Understanding by Design: Backward Design

Understanding by DesignChapter One of Understanding by Design is an introduction to the concept of Backward Design, which I think is best summarized in Wiggins and McTighe’s statement that “We [teachers] cannot say how to teach for understanding or which material and activities to use until we are quite clear about which specific understandings we are after and what such understandings look like in practice” (14-15).  In other words, we need to know what we want the end result to be before we plan.  This might seem obvious, but we don’t do it as much as we should.  Most books discussing goal-setting advise readers to visualize the end and then determine how to get there.  What I know I have done at times is what the authors describe as “throw[ing] some content and activities against the wall and hop[ing] some of it sticks” (15).  Ouch.  In fact, their description of a unit on To Kill a Mockingbird could be an accurate description of some of my own planning:

Consider a typical episode of what might be called content-focused design instead of results-focused design.  The teacher might base a lesson on a particular topic (e.g. racial prejudice), select a resource (e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird), choose specific instructional methods based on the resource and topic (e.g. Socratic seminar to discuss the book and cooperative groups to analyze stereotypical images in films and television), and hope thereby to cause learning (and meet a few English/language arts standards).  Finally, the teacher might think up a few essay questions and quizzes for assessing student understanding of the book.  (15)

Like I said, ouch.  As a matter of fact, if I am being truthful and honestly reflective about my practices, I have to admit that this is my most frequent approach to teaching literature.  That isn’t to say that my students aren’t learning, but clearly, I need to figure out what it is exactly that I want them to learn.  If I have one quibble with the UbD approach as described in this chapter, it is that the authors ask, “Why are we asking students to read this particular novel?” and later state, “Unless we begin our design work with a clear insight into larger purposes — whereby the book is properly thought of as a means to an educational end, not an end until itself — it is unlikely that all students will understand the book (and their performance obligations)” (15).  Well, then, why do we select any text?  Why do we read any novel?  I don’t think my first reason for selecting To Kill a Mockingbird would be teaching students about prejudice, although one could certainly learn about prejudice from the novel.  I simply think it’s a great book.  So how do I articulate that into a justification for selecting that text?  If I am selecting texts only as a means of communicating some large idea, does it even matter what we read as long as we get there?  I don’t think the authors believe this, but I do think they would like teachers to question why they select texts that they do: “Many teachers begin with and remain focused on textbooks, favored lessons, and time-honored activities — the inputs — rather than deriving those means from what is implied in the desired results — the outputs” (15).

The authors proceed to explore in more depth what they referred to in their introduction as “the twin sins of design”: activities-based instruction and coverage-based instruction.  If you have ever asked yourself as an educator why those students just won’t learn what you’re teaching, you’ll want to examine this section.  The authors advise teachers to ask “‘What should [the students] walk out the door able to understand, regardless of what activities or texts we use?’ and ‘What is evidence of such ability?’ and therefore, ‘What texts, activities, and methods will best enable such a result?'” (17).  In the margin of the book, I wrote, “I tell (I meant stand in front of the room and yak at) students too much, and I do all the work.  Then I complain when they don’t learn.”

Backward design is comprised of three stages: 1) Identify desired results; 2) Determine acceptable evidence; and 3) Plan learning experiences and instruction (17-18).  “In stage 1 we consider our goals, examine established content standards (national, state, district), and review curriculum expectations” (18).  In stage 2 we determine what “collected evidence [is] needed to document and validate that the desired learning has been achieved” (18).  Finally, in stage 3 we determine “appropriate instructional activities” (18).

I think the central reason why educators are somewhat leery of UbD is clear in the following passage:

This [backward design] is all quite logical when you come to understand it, but “backward” from the perspective of much habit and tradition in our field.  A major change from common practice occurs as designers must begin to think about assessment before deciding what and how they will teach.  Rather than creating assessments near the conclusion of a unit of study (or relying on the tests provided by textbook publishers, which may not completely or appropriately assess our standards and goals), backward design calls for us to make our goals or standards specific and concrete, in terms of assessment evidence, as we begin to plan a unit or course. (19)

In other words, UbD is looking at curriculum like we tend to look at goal-setting.

Later in the chapter, the authors suggest peer review of units or curricula might be helpful.  I agree, and I think this can be totally non-threatening and extremely helpful, but I am not sure some of my colleagues would agree.  Teachers are prickly about review.  I know I didn’t like it in the past when I’ve had to hand in lesson plans.  However, I think on the occasions when I have received good feedback regarding my ideas, it’s been critical to my improvement as an educator.  As teachers, we understand that feedback and assessment doesn’t always equal criticism when we do it, but when we receive it, we tend to find ourselves right back in the student’s chair again.

The chapter ends with an examination of a health teacher’s unit on nutrition.  As this unit is used as an example throughout the book, the completed UbD template for the unit plan appears in this chapter.  I have to say it’s an excellent unit plan.  The students are authentically assessed over their understanding of good nutrition; furthermore, they are asked to apply what they learn.  In fact, I think if I were the health teacher’s student, I would have found the unit interesting, engaging, and enjoyable.

Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.

[tags]UbD, Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, Backward Design, curriculum, assessment, education[/tags]

4 thoughts on “Understanding by Design: Backward Design”

  1. Don't be TOO hard on yourself. The spaghetti-on-the-wall approach, "hoping some of it sticks," is better than "hoping it keeps them quiet and they don't cause trouble!" 😉

    A concern of mine is that "backward design," IOW, creating the assessment before doing the instruction, sounds like it would lead to teaching-for-coverage rather than teaching-for-understanding, because … well, like you said about 20th century literature, what happens if you don't get through all of it?

    I'm definitely on board with this; I want to be intentional about what I teach and I CERTAINLY would love to be more effective in teaching it! That was one of the issues I had with the workbook – I kept thinking, "you don't have to explain why this is such a good idea; if I didn't believe you, I sure as anything wouldn't've bought the darn book!" I need help with application – connecting the ideas to what I do in preparing, teaching and assessing.

    Linda Darling-Hammond's book, The Right to Learn, gives anecdotal (and I *think* research-based, too) support for collaborative planning, but I agree with you: as teachers, we like it when others think we know what we're doing! *laugh* That's one reason I'm really looking forward to online collaboration; I may feel like a fool, but at least I don't have to FACE anybody while I do!! 😉

  2. This post recalls an essay that I read this very afternoon by Francine Prose, titled "I Know Why the Caged Bird Can't Read," about the superficiality of the approach to literature in the classroom. I highly recommend it. At the very least, it gave this English teacher pause.

    I can't find the article online but it was published in Harper's, September 1999. On the off-chance someone might have the anthology where I found it, it is on page 89 in The Language of Composition, by Shea, Scanlon and Aufses.

  3. Nani, I'm going to see if it's on EBSCO. Thanks for the tip.

    Update: No dice. Not on EBSCO that I could find. I sure wish my school had a JSTOR subscription.

  4. I think Backwards Design is a great teaching method. Of course, I just finished my college program and we had to study Wiggins. I was amazed when I started my student teaching and had to attend professional development classes centered on UbD. All of the student teachers were smiling. For once, we had a leg up on our collaborating teachers:))

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