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by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe
Table of Contents
To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you're going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.
—Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989, p. 98
That's what I find so exciting about this process: it is so much better for me and the students to be in the middle of a UbD. Everything seems so relaxed, I'm more confident, and the students are very excited. They seem to sense something more at the core of what we're doing. I suppose they sense the goal: the goal is usually not revealed as completely and clearly. I know what my students know, I know what they don't know, and I know what I need to do. How liberating.
—A teacher reflecting on using UbD
Consider the following four vignettes and what they suggest about understanding and the design of curriculum and assessments. Two are true. Two are fictionalized accounts of familiar practice.
I felt then that my brain was a way station for material going in one ear and (after the test) out the other. I could memorize very easily and so became valedictorian, but I was embarrassed even then that I understood much less than some other students who cared less about grades.
Each of these vignettes reveals some troubling aspect of understanding and design. (By the way, the odd-numbered vignettes are true; the others might as well be, given common practice.)
The reflection of the high school English teacher reveals a familiar truth—even “good” students don't always have deep understanding of what's been taught despite the fact that conventional measures (course grades and cumulative GPA) certify success. In her case, testing focused predominantly on the recall of information from textbooks and class presentations. She reported that she was rarely given assessments that called for her to demonstrate deeper understanding.
The fictitious unit on apples presents a familiar scene—the activity-oriented curriculum—in which students participate in a variety of hands-on activities. Such units are often engaging for students. They may be organized, as in this case, around a theme and provide interdisciplinary connections. But questions about the value of the work remain. To what ends is the teaching directed? What are the big ideas and important skills to be developed during the unit? Do the students understand what the learning targets are? To what extent does the evidence of learning from the unit (e.g., the leaf-print collage, the creative-writing stories, the completed word searches) reflect worthwhile content standards? What understandings will emerge from all this and endure?
The NAEP mathematics test item reveals another aspect of understanding, or lack thereof. Although the students computed accurately, they had not grasped the meaning of the question, nor had they apparently understood how to use what they knew to reach an answer of 32 buses. Could it be that these students had mastered the out-of-context drill problems in the math book and on worksheets, but had been given little opportunity to apply mathematics in the context of real-world applications? Should we conclude that the students who answered “remainder 12” really understand division and its use?
Nearly every teacher can empathize with the world history teacher's struggle, given the pressures to “cover” material. The challenge is exacerbated by the natural increase of knowledge in fields such as science and history, not to mention external testing obligations and additions to the curriculum in recent years (e.g., computer studies and drug education). But at its worst, a coverage orientation—marching through the textbook irrespective of priorities, desired results, learner needs and interests, or apt assessment evidence—may defeat its own aims. For what do students remember, much less understand, when there is only teaching with no opportunity to really learn—to work with, play with, investigate, use—the key ideas and points of connection? Such an approach might correctly be labeled, “Teach, test, and hope for the best.”
Interestingly enough, we think, both the apples unit and the world history class suffer from the same general problem, though what is taking place in both classrooms clearly looks very different. Though in the elementary classroom the students are doing loads of hands-on activity and in the history classroom a teacher is lecturing to students, both cases reveal no clear intellectual goals. We call the two versions of the problem the “twin sins” of typical instructional design in schools: activity-focused teaching and coverage-focused teaching. Neither case provides an adequate answer to the key questions at the heart of effective learning: What is important here? What is the point? How will this experience enable me as a learner to meet my obligations? Put simply, in a phrase to be considered throughout this book, the problem in both cases is that there are no explicit big ideas guiding the teaching and no plan for ensuring the learning.
As the title suggests, this book is about good design—of curriculum, assessment, and instruction—focused on developing and deepening understanding of important ideas. Posed as a question, considered throughout the book and from many perspectives, the essence of this book is this: How do we make it more likely—by our design—that more students really understand what they are asked to learn? So often, by contrast, those who “get it” are learners who come to us already able and articulate—understanding by good fortune. What must our planning entail to have an intellectual impact on everyone: the less experienced; the highly able, but unmotivated; the less able; those with varied interests and styles?
To explore such questions we must surely investigate the purpose of the designs—in our case, understanding. So what do we mean when we say that we want students to understand as opposed to merely take in and recall? How is it possible for a student to know lots of important things but not understand what they mean—something we have all seen as teachers? And vice versa: How can another student make lots of mistakes about the facts—and not even do all the assigned work—but nonetheless penetrate to the key ideas? Thus, although the book is about the design of curriculum to engage students in exploring big ideas, it is also an attempt to better understand understanding, especially for purposes of assessment.
