Understanding by Design
Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe
This post contains Amazon Affiliate links; if you purchase from Amazon after going through these links, Cult of Pedagogy receives a small commission at no extra cost to you.
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.
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.
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.
*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?
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: http://pls3rdlearning.com/blog/steve-barkley/changeimprovementinnovation/. 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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
I see no way to look at the Chap. 3 and 4 summaries and I would really like some clarity.
Hi! I’m a Customer Experience Manager…and oh no! Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention. The site got a huge overhaul a few months ago so something must have happened during the transition. Jenn will be able to look into this soon!
When I originally had this book study divided, the following comment was left by Shayne Swift over on the chapter 5-8 page. Because I am removing that page, I’ll leave her reflection here:
I appreciate the lengths the authors use to explain what it means to understand. I do agree that the best candidates for uncoverage are concepts that students typically understand. One issue discussed in Chapter 6 was about lacking empathy for students who do not understand. I think I am guilty of this. I have empathy for the novice learner, but I need to be more empathetic toward the learner who may lack motivation and evaluate what I can do to get them more engaged. I think this is why I make myself available to students via email, google hangouts, and after school because I have a strong personality and students are reticent to ask questions in front of the class.
One question I had about the partnering as it relates to UbD was about the creation of rubrics by students. I am not in favor of this.
What is most obvious to me is that we need to spend more time planning. The time again is the factor. We are looking at implementing common planning at our high school and teachers are up in arms about it. I want it!! I do not want to have to continue sacrificing time after school when it can be embedded into the school day and be more effective.
So now that I have finished 5-9, I am thinking about my pacing for this year and the units that will be taught and the outcomes that are needed by the end of the semester.
The second portion of ToK is about the areas of knowledge. One area that I struggle with is mathematics. I am good with integrating it into other areas of knowledge, but when left to tackle it on my own I tend to avoid it or brush over it.
Possible Ideas that can turn into essential questions are:
1. Mathematics & Beauty
2. Mathematical Language and Universality
3. Mathematics…is it invented?
I will definitely continue:
with annotating the rubrics, modeling, evaluating exemplars…etc
continue with grading using the rubrics (rubric codes)
continue to assess in a variety of ways (exit tx, reflection journal, discussions)
continue to use Paideia
continue to have students do R (reflect, refine and revise)
I will work on:
extending the real-life applications of what we learn.
Using the essential questions to drive instruction.
Having students think more like assessors.
Have students spend more time with E (self-assess, evaluate, & judge)
Did you ever finish the other chapters?
Hi Christine! No, Jenn never came back to finish up these chapters. But good news–she has a new post (as of July 2020) that covers backward design, so definitely check that out if you haven’t yet–Backward Design: The Basics