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Making the Most of Understanding by Design

by John L. Brown

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Implementing Understanding by Design: A Summary of Lessons Learned

Essential Questions
  1. How does Understanding by Design provide a framework and a language to help educators promote all students' understanding?
  2. How has Understanding by Design evolved since its initial publication? What are the major changes and trends associated with its evolution?
  3. To what extent can educators abstract lessons learned about successful implementation of Understanding by Design and then apply those lessons to the process of strategic planning and continuous improvement?

Understanding by Design (UbD) provides a common language for educators who are interested in promoting student understanding rather than formulaic knowledge or recall learning. It also provides a framework and a toolkit of research-based best practices that have been proven effective in helping educators to promote understanding-based results for learning, expand the range of assessment tools and processes they use to monitor student achievement, and enhance their design of instructional activities to promote high levels of student achievement.

This chapter summarizes the major lessons learned from successful UbD implementation as reflected in the experiences of educators who have used the framework for two or more years. The high-level users who participated in the study completed an online questionnaire (see Figure 1.1 at the end of this chapter), sat for one-on-one interviews, and took part in focus groups. The study asked them to respond to questions about UbD's effect on eight key areas:

  1. Curriculum design, development, and implementation.
  2. Assessment and evaluation of student performance.
  3. Teaching for understanding, such as using differentiated instruction to address the needs of all learners.
  4. Exemplary practices in professional development, including how UbD principles relate to the needs of the adult learner.
  5. Organization development, strategic planning, and the continuous improvement process.
  6. Cross-institutional partnerships related to all facets of new teacher induction and professional development.
  7. The UbD “electronic learning community,” including participants' reactions to resources such as the UbD Exchange, the ASCD UbD videotape series, and the relatively new area of Professional Development Online courses.
  8. Our shared vision for education in the new millennium as an extension of experiences with UbD.

Understanding by Design at a Glance: A Brief History and Summary of Key Design Principles

Understanding by Design is the brainchild of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, two internationally recognized experts in the field of curriculum, assessment, and teaching for understanding. Wiggins has a long and rich history of promoting the understanding of all students, particularly within the context of a backward design model. In addition to his award-winning publications on standards, assessment, and curriculum renewal, Wiggins is well known for his work with essential questions and curriculum auditing as part of his tenure with the Coalition of Essential Schools in partnership with Theodore Sizer.

McTighe received national recognition for his work with Robert J. Marzano and Debra Pickering in their ASCD publication Assessing Student Performance Using Dimensions of Learning (1991). The success of that publication reinforced McTighe's emergent leadership position within the movement to reform assessment practices in U.S. education.

Wiggins and McTighe had worked together extensively in both national and international venues, as well as during McTighe's tenure as the director of the Maryland Assessment Consortium. Their shared vision for a framework that could synthesize the best of what we know about promoting high levels of achievement for all students crystallized in their 1998 publication Understanding by Design. That book was followed by a series of supporting resources, including The Understanding by Design Handbook (McTighe & Wiggins, 1999) and The Understanding by Design Professional Workbook (McTighe & Wiggins, 2004); a comprehensive set of videotape resources and training materials; and the UbD Exchange, an international electronic database used as a compendium of UbD principles, strategies, and practitioner-generated unit designs.

Wiggins and McTighe underscore that Understanding by Design is a framework, not an educational program. In it, they have attempted to synthesize the best practices and the research-driven design principles associated with teaching and assessing for understanding. Although complex and challenging, their work speaks to educators who know, either from experience or from intuition, that discrete, atomistic instruction focused on traditional drill-and-kill approaches is guaranteed to produce little, if any, genuine learning or deep conceptual understanding among their students. Educators who have worked extensively with the Wiggins and McTighe framework almost universally acknowledge its commonsense recommendations for (1) unpacking curriculum standards; (2) emphasizing students' understanding, not just formulaic recall; (3) expanding assessment tools and repertoires to create a photo album of student achievement instead of a snapshot; and (4) incorporating the best of what current research tells us about teaching for understanding (including differentiated instruction) to meet the needs of all learners.

