never been a coverage teacher, but have been guilty of activities-based teaching. I have been teaching the same course for 5 years now and I find myself refining my processes to reflect backward design. There are two assessment components at the end of the course. One is a paper and the other is a solo or group presentation. During the first year of the course, I was literally flying by the seat of my pants (thank goodness that year has come and gone). Year Two: I started working on interpreting the aims and objectives of the course into language I could understand and looking at the relationship between those aims/objectives and the summative assessments. I also had students looking at the rubrics for the summative assessments and annotating the nuances in the language from one column to another. While I followed the textbook during my first year teaching the class, the next year I began viewing the textbook as a given resource that students would read on their own and make meaning of, but shifted to regular use of the inquiry-based model using supplementary materials that would bolster understanding of the text and promote experiences to scaffold successes toward the 2 summative assessments. During each unit, I review what I did the year prior and ask myself in what way does what I planned previously get us closer to those targets. Some stuff gets thrown out completely and other stuff is refined. I think I see the most improvement in my use of backward design with writing processes and questioning techniques. With the writing processes, I have expressed in explicit terms what the final product should look like and work to drive instruction around that final product in a number of ways. With respect to questioning, the essential questions are revisited strategically and often. My crafting of questions is better to elicit the types of productive/rich discussions students should have in the classroom.

    3. What I think it boils down to is that we don’t spend enough time with our designs and our designs have to start with the end in mind. At a school PD last year, we discussed the cycle of units, lessons, and etc. We were to explain where we would begin and why. I was alone when I indicated that I would start with assessments. Everyone else indicated that planning was first. I asked how you would plan without knowing where you are going.

    4. The templates are wonderful. I am rethinking my approach with teachers this coming school year. Having whoever is interested and willing to come in and work on using this process during the summer is a start.

    I hope I am not rambling!!

    • Hi Shayne — thanks so much for being our first commenter! I have a few follow-up questions for you.

      (1) Of the books you mentioned, which one did you like the most?

      (2) What course do you teach, and what is your current position? At times it sounds like you’re an instructional coach or a teacher of teachers, but I can’t quite tell. What kinds of “activities” did you do that you ultimately realized didn’t meet your goals?

      (3) I agree wholeheartedly that time is the big issue. Even knowing a framework like UbD is not enough to really get you teaching differently, especially if you’re thrown into a new course at the last minute. I would encourage anyone reading this to just start with one unit — maybe something you’re going to be teaching in the winter, and see if you can revamp it with UbD. I’m surprised that you were the only one at your PD who thought assessment was the place to start — what kind of reaction did you get?

      (4) “Whoever is interested” — that’s key, isn’t it? Starting with volunteers, rather than by force, is a good move for getting buy-in.

  2. shayneswift says:

    Hi Jennifer and thanks for your reply.

    1. I think the Course Design book was the best tool for me as it is methodical in its approach. There are also templates embedded in the chapters for use. I use DuFour’s 4 Questions because of its simplicity. If I keep this method, then I will add think-abouts to each of the essential 4 to foster more robust responses.

    2. I coordinate the IB Program at my school and teach the Theory of Knowledge course within the program. I deliver quite a bit of PD to the teachers in the program and support the delivery of PD school-wide.

    The activities that did not meet the goals were the ones that were honestly ill-planned. They were fun and engaging activities that could have met the goals, but I needed to have spent more time on “how” they connect to the goals.

    3. My critical friend and I are always viewed as the rebels at the school who “do too much”. She was delivering the PD and I was a participant. She acknowledged and supported my stance while everyone else just stared at me. I am used to getting this kind of reaction because I am a tech enthusiast who is an early adopter, I teach IB kids (so they are the “creme”), and I coordinate a program (which people seem to think is a cushy job).

    I really like and appreciate the advice on starting with one unit. Smaller, bite-sized pieces keep people from feeling overwhelmed.

