eArticle: Understanding by Design
Grant Wiggins is the president of Authentic Education. He earned his Ed.D. from Harvard University and his B.A. from St. John’s College. Dr. Wiggins consults with schools, districts, and state and national education departments on a variety of reform matters; organizes workshops; and develops resources on curricular change. He is also the coauthor, with Jay McTighe, of Understanding by Design and The Understanding by Design Handbook, the award-winning materials on curriculum published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
What is Understanding by Design? Understanding by Design (UbD) is a disciplined way of thinking about the design of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The goal is for students to achieve a deep understanding of important ideas you need to teach. At the core of the UbD framework is the intention for students to break through and get it, not just for the test, but for life.
UbD provides a way to move from simply covering the curriculum to ensuring student understanding. The work of learning provides students with the opportunity to explore, test, verify, apply important concepts, and to make sense of the content.
Key Components of UbD
Key components of UbD are Backward Design, Big Ideas,Essential Questions, and Transfer.
Begin with Backward Design UbD emphasizes the use of a backward design process to develop instruction. Rather than beginning the planning process with activities, materials, or textbook content, backward design starts by identifying the desired long-term results and appropriate assessment evidence. Three principle stages provide a conceptual framework for helping teachers design learning mindful of the big ideas of content. (See figure below.)
Big Ideas, Big Questions In the UbD framework, big ideas give context and meaning to discrete facts and skills. What is a “big idea”? It is a powerful concept, theme, or issue that a student uses to make sense of otherwise disconnected content elements. Because big ideas are familiar and compelling, students readily connect their previous learning experiences to the new one. Big ideas allow all students to participate in the learning, because everyone can share their ideas, values, and opinions and connect to content. Learning is thus about examining and informing students’ various points of view—leading to new understanding. One way of focusing in on a big idea is to use Essential Questions. Essential Questions are designed to challenge preconceived notions and force students to stretch their thinking, using course content to support and inform answers. In doing so, students discover meaning in the content and connections to their own lives. UbD’s use of big ideas and Essential Questions encourages students to not just know something but understand why it matters and how it can be applied. Transfer Knowledge and Skills The ultimate goal of education is to help students apply or“transfer” what they learn to new and unfamiliar situations. In the UbD framework, transfer is about students being able to stretch the limits, use creativity, and tackle realistic challenges related to core content. Transfer ability means that students can adapt their learning to fit many different settings, issues, and problems—a key aim of schooling. The ability to transfer learning also helps students to succeed with state testing: Students often fail to apply prior learning to new readings, problems, or prompts on the test. When students show that they can transfer knowledge, skills, and understandings,it means they understand the connection between the classroom and the real world. It also means students are more prepared for the real work of the disciplines they study—whether as physicians, journalists,engineers, or artists
Goals for the Learning Experience
To achieve content mastery, deep understanding, and transfer, curriculum design must take into account the following goals:
• Engage students in inquiry and application
• Promote the transfer of learning
• Provide a conceptual framework to
help students make sense of discrete
facts and skills
• Uncover and use the big ideas
of the content
• Develop appropriate assessment methods to
determine the degree of student understanding,
knowledge, and skills
• Address misunderstandings or biases
that interfere with learning
• Fold content standards and school
mission into the design work
Achieving these goals requires backward planning, starting with the goals and working backward to what the students and you will actually do. Backward curriculum design lends purpose and conviction to every lesson, every activity, and every assignment.
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