As we explore what high-level users and seasoned practitioners tell us about their experiences with UbD, we must keep in mind 10 major design principles at the heart of the Wiggins and McTighe framework:

  1. Research tells us that students learn actively, not passively. Educators should consider the following big ideas when designing and delivering instruction:
    1. Students learn best when they actively construct meaning through experience-based learning activities.
    2. A student's culture, experiences, and previous knowledge (i.e., cognitive schema) shape all new learning.
    3. Learning depends on three dominant brain functions: (1) an innate search for meaning and purpose when learning; (2) an ongoing connection between emotion and cognition, including a tendency to slip into lower brain functions and structures when threatened; and (3) an innate predisposition to find patterns in the learning environment, beginning with wholes rather than parts.
    4. Learning is heavily situated; students' application and transfer of learning to new situations and contexts does not occur automatically. Teachers must help students to scaffold knowledge and skills; they plan for transfer by helping the learner move from modeling to guided practice to independent application.
    5. Knowing or being able to do something does not guarantee that the learner understands it.
    6. Students learn best when studying a curriculum that replaces simple coverage with an in-depth inquiry and with independent application experiences.
    7. Students benefit from a curriculum that cues them into big ideas, enduring understandings, and essential questions.
  2. Teaching for deep understanding emphasizes students' capacity for meaningful independent use of essential declarative knowledge (facts, concepts, generalizations, rules, principles, and laws) and procedural knowledge (skills, procedures, and processes). Students demonstrate genuine understanding when they express their learning through one or more of the following facets of understanding:
    1. Explanation: The ability to demonstrate, derive, describe, design, justify, or prove something using evidence.
    2. Interpretation: The creation of something new from learned knowledge, including the ability to critique, create analogies and metaphors, draw inferences, construct meaning, translate, predict, and hypothesize.
    3. Application: The ability to use learned knowledge in new, unique, or unpredictable situations and contexts, including the ability to build, create, invent, perform, produce, solve, and test.
    4. Perspective: The ability to analyze and draw conclusions about contrasting viewpoints concerning the same event, topic, or situation.
    5. Empathy: The capacity to walk in another's shoes, including participating in role-play, describing another's emotions, and analyzing and justifying someone else's reactions.
    6. Self-Knowledge: The ability to self-examine, self-reflect, self-evaluate, and express reflective insight, particularly the capacity for monitoring and modifying one's own comprehension of information and events.
  3. At the heart of teaching for understanding is the creation of a consensus-driven curriculum that clearly distinguishes between and among what is just worth being familiar with versus what all students should know, be able to do, and understand.
  4. The best instructional designs are backward; that is, they begin with desired results, rather than with instructional activities. UbD's backward design process involves three interrelated stages:
    1. Stage One: Identifying desired results (such as enduring understandings, essential questions, and enabling knowledge objectives).
    2. Stage Two: Determining acceptable evidence to assess and to evaluate student achievement of desired results.
    3. Stage Three: Designing learning activities to promote all students' mastery of desired results and their subsequent success on identified assessment tasks.
  5. Students develop deep conceptual understanding when they can cue into the enduring understandings and essential questions at the heart of their curriculum. Enduring understandings are statements that clearly articulate big ideas that have lasting value beyond the classroom and that students can revisit throughout their lives. Essential questions are big, open-ended interpretive questions that have no one obvious right answer. They raise other important questions, recur naturally, and go to the heart of a discipline or content area's philosophical and conceptual foundations.
