Understanding by Design
Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe
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I chose this book for our first book study because it introduces some pretty revolutionary ideas about how we approach instruction. Still, the the reading can be challenging, so 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, 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.
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.
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?
Chapter 2: Understanding Understanding
How do we know if students really understand what we’re teaching them? To answer this question, we have to think carefully about what it looks like when someone understands the concepts we’re trying to teach. This is our first step toward designing appropriate assessments for our units.
When students perform well on tests that ask for basic factual recall, we might assume that they understand far more than they actually do. I see evidence of this problem everywhere in our schools – in the fact that teachers regularly complain that students “didn’t learn anything” in the grades leading up to theirs, in the way we can teach something one month and observe students “forgetting” it the next month, and in the way students throughout time have had trouble telling anyone what they learned that day.
The concept of transfer is important to grasp here – to say that students truly understand a concept, they should be able to transfer that knowledge to a new situation or context.
I also appreciate the concept of the expert blind spot. Because we know our subject areas so well, we already see the forest for the trees and can’t understand why students don’t. The trouble is, we fill in a lot of gaps without realizing it, whereas students have none of the experience required to do that. So merely covering facts isn’t enough.
This chapter just primes our thinking about assessment, to change our mindset about the difference between covering/checking and looking for deep, transferable understanding. More specific types of evidence and assessments are explored in chapters 7 and 8.
Questions for You: Think about one of your end-of-unit assessments that doesn’t really assess any kind of deep understanding. When you think about the language of the unit objectives, what kind of understanding should you be looking for? How does that differ from what you were asking on the original assessment?
Chapter 3: Gaining Clarity on Our Goals
As we figure out what we want students to understand by the end of our unit, we need to concentrate on “big ideas” – the linchpins that hold the unit together. These big ideas can be communicated to students in essential questions.
This is one of the chapters where I think people get lost. There is a lot of theory and abstract thought, and though you’ll get a lot out of it with slow, careful reading, you may not have that kind of time. Here are the things that stood out for me:
“By asking for Essential Questions, we are encouraging designers to avoid coverage and to commit to genuine inquiry” (58). I appreciate this because I have always had a tendency to gloss over the “big picture” concepts (such as the thought-provoking questions that open up a textbook section) in favor of getting right into the stuff that could more easily be measured.
“…we find that many teachers overlook the enabling skills at the heart of long-term successful performance” (59). This reminds me of when I worked with student teachers on their big units. Most of them included, as part of their post-assessment, at least one constructed or extended response question that required students to provide evidence to support a claim. This was in language arts, social studies, and science. Despite the regular appearance of this type of question, their units rarely included practice in the skill of making that kind of claim, finding evidence to support it, and putting all of that together into a coherent paragraph, even though the extended response question was usually weighted more heavily than the other questions on the test.
The Prioritizing Framework (Figure 3.3, page 71) is for me one of the most important concepts in the book. The idea that not all content in a unit is equal is so liberating – we can concentrate on the most important things, and if there’s time, get to that outer ring. Making this kind of diagram transparent to students also seems like it would help them focus better on the really important stuff.
The Transfer Demand/Degree of Cue Rubric (79) made me instantly think of problem-based (or project-based) learning, which was not a high-profile trend the first time I read this book. For those interested in PBL, the UbD philosophy will dovetail really nicely in terms of pedagogy.
Questions for You: Again, think of a unit you’ve taught that produced disappointing results. Could you re-frame the unit with essential questions? Were there skills you could have given more practice in that would have helped the final outcome? In looking at Figure 3.3, how might you rearrange your content? Would you drop some concepts?
Chapter 4: The Six Facets of Understanding
We use the word “understand” in a lot of different ways. If we are going to design units based on student understanding, we need to first be very clear on which type of understanding we’re looking for in a given unit. Once we have that clarity, we should design assessments that measure that specific kind of understanding, then plan learning experiences that give students an opportunity to develop it.
Personal Notes: Here, for the sake of reference, I’ll just quickly list each facet, along with my interpretation of the authors’ recommendations for instruction that nurtures it.
Facet 1: Explanation. The student can “provide sophisticated theories and illustrations, which provide knowledgeable and justified accounts of events, actions, and ideas.” Instructionally, we should provide opportunities for students to wrestle with questions, problems and issues. Assessments should require students to provide explanations on their own, rather than recall or recognize others’ explanations.