    • Everyone just stared at you. GUH. That’s awful. That feeling is pretty much why I started this website, so I’ve definitely been there.

      As I’ve rolled out this book study on social media, I’ve gotten a whole range of responses: On one end, people like you who see the value in starting with assessment, but are pretty much on their own in a sea of others who aren’t buying it. On the other end, I have people saying, “DUH! I have been using UbD for years! Nothing new there!”

      Just shows you there’s a whole spectrum of knowledge out there.

      I think the best way to win more people over is by giving your own personal testimony: Find an opportunity to show others a before-and-after of a unit that once really lacked deep learning, and the new version that began with a well-planned assessment. If you can point out the flaws in your OWN “before,” you’re not putting anyone else under the microscope.

  3. mrussel1 says:

    *Most guilty of the “activity” sin. I try to figure out a way for students to show their understanding of the standards taught. I usually have to create my own activities or modify ones I’ve found so they assess the standards as I presented them.
    *I didn’t feel defensive while reading. As a teacher of only 7 years, I have made many mistakes and am constantly looking for ways to reflect and improve.
    *In defense of the “activities” sin, when the activities are purposeful, rather than “cute”, I see their value, but not as a “standalone”.

    • Hi mrussel! I’m glad you’re here. While you read the intro, did you think about any specific activities you’ve taught that made you think, Whoops, that one might have to go…? I’m asking because I think if we can toss around more real classroom examples, it will help everyone studying the book to get a good handle on what qualifies as an “apple unit” activity, what doesn’t, and what might be in the gray area. I’m thinking that some beloved “activities” might actually be revised — to make them more relevant and goal-driven — while still keeping the fun?

  4. RoyalP says:

    Hi – Love the book! Love backward design… I am an elementary principal, 4 years ago was an instructional coach, prior to that alternative high school teacher, 4th grade teacher, and middle school teacher (only made it 1 year in MS).

    Currently as a staff, we struggle with these sins constantly – For activity focused transgressions, I blame Pinterest! My younger teachers are experiencing a Pinterest Pandemic that needs a Panacea! They see something cute on Pinterest and attempt to push it into a unit or standard. This behavior rarely results in success. Teachers wind up reflecting that they are going back and teaching the lesson because students did not perform on the common assessment. However, I can sympathize because I was definitely guilty of both sins equally. Probably most grossly committed was coverage-focused teaching of math. I taught the book, chapter by chapter and assigned the even problems for homework. I harbor some guilty feelings for those days, but I didn’t know any better. If I could do it over again, I would take a look at the unit or chapter as a whole, think of relevant applications of the skills for the students, pose a relevant problem and then guide students through gathering the information and learning the skills necessary. The textbook would be a ‘just in time’ tool instead of a daily drone I drug kids through.

    In defense of the sins – our district structure is set up to promote both sins. The curricular pacing guide with specific skills that should be taught each week from the district approved resource definitely strangles design freedom and experimental autonomy a bit. Sneaking fun activities into the fast paced guide is sometimes the only way teachers feel like teachers. Also, the whole backward design thing makes great sense in theory but is very difficult in practice. Time, energy, and the risk of failure cause teachers to revert to what is known to produce at least 50% success, or revert to what worked for them as learners.

    As a leader, I try to remove the barriers to instructional experimentation. I do my best to release the constraints of the pacing guide by simply giving permission, I attempt to provide enough time (but there is never enough time) for planning, but it is difficult for me to remove the fear of failure especially in this educational climate.

    Another way I have tried to promote backward design thinking is by modeling it myself. Our building focus is created by a hybrid model of backward design from Schools by Design (same authors – similar process) and Steven Barkley – blog link: Barkley uses a process for identifying the students behaviors you want to observe, then the teacher behaviors and student experiences necessary to elicit the behaviors, then the leadership behaviors that make it possible for the teacher behaviors to happen and so on… We do a process as a building to identify the things we need to accomplish in order to get the student behaviors we desire. Teachers then replicate the process for unit design. We have been working with it for 3 years, and it is still difficult for them to work through. Their minds just jump to activities that will make lessons more engaging for students.