  6. Objectives that enable knowledge clearly specify, in measurable terms, what all students should know and be able to do to achieve desired understanding and to respond to essential questions (Stage One). Ideally, understanding-driven objectives should begin with behavioral verbs reflective of one or more of the six facets of understanding: explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, p. 44).
  7. When designing Stage Two assessments of student performance, educators must keep in mind the metaphor of a photo album, rather than the more traditional metaphor of a snapshot. Effective monitoring of a student's progress should incorporate many assessment tools and processes, including these:
    1. Tests and quizzes with constructed-response (performance-based) items, rather than exclusive use of selected-response items (true-false, fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice).
    2. Reflective assessments, such as journals, logs, listen-think-pair-share activities, interviews, self-evaluation activities, and peer response groups.
    3. Academic prompts that clearly specify performance task elements, such as format, audience, topic, and purpose.
    4. Culminating assessment projects that allow for student choice and independent application.
  8. A primary goal of teaching for understanding should be the assurance that students can use their acquired understandings and knowledge independently in real-world situations and scenarios. Culminating performance-based projects (what Wiggins and McTighe refer to as GRASPS), therefore, should include the following core elements:
    • G = Goals from the real world.
    • R = Roles that are authentic and based in reality.
    • A = Audiences to whom students will present final products and performances.
    • S = Situations involving a real-world conflict to be resolved, decision to be made, investigation to be completed, or invention to be created.
    • P = Products and performances culminating from the study.
    • S = Standards for evaluating project-based products and performances.
  9. Teaching for understanding should involve activities that support identified desired results and integrate planned assessments (Stage Three). Wiggins and McTighe identify seven core design principles for teaching in an understanding-based classroom in a template they call WHERETO. Each of the letters in this acronym corresponds to key instructional design questions educators should always consider when planning learning activities:
    • W = How will you help your students to know where they are headed, why they are going there, and what ways they will be evaluated along the way?
    • H = How will you hook and engage students' interest and enthusiasm through thought-provoking experiences at the beginning of each instructional episode?
    • E = What experiences will you provide to help students make their understandings real and to equip all learners for success throughout your unit or course?
    • R = How will you cause students to reflect, revisit, revise, and rethink?
    • E = How will students express their understandings and engage in meaningful self-evaluation?
    • T = How will you tailor (differentiate) your instruction to address the unique strengths and needs of every learner?
    • O = How will you organize learning experiences so that students move from teacher-guided and concrete activities to independent applications that emphasize growing conceptual understandings?
  10. Understanding by Design is not a program to be implemented; rather, it represents a synthesis of research-based best practices that are associated with improving student achievement. Successful UbD learning organizations are collaborative communities that emphasize practitioner inquiry, including the following:
    1. Peer Coaching: Professional colleagues support one another by scripting lessons, providing focused feedback, and engaging in cognitive coaching (i.e., shared inquiry designed to align staff members' perceptions and judgments).
    2. Study Groups: Colleagues study a text or explore an issue together and pool their experiences, reflections, and resources for understanding.
    3. Inquiry Teams: Colleagues focus their study on a shared student achievement issue or an organizational problem that they wish to investigate together as an extension of their initial study group discussions.
    4. Action Research Cohorts: Colleagues identify a research problem, hypothesis, or inquiry question concerning their learning organization; collect, analyze, and present available data; develop and implement an action plan related to identified solutions and interventions; and revise and modify their plan to reinforce a commitment to continuous improvement.