As you shall see, we propose that a helpful way to think about what understanding is, how to design for it, and how to find evidence of it in student work is to realize that understanding has various facets. Everyday language reveals the variety of connotations, hence the need to clarify them. Think about the difference, for example, between saying, “He didn't understand the French speaker” and “She didn't understand what the primary source documents meant.” There are different kinds of understanding; we need to be clear about which ones we are after. Understanding, we argue, is not a single goal but a family of interrelated abilities—six different facets of transfer—and an education for understanding would more deliberately develop them all.
This dual purpose—clarifying the goal called “student understanding” while exploring the means called “good design”—raises a host of vital questions in the real world of teaching, of course. What is the best way to design for both content mastery and understanding? How can we accomplish the goal of understanding if the textbooks we use dispense volumes of out-of-context knowledge? How realistic is teaching for understanding in a world of content standards and high-stakes tests? Thus, in the book, we do the following in an attempt to answer these and other questions:
This book is intended for educators, new or veteran, interested in enhancing student understanding and in designing more effective curricula and assessments to achieve that end. The audience includes teachers at all levels (elementary through university), subject matter and assessment specialists, curriculum directors, preservice and inservice trainers, school-based and central office administrators and supervisors. We provide numerous examples, from all levels of schooling, throughout the book, but never enough to suit any one audience at any one time, alas. Further examples from all subjects and levels can be found in the Understanding by Design Professional Development Workbook (McTighe & Wiggins, 2004) and on the UbD Web site (http://ubdexchange.org).
A few words about terminology are in order. We talk a good deal in the book about big ideas that should be the focus of education for understanding. A big idea is a concept, theme, or issue that gives meaning and connection to discrete facts and skills. Here are some examples: adaptation; how form and function are related in systems; the distributive property in mathematics (whereby we can use any number of groupings and subgroupings to yield the “same” numbers); problem solving as the finding of useful models; the challenge of defining justice; and the need to focus on audience and purpose as a writer or speaker. In an education for understanding, a vital challenge is to highlight the big ideas, show how they prioritize the learning, and help students understand their value for making sense of all the “stuff” of content.
Educators involved in reform know that the words curriculum and assessment have almost as many meanings as there are people using the terms. In this book, curriculum refers to the specific blueprint for learning that is derived from desired results—that is, content and performance standards (be they state-determined or locally developed). Curriculum takes content (from external standards and local goals) and shapes it into a plan for how to conduct effective and engaging teaching and learning. It is thus more than a list of topics and lists of key facts and skills (the “inputs”). It is a map for how to achieve the “outputs” of desired student performance, in which appropriate learning activities and assessments are suggested to make it more likely that students achieve the desired results.
The etymology of the word suggests this: Curriculum is the particular “course to be run,” given a desired end point. A curriculum is more than a traditional program guide, therefore; beyond mapping out the topics and materials, it specifies the most appropriate experiences, assignments, and assessments that might be used for achieving goals. The best curricula (and syllabi), in other words, are written from the point of view of the desired learnings, not merely what will be covered. They specify what the learner should have achieved upon leaving, what the learner needs to do to achieve, and what the teacher needs to do to achieve the results sought. In sum, they specify the desired output and means of achieving it, not just a list of content and activities.
By assessment we mean the act of determining the extent to which the desired results are on the way to being achieved and to what extent they have been achieved. Assessment is the umbrella term for the deliberate use of many methods of gathering evidence of meeting desired results, whether those results are state content standards or local curricular objectives. The collected evidence we seek may well include observations and dialogues, traditional quizzes and tests, performance tasks and projects, as well as students' self-assessments gathered over time. Assessment is thus a more learning-focused term than evaluation, and the two should not be viewed as synonymous. Assessment is the giving and using of feedback against standards to enable improvement and the meeting of goals. Evaluation, by contrast, is more summative and credential-related. In other words, we need not give a grade—an evaluation—to everything we give feedback to. In fact, a central premise of our argument is that understanding can be developed and evoked only through multiple methods of ongoing assessment, with far greater attention paid to formative (and performance) assessment than is typical.
By desired results we mean what has often been termed intended outcomes, achievement targets, or performance standards. All four terms are meant to shift our focus away from the inputs to the output: what the student should be able to know, do, and understand upon leaving, expressed in performance and product terms. Desired result reminds us also that, as “coaches,” we will likely have to adjust our design and performance en route, if feedback shows that we are in danger of not achieving the successes sought.
The word understanding turns out to be a complex and confusing target despite the fact that we aim for it all the time. The word naturally deserves clarification and elaboration, which is the challenge for the rest of the book. For now, though, consider our initial working definition of the term: To understand is to make connections and bind together our knowledge into something that makes sense of things (whereas without understanding we might see only unclear, isolated, or unhelpful facts). But the word also implies doing, not just a mental act: A performance ability lies at the heart of understanding, as Bloom (1956) noted in his Taxonomy in discussing application and synthesis. To understand is to be able to wisely and effectively use—transfer—what we know, in context; to apply knowledge and skill effectively, in realistic tasks and settings. To have understood means that we show evidence of being able to transfer what we know. When we understand, we have a fluent and fluid grasp, not a rigid, formulaic grasp based only on recall and “plugging in.”