    I completely agree with Shayne, we don’t spend enough time… we don’t have enough time… Teachers have a 50 minute plan time daily and a 60 minute collaboration time once a week. Not enough. I am totally guilty of absorbing their plan times with IEP meetings, data team meetings, problem-solving team meetings, and lets face it – they need to pee sometime!

    I’ve got to do a better job as their leader at keeping the main thing the main thing, and this just might be something that gives us a lot of leverage with student achievement.

    I have teachers developing units for 4th and 5th grade Social Studies – no strong boundaries set by the district curriculum (more focused on reading and math) hasn’t really been taught previously, but falls into the things we believe are important for kids to understand. Essential Question: – What causes people to revolt, why do people fight, is conflict inevitable? (Standard is around historical documents – Declaration of Independence – and current events) Assessment: Assist a current group of people who’s rights are being violated in writing their own declaration of independence – graded using the district opinion writing rubric. They are hashing out something in the style of the brown-eye/blue-eye experiment – teaching like tyrants – hoping to get kids to revolt – in a perfect world the kids will come to me to complain that their teacher just isn’t fair and I will encourage them to write down the specifics and explain why it has to be bothering most of the class in order to really be a problem… or have the first parent who calls and complains to get in on the game…enter the Declaration of Independence and the story of the Revolutionary War. I would love some thoughts, feedback, reflections using the backward design process for this unit. It is in the infant planning stages.

    • “Pinterest Pandemic.” Love that! And so true!

      Yes, I think modeling is a huge key. When people have never done something like this, they sometimes can’t even conceptualize how to do it until they watch someone else. That helps take the fear away.

      I would like to see the language of that Social Studies standard you’re working with. The Declaration of Independence sounds like a creative idea, but I wonder whether it has a strong enough connection to the standard to be a core task? Ironically, most standards are already written in language that leads pretty much straight to a core task; we just don’t always recognize it.

  5. RoyalP says:

    Our state standards are OLD, but state standards are what the MS and HS use in conjunction with CCSS ELA standards. We do not currently have an elementary SS curriculum so we went to the MS teachers and ask them for the most important things they wish elementary students knew about SS… They returned a pretty loose list of research and information literacy wishes – in a nut shell they wanted students to be able to locate, evaluate, and utilize historical information. They also wanted them to have exposure to lots of historical documents, maps, timelines, artifacts, etc. Next teachers went to our grade-level state standards and identified the ones they believed would be helpful in building the citizens we want our students to become while incorporating the MS teacher wishes… we are now in the process of developing 3-4 units for 3rd-5th graders that will be SQUEEZED into the required curriculum because we think it is important 🙂 and the philosophy of “SS standards will be covered through ELA curriculum” just didn’t feel like enough. SO, with all of the flexibility possibly available to an educator, starting from scratch (which was surprisingly overwhelming yet invigorating for the teachers working on the process), here are the standards the unit is aligned to:

    State Standards
    1. Knowledge of the principles expressed in documents shaping republic in the United States. 5th grade – Identify important principles in the Declaration of Independence, such as inalienable rights and government by consent of the governed. (each grade level has a key document – constitution, bill of rights, etc.)

    2. Understand and apply the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in state and the United States.

    CCSS ELA RI.5.3
    Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

    We chunked the chosen standards and process skills into groups and wrote essential questions for each group… writing the assessment next was the hardest step for the teachers – our instructional coach and myself said “that’s an activity, what’s the assessment? How will you know if they learned it?” a few times before they could actually focus on that step. I think the difficulty was driven by 2 things they had previously been starved for: freedom and excitement. The irony should not be lost here!