Voices from the Field: What Do Experienced Users Say About the Strengths and Challenges of Understanding by Design?

In light of these 10 major design principles, what do the teachers, administrators, trainers, and college and university representatives tell us about UbD's status and about their success making these principles come alive in their respective schools, districts, and related organizations? This question guides our exploration throughout this book. Let's begin by examining three major sets of conclusions related to study participants' perceptions about UbD's strengths, its challenges and potential pitfalls, and its potential future both in individual learning organizations and in the field of education in general. A sample of participants' survey responses follows each summary conclusion.

UbD's Strengths

High-level UbD users identified the following as framework strengths:

  • The commonsense nature of UbD's principles and strategies.
  • Its potential power for overcoming a tendency in public education to teach to the test and to emphasize knowledge-recall learning.
  • Its ability to provide a common, consensus-driven language related to research-based best practices in the areas of curriculum, assessment, instruction, and professional development.
  • Its potential for guiding and informing the process of school renewal and educational reform.
  • Its ability to guide and inform educators' efforts to unpack standards and to help all students develop a deep conceptual understanding of what they are studying.

Q. What do you consider to be the greatest strengths of Understanding by Design?

A. “UbD is a philosophy for teaching and learning. Once you ‘get it,’ it is very difficult to go back to creating disconnected activities or covering facts without a broader context. It helps provide a narrative for the content or skills, which allows teachers and students to place this information in a context that is both meaningful and transferable. It has allowed me, as a supervisor, to have rich and critical conversations with my staff and [has] provide[d] an internal check for teachers to be self-reflective.”

—Mark Wise, social studies supervisor, Grover Middle School, Princeton Junction, New Jersey

A. “UbD makes sense. It reflects what good teachers do and is supported both by research and classroom practice. The three stages of backward design present a coherent guide for unit or lesson planning that teachers have a comfort level with. It also causes teachers to reflect on ‘why’ as well as ‘what’ they're doing.”

—Joseph Corriero, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Cranford, New Jersey

A. “It is practical and research based. The power of showing teachers how to write essential questions, alone, makes it an extremely valuable resource.”

—David Malone, senior vice president, Quality Learning, Missouri City, Texas

A. “Teaching for understanding and the templates and different entry points to make it happen [are UbD's greatest strengths]. Many teachers see this as a way to reclaim the creativity that they used to enjoy before the days of drill-and-kill for the test became so popular.”

—Judith Hilton, UbD cadre member and university professor, Greenwood Village, Colorado

A. “[UbD's major strengths are] the logic of the basic model, the focus that is put on assessment, and the requirement to be clear about what is essential.”

—Ken O'Connor, UbD cadre member, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada

A. “All three strategies—the backward design process, design standards, [and] performance tasks—can help teachers self-assess and engage in peer review, which can ultimately improve instruction.”

—Alyce Anderson, principal, Herbertsville Elementary School, Brick, New Jersey

A. “[UbD's] focus on enduring understandings [is its greatest strength]. In this time of expanding knowledge, we are challenged to provide instruction that produces long-term results. UbD is one key to this effort.”

—Elaine (Irish) Hodges, director of special projects and accountability, San Diego County Office of Education, San Diego, California

Challenges and Problems

When asked to reflect on the challenges and problems they encountered in working with Understanding by Design, high-level users consistently identified the following themes and issues:

  • The critical need for educators to have time to reflect on what the UbD framework suggests about modifying existing practices and to try out various aspects of the backward design process in their classrooms.
  • The inevitable issues that emerge with any change initiative or variable in educational settings, particularly a change that can be as challenging and sometimes threatening as UbD. Cited were staff members' resistance, confusion, and ambivalence to a framework that requires them to think and operate at a deep conceptual level.
  • The very real dichotomy that exists in many schools and districts related to high-stakes accountability testing, including educators' misperceptions about the need to cover the curriculum and touch on everything that might be on the test.
  • The challenge of moving UbD implementation beyond initial adopters and cheerleaders to include staff members who may be resistant, who may be fence-sitters, or who are hostile to new and provocative ideas.
  • The need to make UbD implementation a long-term initiative that involves all organizational stakeholders, particularly administrators, who must become genuine instructional leaders and must clearly articulate the alignment between and among UbD and other accountability initiatives within their school or district.
  • The need to collect, analyze, and disseminate achievement data related to high levels of UbD use, particularly in light of current federal imperatives for any educational initiative to have a solid, empirical, scientifically confirmed research base.

Q. What do you consider to be the greatest challenges presented by Understanding by Design?

A. “Time and facilitation. Our greatest challenges have occurred in areas that have been traditionally skills-oriented [such as reading in primary grades and math in secondary grades].”

—Joseph Corriero, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Cranford, New Jersey

A. “Everyone within the system needs to be trained for maximum effectiveness. It should not be offered as a workshop for teachers only.”

