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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.
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!]