Facet 2: Interpretation. The student can interpret and translate items in order to assign greater meaning than what lies on the surface. In our units, we should give students practice with interpreting “inherently ambiguous matters.” When studying well-established or “expert” interpretations, it should be for the sake of examining the process of making meaning, or to test its validity, not to hold up that interpretation as the final word.
Facet 3: Application. The student can “use knowledge effectively in new situations and diverse, realistic contexts.” To develop this kind of understanding, we should give students a clear performance goal to work toward, keeping that in mind throughout the unit and giving students an opportunity to practice that performance as much as possible.
Facet 4: Perspective. The student can offer “critical and insightful points of view,” recognizing that “any answer to a complex question…is often one of many possible plausible accounts.” Instruction and assessment for perspective should have students “confront alternative theories and diverse points of view regarding the big ideas.”
Facet 5: Empathy. The student can “get inside another person’s feelings and worldview.” Whereas perspective is “cool, analytic detachment…empathy is warm.” Instruction for empathy must provide more experiences — direct or simulated — of the kinds of ideas that are usually presented abstractly, like this teacher’s landmark classroom experiment in racism.
Facet 6: Self-Knowledge. The student demonstrates “the wisdom to know one’s ignorance and how one’s patterns of thought and action inform as well as prejudice understanding.” To teach for this, we should provide ongoing opportunities for students to reflect on their knowledge and learning styles. (Although the authors did not mention this, I would add that teacher modeling of self-reflection is also a powerful tool in helping students develop this skill.)
Questions for You: Do any of these facets strike you as the kind of understanding you’ve always looked for in your students, but never actually prioritized in your instruction? What kinds of learning opportunities do you need to add to the unit to help students develop those kinds of understandings?
CHAPTER 5: ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS: DOORWAYS TO UNDERSTANDING
* A good UbD unit must start with well-crafted essential questions, questions that do not have simple, memorizable answers, but ones that provoke thought, discussion, exploration, and more questions. “Instead of thinking of content as stuff to be covered, consider knowledge and skill as the means of addressing questions central to understanding key issues in your subject” (107). The best units are built around sets of interrelated questions.
* Overarching questions (broad, general, more philosophical in nature – dealing with the “big ideas”) are valuable for framing courses and programs of study. Topical questions (leading students to more specific understandings) help us design instruction within a unit.
* Although it is important to carefully word questions, it’s more important to consider their intent: What do you plan to have students do with that question? It’s possible to use a question that appears to have a single correct answer (“Is the universe expanding?”) to launch a complex unit. And one that appears open-ended might ultimately lead to a pretty predictable endpoint: “Teachers sometimes ask intriguing questions as a setup for very specific and bland teaching” (112).
What essential questions are you coming up with? I would love to hear some of them. If there is one you’re struggling with, throw it out to us and see if others can help you shape it.
CHAPTER 6: CRAFTING UNDERSTANDINGS
I had a hard time staying focused while reading this chapter, and I’m pretty sure I missed some stuff. Because Understandings and Essential Questions are so closely tied, I think it would have helped to have both in the same chapter. It helped me a lot to refer to the completed design template that starts on page 327, so I could get a sense of where these go in the plan.
With that said, here’s what I got from this chapter:
- Well-crafted understandings are written as full-sentence generalizations about the topic. These are principles that true experts would know. They are not just statements of fact, but rather things people are most likely to misunderstand if they don’t know the subject well.
- The questions in figure 6.3 (page 137) are a good way to think deeply about your subject to pinpoint what understandings you want students to gain.
- When we develop these written understandings, we do it for us, the instructors, not the students. They don’t need to be crafted in a way that makes sense to students, nor do they need to be shared with them.
As I read this book, I wonder whether some teachers are getting thrown by the language. When I worked with pre-service teachers, I drilled into their heads the importance of NOT using words like understand when writing instructional objectives. That’s impossible to measure, I told them. Use measurable, observable terms. And I still believe that. So I think it’s important to note that this chapter is not about writing instructional objectives – that process happens when planning the individual lessons.
How are you doing with this? Is there a particular chunk of your content that you need help with in developing a desired “understanding”?
CHAPTER 7: THINKING LIKE AN ASSESSOR
* This is such an important and useful chapter, and it’s where we really start to head in the “backward” direction: Once we’ve crafted goals and essential questions, the next step is to plan our assessments. To begin, we need to figure out what will prove that our students “get it.” When the unit is done, what evidence will show that they truly understand what we want them to understand?