—David Malone, senior vice president, Quality Learning, Missouri City, Texas

A. “Having limited time to train staffs for a complete understanding of the process. One- or two-day workshops without follow-up rarely are effective in improving or changing teachers' planning process. Every group always wants more time. I frequently feel overviews provide little time to check for understanding of the process or to respond to misunderstandings of questions about the three stages [of backward design]. Teachers need to complete a unit design and go through a peer review to have a basic understanding of what UbD is all about. This is impossible to do in a one- or two-day workshop.”

—Janie Smith, UbD cadre member and former curriculum developer, Alexandria, Virginia

A. “Too many one-shot, inoculation trainings are being done where teachers are expected to walk out of one, two, or three days of training with enough understanding of UbD to change their professional practice. On top of it, they are expected to make these changes without any follow-up or support and under the watchful eye of someone who is the unit police and who knows the same or less than the teachers do about UbD.”

—Elizabeth Rossini, UbD cadre member, Fairfax, Virginia

A. “UbD lacks empirical data. It's also hard to get people to make the shift from teaching facts and covering the content—[people] who either are not very bright or have spent years doing the other strategies and calling it teaching.”

—Judith Hilton, UbD cadre member and university professor, Greenwood Village, Colorado

A. “Not enough research-based data that show [UbD] improves student learning. People want to know that it improves student learning. They want to quantify it.”

—Elizabeth Rossini, UbD cadre member, Fairfax, Virginia

A. “[The greatest challenge is] rethinking one's approach to curriculum design and moving from coverage to uncoverage.”

—Ken O'Connor, UbD cadre member, Scarborough, Ontario, Canada

A. “The greatest challenges involve breaking through the mind-set of traditional education. In [the United States], textbook- or activity-driven lessons head nowhere. We need [to help] teachers to have the courage to select the most important work that students should do and refine the lessons over time to improve results.”

—Joyce Tatum, UbD cadre member and museum liaison, Normal Park Museum Magnet School, Chattanooga, Tennessee

A. “The greatest strength is also the greatest challenge. Teachers will ask, ‘Why are we spending all of this time in Stage One?’ They need to understand how important Stage One is. It is not about activities or coverage. Teachers don't want to put in so much up-front design time.”

—Angela Ryan, instructional facilitator, Hershey, Pennsylvania

A. “The design is very complex—not easily understood or applied. When something this complex is added to existing responsibilities, it takes a long time to digest the information and apply it appropriately.”

—Kay Egan, senior coordinator for special and gifted education services, Norfolk Public Schools, Norfolk, Virginia

A. “It is relatively complex. People do not think in terms of big ideas. Therefore, the more sharing, models, and support, the better.”

—Elaine (Irish) Hodges, director of special projects and accountability, San Diego County Office of Education, San Diego, California

A. “[There is] too much emphasis on unit design. The UbD framework can also structure curriculum and districtwide decision making.”

—Alyce Anderson, principal, Herbertsville Elementary School, Brick, New Jersey

A. “Our greatest challenge is to continue the work of lesson study. After the next museum night, we are planning a critical friend protocol of looking at student work schoolwide to determine quality.”

—Jill Levine, principal; Judy Solovey, curriculum facilitator; and Joyce Tatum, UbD cadre member and museum liaison, Normal Park Museum Magnet School, Chattanooga, Tennessee

A. “UbD work is difficult and requires constant revision, particularly for teachers who have to ‘unlearn’ their prior practice. It can be time consuming (especially up front), and if not done correctly, teachers may not see the immediate rewards and [may] revert to past practice.”

—Mark Wise, social studies supervisor, Grover Middle School, Princeton Junction, New Jersey

Resources for the Future

Finally, participants were asked what a school or district must provide to ensure the success of UbD implementation as part of the future of a learning organization. They emphasized the following recurrent recommendations:

  • Ensure that there is an articulated purpose for Understanding by Design within the context of district and school strategic planning, emphasizing to all staff members how the UbD framework aligns with and supports student achievement goals.
  • Provide support structures to ensure continuity and sustained professional development, including in-house trainers and coaches as well as financial resources.
  • Ensure active administrative support for UbD implementation, targeting instructional leaders at both the school and central office levels.
  • Avoid one-shot approaches to professional development, ensuring meaningful follow-up in the form of study groups and action research activities.
  • Commit to collecting and analyzing “value-added” data to evaluate the relationship between high levels of UbD implementation and student achievement results.