When we speak of the product of this achievement—an understanding, as a noun—we are describing particular (often hard-won) insights. For example, we talk about scientists' current understanding that the universe is expanding or the postmodern understanding of authors as not being privileged commentators on the meaning of their books. The great challenge in teaching is to enable such subtle adult understandings to become student understandings—without reducing the understanding to a mere simplistic statement for recall. If the student gains a genuine understanding, we typically say they “really get it.” With our help as designers and coaches, they “come to an understanding.”
Yet, for years, curriculum guides have argued against framing objectives in terms of understandings. Bloom (1956) argued that the word is too ambiguous to use as a foundation for teaching goals and their assessments; hence, the writing of the Taxonomy. But an important conceptual distinction remains and needs pondering: the difference between knowing and understanding. Pinning this distinction down in theory and in practice has not been easy. We propose in the book that insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that there are different kinds of understandings, that knowledge and skill do not automatically lead to understanding, that student misunderstanding is a far bigger problem than we may realize, and that assessment of understanding therefore requires evidence that cannot be gained from traditional fact-focused testing alone.
We offer three warnings, though, for readers willing and ready to plan and teach for understanding. First, although educators often talk about wanting to get beyond mere coverage to ensure that students really understand what they learn, you may find that what you previously thought was effective teaching for understanding really wasn't. You may also discover that you aren't quite as clear as you might be about what, specifically, your students should leave understanding. In fact, we predict that you will be somewhat disturbed by how hard it is to specify the understandings and what they look like in assessment, and how easy it is to lose sight of goals related to understanding in the midst of planning, teaching, and evaluating student work.
Second, though many courses of study appropriately focus on skills (such as reading, algebra, physical education, and introductory Spanish), teacher-designers may well find after reading this book that there are, indeed, big ideas essential for learning key skills with fluency—namely, understanding how to use skills wisely—that need greater attention in their plans. For example, a big idea in literacy development is that the meaning of the text is not in the text but between the lines, in the interaction between the active reader and the text. Getting students to understand this is not only difficult but requires a very different design and presents a very different teaching problem than that of focusing only on discrete reading strategies. The challenge is, at its core, to help students overcome the misunderstanding that reading is only decoding, and to help them know what to do when decoding alone does not yield meaning.
Third, though many teachers believe that to design for understanding is incompatible with established content standards and state testing, we think that by the time you have read the entire book, you will consider this to be false. Most state standards identify or at least imply big ideas that are meant to be understood, not merely covered. Consider these examples from Ohio's standards for 11th grade social studies and California's standards for physics:
Trace key Supreme Court decisions related to a provision of the Constitution (e.g., cases related to reapportionment of legislative districts, free speech, or separation of church and state).
Energy cannot be created or destroyed, although in many processes energy is transferred to the environment as heat. As a basis for understanding this concept:
a. Students know heat flow and work are two forms of energy transfer between systems. . . .
More generally, once you understand the elements we propose as central to good design, we expect that your approach to all your design obligations will change.
We predict that you will experience two quite different feelings as you read. At times you will say to yourself, “Well, of course, this is just common sense! This merely makes explicit what good planners have always done.” At other times you will feel that we are proposing provocative and counterintuitive ideas about teaching, learning, assessment, and planning. To help you in the latter case, we will offer sidebars about potential misunderstandings—we call them “Misconception Alerts”—in which we try to anticipate reader confusion in the lines of argument and ideas being proposed.
The presence of these particular sidebars conveys a vital message: Teaching for understanding must successfully predict potential misunderstandings and rough spots in learning if it is to be effective. Indeed, central to the design approach we propose is that we need to design lessons and assessments that anticipate, evoke, and overcome the most likely student misconceptions. The first such sidebar appears on this page.
You will also find a few sidebars entitled “Design Tips.” These will help you see how to begin to translate the theories of UbD to the practical work of planning, teaching, and assessing. We have also provided a Glossary to help you navigate the language used throughout the book. To give you some sense of how the designer's thought process works, we follow a fictional teacher, Bob James, as he designs (and redesigns) his unit on nutrition. (The companion UbD Professional Development Workbook provides an extensive set of design tools, exercises, and examples to assist designers.)
So, reader, brace thyself! We are asking you to explore key ideas and to rethink many time-honored habits about curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Such rethinking practices what we preach. Because, as you will see, teaching for understanding requires the learner to rethink what appeared settled or obvious—whether learner refers to a young student or a veteran educator. We believe that you will find much food for thought, as well as many practical tips about how to achieve student understanding by design.
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