* We are urged to use a variety of assessments in a unit – collecting a “scrapbook” of evidence rather than just a single “snapshot.” These assessments should be viewed on a continuum, with informal checks at one end, followed by tests and quizzes and academic prompts, and culminating in performance tasks: projects that simulate real-world settings. Performance-based assessment is a necessity, not an option. This may bother some readers, because performance assessments take longer to plan, implement, and grade. (This is one reason education has strayed so far in the direction of standardized testing: It’s easier to manage. But as many like Diane Ravitch and José Vilson have argued, tests are incredibly limited in their ability to measure true learning.)
* Tests and quizzes do have their place in the UbD framework, however. As an efficient way to check for basic, factual knowledge and application of skills, they should be used formatively to see if students are acquiring what they need in order to succeed on the performance assessment.
* To help us design assessments, the authors offer several really useful tools, including the GRASPS model for developing performance assessments, lots of examples from different content areas, and an explanation (figure 7.9) of how the six facets of understanding can help us craft just-right assessment tasks.
Tell us about a performance assessment you’re considering. How is it different from the way you’ve previously measured understanding? What concerns do you have?
CHAPTER 8: CRITERIA AND VALIDITY
* Now that we have chosen assessments, we need to decide what the specific criteria are for judging how students perform on them. “Appropriate criteria highlight the most revealing and important aspects of the work (given the goals), not just those parts of the work that are merely easy to see or score” (173). This is SO crucial, and I’m sure if we’re all honest with ourselves, we’ll admit to sometimes assessing for things that are simply easy to measure, regardless of how vital those things are to a deep understanding of our content. We need to be sure our criteria come directly from our goals.
* For performance assessments, we need to develop rubrics that clearly outline our criteria. (To learn more about the different types of rubrics and download free templates, see our article on holistic, analytic, and single-point rubrics). We are urged to refine these rubrics over time, after examining student work that demonstrates the desired understandings and getting a clearer sense of what that understanding really looks like.
* It is crucial that we check our assessments for validity by asking two key questions: (1) Could a student do well on this task, but really not demonstrate the understandings you are after? (2) Could a student perform poorly on this task, but still have significant understanding of the ideas? If you answer “yes” to either question, your assessment has a validity problem.
* We also need to consider the reliability of our assessments: If a student’s understanding is measured by only one score on one test, we can’t necessarily infer that they understand. We need to give students multiple opportunities to show their understanding over time.
What was your big “aha” moment in this chapter? What concept will lead to the most significant change in the way you assess student understanding?
CHAPTER 9: PLANNING FOR LEARNING
* Now that we have designed our assessments, we’re ready to plan the learning activities that will lead to success on them. Note the authors use the term “activities” – not to be confused with activity-focused design, but rather to suggest that we are not merely planning lessons where we are front and center, but a variety of experiences to lead students to learning. Some of these will be direct instruction, but many more will involve other kinds of work.
* We are given the acronym WHERETO to guide our planning. Each letter is meant to label a different type of activity. For example, “H” activities hookour students, getting them interested in the material and planting questions in their minds. Activities labeled with the first “E” (E1) equip students with necessary experiences, tools, knowledge and know-how (these are considered the core of the learning plan). “T” activities are tailored to individual strengths and interests – the differentiated ones.
* Note that WHERETO is not a prescribed sequence; we do not plan learning activities in this precise order. I see it more like a “to do” list: A good unit should contain some of every element, but we decide how and when to do them. Each unit’s needs will be different, and some will require more of certain elements: Looking at the completed design template on page 331, you’ll see how one teacher sequenced activities for a unit and coded each item with an element of WHERETO. Some elements are used over and over, while others happen only once or twice, and some activities can be labeled with more than one element.
Which of the WHERETO elements do your former plans lack? I have always been lazy with the H and the R (reflection). I wanted to use as much class time as possible for the “important stuff,” the direct instruction and practice, and I know my lessons suffered as a result. Had I built more time in for both of these, my students would have been more plugged in and would have a better understanding of why we were doing what we were doing. If I built my units around good essential questions (which I mostly didn’t), these types of activities would have been a much more natural part of the plan.
And…this is as far as I got. I originally planned to read and summarize the whole book, but I ended up moving on to other things. If you were counting on this getting all the way through, I apologize! Those who come here and would like to leave their thoughts on chapters 10-13, please do so in the comments so others who are that far in the book can learn from and dialogue with you.