Q. What is needed to support UbD implementation (e.g., human resources, financial resources, materials and supplies, professional development, curriculum reform)?

A. “A clearly articulated vision of where UbD work fits into the district's overall philosophy is absolutely necessary in order for teachers to buy in. Otherwise, it becomes another fad that will pass. Staff must understand that [UbD] is not ‘this year's initiative,’ but central to the district's vision of effective teaching and learning. It's what good teaching looks like in this district. Also needed [is] time for professional development and [for] facilitators to do the initial training.”

—Joseph Corriero, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Cranford, New Jersey

A. “Clients need data that provide ‘proof.’ [In the] No Child Left Behind [era, we need] research-based assurance that professional development strategies and frameworks work. This promotes implementation. I have often thought that it would be valuable to have some units, complete with student work, as a part of the training materials—that's why I take those that I see in various places from different content areas and levels. It's a great selling tool.”

—Judith Hilton, UbD cadre member and university professor, Greenwood Village, Colorado

A. “[We need] teacher leaders who have in-house capacity to support colleagues, a steady stream of funding, administrative commitment to ongoing professional development in UbD, and the ability to develop short- and long-range plans. Curriculum reform has some [effect], but scheduling modifications have little. Schools rarely see UbD explicitly connected to other issues and training. Too frequently, it's looked at as the topic du jour or ‘this too shall pass.’”

—Janie Smith, UbD cadre member, Alexandria, Virginia

A. “On-site UbD experts are needed. Copies of the print materials are necessary for the school's professional library. If the school can afford it, as many copies as possible should be available for team members, on-site experts, trainers, etc. For it to be a part of the professional development process, the UbD philosophy must be a part of everyone's vocabulary. This takes time, ongoing feedback, and ongoing accountability in order for implementation and change to occur.”

—Angela Ryan, instructional facilitator, Hershey, Pennsylvania

A. “[We need] UbD coaches who can assist schools with implementation. Though some training has taken place to have a few coaches available [in our district], anyone who is willing to coach has to take this as an add-on responsibility. Coaching is an important feature with great potential. It is unfortunate that [UbD] has not been given a fair chance to succeed.”

—Kay Egan, senior coordinator for special and gifted education services, Norfolk Public Schools, Norfolk, Virginia

A. “As an administrative team, we need to continue providing time and focus [in order] for teachers to accept continual improvement as a way of professional life. After each term, we ask teachers what we should continue doing [and] what we should stop doing. What should we do more often and what should we do less often? What did we do well and what do we need to improve? The answers to these questions will help define future work.”

—Jill Levine, principal; Judy Solovey, curriculum facilitator; and Joyce Tatum, UbD cadre member and museum liaison, Normal Park Museum Magnet School, Chattanooga, Tennessee

A. “Sustained and consistent professional development is the necessary first step in implementing UbD. This should lead to curriculum reform as well as [to] new resources that will nourish the new direction the courses will be taking. This will require the district to financially support the program in terms of providing in-service days and curriculum money.”

—Mark Wise, social studies supervisor, Grover Middle School, Princeton Junction, New Jersey

* * *

As you reflect on these high-level users' reactions to Understanding by Design and compare your experiences with theirs, you may also wish to use these end-of-chapter resources to enhance your understanding.

Figure 1.1 presents the questionnaire that all study participants responded to. Which of the questions would you be able to answer at this point in your UbD use? Which of the questions would present difficulty to most staff members with whom you are now working? Do the issues that the questions raise provide any insight into your own future direction with the UbD framework, and do these issues have implications for your strategic planning process?

Figure 1.1. Understanding by Design High-Level User Questionnaire

Part One: Participant Information

Please provide the following information so that we can compile a profile of the various individuals and groups completing this questionnaire.

