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by John L. Brown
Table of Contents
How does Understanding by Design provide a framework and a language to help educators promote all students' understanding?
How has Understanding by Design evolved since its initial publication? What are the major changes and trends associated with its evolution?
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:
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:
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.
High-level UbD users identified the following as framework strengths:
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
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:
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].”
A. “Everyone within the system needs to be trained for maximum effectiveness. It should not be offered as a workshop for teachers only.”
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.”
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.”
A. “[The greatest challenge is] rethinking one's approach to curriculum design and moving from coverage to uncoverage.”
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.”
A. “[There is] too much emphasis on unit design. The UbD framework can also structure curriculum and districtwide decision making.”
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.”
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:
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
To what extent do organizations' practices within your school or district reflect each of the following indicators?
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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