In this chapter, “The Design Process,” of Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe turn to the process of backward design. The good news for me is that no one “correct” way to design a successful UbD unit or curriculum exists. Teachers can start at any stage and move back and forth through the stages, revising and refining as they go. As the authors explain, “[t]reating the [UbD] template as a set of boxes to be filled in one at a time is likely to result in a poor design, because such an approach won’t involve the kind of revising and aligning needed to produce a coherent plan” (255). The results define the success of the plan; if you have carefully considered all three parts of the process and have a complete template when you’re through, it doesn’t matter where you start.
Wiggins and McTighe include several helpful examples of units that were initially poorly designed and their subsequent revisions. I have to admit that my approach to teaching grammar has been strikingly similar to that of the geometry unit described on p. 265. However, as I looked at the revision of the geometry unit, which included a real-world problem involving the best method for shipping M&M’s, I had a brainstorm. You might recall that the state of Arkansas made the news last February when Representative Steve Harrelson introduced a resolution to the Arkansas House of Representatives to definitively determine how to form the possessive form of Arkansas. In other words, do you follow Strunk and White and form it Arkansas’s, or do you follow the leading newspaper’s decision and style it Arkansas’? I think a really worthwhile culminating project for a unit on the use of apostrophes would be to draft a letter to Rep. Harrelson advocating either Arkansas’s or Arkansas’ based upon understanding of apostrophe rules. Or what about the $2.13 million comma in Canada? Grammar can have far-reaching implications in communication, as these two examples illustrate, and I think an assessment built around issues like these can help students understand how communicating clearly can avoid confusion.
I like the fact that Wiggins and McTighe don’t advocate a recipe for designing a unit. This allows for a great deal of freedom for those who have a multitude of considerations. In fact, we need to accept that “[i]t is the rare design that leaves the designer completely satisfied, because compromises are inevitable” (268). Sometimes, for instance, a certain text is part of the curriculum, and we are required to teach it. Their discussion of “unavoidable dilemmas in design” appears on pp. 268-69, and is well worth study when planning any unit.
The most important message of the chapter is the necessity of feedback in design — feedback through peer review and student assessment. I think the UbD Educators wiki can potentially be a valuable gathering place for us to continue to post units and participate in constructive peer review. My historical fiction project is a much better project after the great feedback I received from the folks at the wiki. In terms of student feedback, I think perhaps formative assessment will be most helpful for teachers who need to figure out what is or isn’t working and why. I like the index card idea mentioned in several places throughout the book (list one big idea you learned this week; list one thing that still confuses you). As it is described here, it has a slightly different look: “What worked for you this week? Say why, briefly. What didn’t work? Say why, briefly” (271). I don’t know that I would do a weekly feedback form like the one on p. 272. I think it is perhaps too involved for just one week’s worth of learning (perhaps not for short units). Perhaps it would be a good wrap-up for a unit.
Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.