  1. Name:
  2. Title/Position Currently Held:
  3. Number of Years in Your Current Position:
  4. Work Address:
  5. Work Phone:
  6. E-mail Address:
  7. Number of Years You Have Worked with Understanding by Design in Your Organization:
    School ____
    District ____
    University ____
    Other ____

Part Two: Open-Ended Participant Questions

Please respond to each of the following questions in as much detail as possible. We are especially interested in your perspectives as both an individual practitioner/user of Understanding by Design and as a member of a broader organizational or district setting.

  1. Please describe how you learned about and were trained in Understanding by Design.
  2. How has your organization, school, or district provided professional development in Understanding by Design?
  3. In addition to direct training (e.g., presentations, workshops, courses), to what extent are you currently using study groups, inquiry teams, action research cohorts, and other collaborative approaches to support UbD implementation? Which staff development activities have proven most effective? Which have been least effective or problematic? What would you recommend to others who are beginning UbD staff development?
  4. How has your school or district attempted to help staff understand the purpose and uses of Understanding by Design? For example, how have you connected it to other district initiatives, policies, practices, and school improvement planning?
  5. How has Understanding by Design been integrated into the design, development, and implementation of your school and district curriculum?
  6. How does Understanding by Design support your work with student achievement of district and state standards, especially as measured by state and local accountability testing programs? Is there evidence you can cite of correlations between UbD use and test score gains or other evidence of improvement (e.g., student work quality, surveys of student engagement)?
  7. How have Understanding by Design's instructional principles and strategies been integrated into daily classroom practice in the school(s) or district with which you work? What evidence can you cite to support your conclusions?
  8. How is Understanding by Design being used to support strategic planning, continuous improvement, and organizational change? What evidence can you cite to support your conclusions?
  9. Is Understanding by Design integrated into your teacher-induction program? If it is, please provide specific examples.
  10. Please describe your experiences with and reactions to
    • The Understanding by Design Exchange
    • ASCD Understanding by Design videotapes
    • ASCD Understanding by Design online courses
  11. What is needed to support UbD implementation (e.g., human resources, financial resources, materials and supplies, professional development, curriculum reform)?
  12. What do you consider to be the greatest strengths of Understanding by Design?
  13. What do you consider to be the greatest challenges presented by Understanding by Design?
  14. Are there additional recommendations and suggestions you would like to make about the future direction of Understanding by Design?

Figure 1.2 presents a detailed synthesis of the major ideas that are the foundation for all subsequent chapters, including (1) profiles of high-level users, (2) criteria for successful professional development, (3) alignment between UbD and other school and district initiatives, (4) effect on curriculum and assessment practices, and (5) general comments about other issues related to UbD's use and implementation.

Figure 1.2. What Have We Learned About Understanding by Design? A Summary of Preliminary Ascd Survey and Focus Group Results

