As I read Grant Wiggins’ and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design, I have decided to share my thoughts — my reading journal, if you will, as a few readers expressed an interest in hearing my thoughts about this book. I could be misrepresenting my readers, and please tell me if I am, but I sense a great deal of skepticism about UbD among educators. After Jay McTighe presented UbD to our faculty last year, I have to admit I became a fan of this approach, so caveat emptor.
First of all, the book has a nice feature that seems like a small thing, but is something I really appreciated as I began reading — space in the margins to write notes. Encouraged by this extra space, I took quite a few notes as I read. This post will focus on the book’s introduction.
If you are thinking about reading this book and are tempted to skip the introduction, my advice is — don’t! Back when we were students, I know we often skipped the introductions, as we didn’t consider them really part of the book. This introduction, however, is essential background. The introduction discusses four vignettes, two of which are true stories and two of which are “fictionalized accounts of familiar practice” (1). The two fictionalized accounts — one, a description of a unit on apples and the other, a description of a teacher in April realizing how much he has left to “cover” represent what the authors call the “twin sins of design” (3). The first unit is a string of activities related to apples. I have to admit that presented in the context of this book, the unit sounded absurd. I wasn’t sure what the students were supposed to learn about apples, aside from having some fun engaging in a series of activities, including making applesauce, going on a hayride, and writing stories about apples. The second unit is probably more familiar to high school teachers. Who among us hasn’t reached April and freaked out when we realize how much material we have left to cover? This year in American Literature, I ended up at The Great Gatsby. I don’t feel good about the lack of coverage the twentieth century received in my class, and that was one of the reasons I decided this book needed to be on my summer reading list. I need to plan smarter and better so that my students are exposed to a true survey of literature in my survey courses. I need to figure out what they need to understand, know, and be able to do. I love literature, and it is my compulsion to throw everything out there, but it is not the smartest thing to do given the constraints of time. I highlighted an appropriate quote: “[A]t 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” (3). While I agree with this statement, I wonder what our test-driven schools can do, especially in light of NCLB. I think that in some fields, teachers must feel obligated to ensure they approach the material from a coverage orientation. The problem, of course, is with the way we measure student success for NCLB. I am really glad I am not subject to these demands as a private school teacher. Later, the authors say “[m]any 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” (9). Perhaps my fears about how well teachers can use UbD and still prepare students for standardized tests will be allayed.
I also made note of an interesting question asked in the introduction: “How can we accomplish the goal of understanding if the textbooks we use dispense volumes of out-of-context knowledge?” (4). One of my criticisms of the textbook series we are adopting, Prentice-Hall’s Literature, is that they pull in “Connections” from other disciplines that are tenuous at best. I do believe in the value of cross-curricular instruction, but I think forcing it when the connections are weak undermines learning and insults the intelligence of our students. The book will describe essential questions later in the text, but I was intrigued by the authors’ insistence that “[i]ndividual lessons are simply too short to allow for in-depth development of big ideas, exploration of essential questions, and authentic applications” (8). I completely agree and recall feeling frustrated by my middle school administrator’s insistence on my putting essential questions on the board each day. He was quite happy if they read something like “What is a pronoun?” or “Why do we need pronouns?”, but I always felt like I was simply rewording the objectives in the form of a question rather than really trying to communicate “big ideas” or overarching understanding of the material I was teaching.
Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.