    • I’m thinking that writing a Declaration of Independence may not necessarily get after the kind of understanding implied in your standards. I would like to hear from other social studies teachers — especially those in middle school and upper elementary — about this. I guess my concern would be that too much attention would be paid to imitating the style of the original U.S. Declaration, and not enough attention would be given to its content (the principles mentioned in standard 1). So if the rubric for the students’ declaration required inclusion of certain principles, and the learning leading up to that writing would give students real experience with those principles, then it might work.

      It seems that four kinds of understanding are required by these standards:

      Facet 1, Explanation: Can they explain the principles and the relationships?

      Facet 2, Interpretation: Can they read about a historic or current event and interpret the principles at play?

      Facet 3, Application: This is your second standard — what are their rights and responsibilities right now? Given sample scenaricos, can they make decisions based on knowledge of those rights and responsibilities? How can they participate as citizens right now by contacting their legislators about current bills, etc.? I would think a close study of one issue, learning about it through current publications, then contacting a legislator to express their opinions would be an excellent way to exercise those rights & responsibilities.

      Writing their own declaration may not be the best way to assess these three understandings. But if you agree that these are what the standards call for, thinking more deeply about them will probably lead you there. Our next chunk of chapters will get into the assessment process, so that would be a good place to start.

      My daughter is entering 5th grade this fall, so I know there are definitely limits on what kids that age can process, and that some of these topics can get too abstract for them. I’m going to throw this question out on facebook and see if I can get more people over here to give their two cents.

  6. Thank you for the chance to connect with other teachers! I love this book and feel like it will definitely improve my teaching. I will be teaching 7th grade math and science blocks. I am formally a first year teacher (which many informal years of experience) and see the benefits, rather the necessity, of keeping the end in mind. This, however, is rather overwhelming starting out. Additionally, I have two groups of teachers to collaborate with that have not yet merged their curriculum. I really want to connect the math and science concepts, but want to be very careful not to take away the rigor of either for the sake of connection and engagement (or isolate myself from the math and science teams.) “Engagement in necessary, but not sufficient, as an end result,” really struck me. I have a tendency to emphasize capturing attention, but additionally need to think, to what end am I doing so. Suggestions from those with much more experience than I have?

    • Hi other Traci (I’m Tracy!). I’m also a science teacher, in my second year of high school physics after a few years of middle school. I’m reading through the book for a second time and actually trying to use it this time – to reorganize my thinking for classes that others have put together before me. Sounds like we are in similar positions.
      These chapter are so dense and so full of information. There are paragraphs that I could sit and think about for a long time. I took a lot of notes about “understanding understanding” as well as the facets of understanding. But I’m also trying to make sure to put some of this into practice, so I’ve pulled out my first unit for the year and I’m working with the template on Stage 1 to try to make the understandings and essential questions ones that work for me and the students, and come from the IB and AP curricula. It’s not that easy! And I haven’t even gotten beyond the stage 1 section yet.
      Another big thing that I find myself circling again and again is that understanding is so much more than just the facts, it’s about putting together meaning from those facts. This is so important to be able to get across in a subject like physics, where the students often think that the facts are enough. So I’ll keep these ideas with me for the assessments and learning plan pieces too.

      • Thanks other Tracy,
        I do find myself trying to wrap my brain around the big ideas and then struggling with how to incorporate them into productive lessons. Chapter 5 has been the most illuminating for me and I find I have filled the margins of the book with various potential essential questions. It was clarifying to have the essential questions broken into basic categories of “overarching” and “topical” for me. Hearing that you are reading it again reemphasizes the process for me and gives me encouragement! Thanks!

  7. cmottau says:

    As a fifth grade teacher in CA whose school is going through changes. I have enjoyed reading the first three chapters (I got my book late). First, I know I have been guilty of both types of sins. The crazy thing is those are often the things administrators and parents like to see.
    For me personally the biggest hurdle has been my constant grade changes. Utilizing the UbD principle requires a deep knowledge and understanding of student outcomes for that grade level and that takes time.
    I look forward to reading more of the book and your comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.