  1. High-level UbD users tend to
    1. Use the UbD unit design regularly in their professional duties.
    2. Participate in a collaborative follow-up to their initial training (e.g., study groups, action research cohorts, and peer reviews).
    3. Be responsible for helping to synthesize the relationship between UbD and other school and district accountability initiatives.
    4. Articulate UbD as a framework to describe research-based best practices, rather than as a stand-alone program.
    5. Understand the connection between UbD's design principles and the universal best practices in their field.
  2. Successful and sustained UbD professional development tends to
    1. Avoid one-shot training sessions with little, if any, follow-up.
    2. Emphasize the alignment between UbD and other school and district accountability initiatives, especially standards and accountability testing.
    3. Involve all appropriate system stakeholders, not just single groups or cohorts.
    4. Ultimately involve some form of professional collaboration (e.g., initial study groups, peer review, and action research).
    5. Lead practitioners to express the need for value-added evaluations.
  3. To emphasize the alignment of UbD with other district initiatives, school and district staffs
    1. Avoid presenting UbD as another required program.
    2. Articulate the relationship between UbD and district standards.
    3. Analyze the content of high-stakes accountability testing designs to articulate areas on those tests in which UbD supports student achievement.
    4. Integrate enduring understandings and essential questions into district curriculum frameworks and standards documents.
    5. Describe underlying design principles of UbD and their connection to districtwide initiatives to ensure the success of all students such as literacy development, mathematical problem solving, and differentiated instruction.
  4. In schools and districts, UbD has influenced the curriculum and assessment processes as high-level users
    1. Provide controlling principles for unifying the articulation and implementation of standards.
    2. Establish a technology (through the three-circle audit process) for developing a viable core curriculum.
    3. Suggest tools and methodologies for unifying curriculum design.
    4. Emphasize the need for a photo album of assessment results, including constructed-response test items, reflective assessments, academic prompts, culminating performances and projects, and holistic and analytic rubrics.
    5. Establish a coherent set of instructional design principles through WHERETO.
  5. Additional recurrent conclusions and recommendations include:
    1. The next logical step in UbD evolution is the systematic evaluation of UbD's effect on student achievement and organizational productivity.
    2. Although the electronic learning community for UbD has an established infrastructure, its potential has not been realized because teachers lack familiarity and face access difficulties.
    3. UbD implementation typically begins with a cohort of early adopters; however, sustained implementation is successful only when it is organically blended into other systemic professional development and accountability programs.
    4. Systemic UbD implementation is a process of organization development. Implicit UbD norms include collegiality, commitment to excellence and understanding, sensitivity to equity issues, professional development that is collaborative and job-embedded, and awareness of the learner as the center of the learning process.
    5. Recurrent problems associated with UbD implementation include
      • Staff misperceptions that it is a stand-alone program.
      • Staff members' lack of deep conceptual understanding of curriculum content (and its big ideas, generalizations, and paradigms).
      • Professional desire for quick fixes and initiatives that do not require staff tolerance of ambiguity or complexity.
      • Misperceptions about teaching to the test.
      • Erroneous assumptions that teaching for understanding is for the gifted and talented only.
      • Beliefs that not all children can achieve deep conceptual understanding.
      • Fears about relinquishing the locus of control to the learner, plus deeply entrenched desires for managing classrooms through lecture and teacher-dispensed information sources.
      • Failure to provide financial resources to sustain site-based and job-embedded professional development.
    6. There is a need to articulate the alignment between No Child Left Behind legislation and UbD to help ward off a perceived backslide toward teach-to-the-test instruction that overlooks the need for students to understand the content (both declarative and procedural) on which they are being assessed.

Like all chapters in this book, this one ends with an organizational assessment matrix that summarizes the chapter's key ideas (see Figure 1.3). Each of these matrices represents the inferences and conclusions that can be drawn from this study of UbD and applied universally to all schools and districts as learning organizations. Ideally, even as stand-alone resources, these matrices can help school improvement teams benefit from the insights, lessons, and experiences of individuals who have worked with Understanding by Design as part of a district reform effort.

Figure 1.3. Organizational Assessment: Organizational Practices That Promote Understanding for All

To what extent do organizations' practices within your school or district reflect each of the following indicators?


Not Evident

Somewhat Evident


Highly Evident

1. We share a common philosophy of learning that emphasizes student understanding, not just knowledge-recall.

2. Our standards clearly identify what all students should know, be able to do, and understand.

3. Our curriculum cues teachers and students into the big ideas and essential questions of each content area.

4. Our curriculum's objectives emphasize students' ability to explain, apply, and interpret what they are learning, not just to repeat or memorize it.

5. We reinforce students' ability to analyze perspectives and express empathy wherever possible.

6. We encourage a photo album approach to assessment that emphasizes performance assessment and self-reflection as key elements.

7. Our instruction emphasizes active student engagement and experience with learners at the center of the learning process.

8. Our professional development emphasizes study groups, inquiry teams, and action research processes.

9. Our long-range planning emphasizes our commitment to ensure that all students develop a deep conceptual understanding of our curriculum.


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