Understanding by Design: Crafting Understandings

Understanding by DesignAs I read “Crafting Understandings” in Understanding by Design, I was struck by the same realization as the health teacher Bob, whom Wiggins and McTighe use as an illustration throughout the book: “Boy, this is difficult, but I already see the benefits of getting sharper on what, specifically, my students need to come away understanding” (145).

This chapter begins by asking the reader to compare examples of understandings to nonexamples and determine what generalizations we can make about understanding(127). In other words, how do we distinguish between examples and nonexamples? These are my observations, made before I read and determined what the authors might say about the chart (127):

  1. The understandings are statements, complete sentences, whereas the nonexamples were generally phrases.
  2. The understandings were not general or vague.
  3. The understandings explain how something works or show relationships.
  4. The understandings can be tested or tried out, like scientific hypotheses.

When I resumed reading, I realized I didn’t notice the way each understanding is acquired.

It is unlikely that learners will immediately and completely understand the meaning of the statement simply by hearing it or reading it. They will need to inquire, to think about and work with it. In other words, the understanding will need to be uncovered, because it is abstract and not immediately obvious. (127)

That is, I couldn’t articulate this idea. I think I was on to something when I noticed the understandings were not general or vague, but I didn’t quite nail the reason why.

One thought that recurred to me over and over as I read this chapter is the notion that much of science education has understanding right. We formulate hypotheses, test those hypotheses, and come to an understanding about why something is the way it is.

Understanding requires that students emulate what practitioners do when they generate new understandings; namely, they consider, propose, test, question, criticize, and verify. (129)

I like the fact that whenever possible, Wiggins and McTighe try to use examples from a variety of disciplines. The challenge in creating so many examples must have been great, but as reader, I really appreciate it because it helps me see how to apply what I’m learning as I read to my own discipline.

Reading this book has also helped me hold a lens to my own teaching practices, and I realize I am fairly guilty of coverage. I have been confused by why my students don’t know something I know I taught, and it didn’t occur to me to really think about how I taught it. As the authors state, “When our teaching merely covers content without subjecting it to inquiry, we may well be perpetrating the very misunderstanding and amnesia we decry” (132).

A question that occurred to me as I read, also, was what are you supposed to do if you discover your state (or national, district, school, etc.) standards are inadequate for producing true understanding? You’re definitely going to need to make sure your students meet standards; in fact, some teachers have to turn in lesson plans with objectives correlated to standards. As I read, I discovered that Georgia standards are OK, but don’t really encourage some of the understandings I would like to see students have about literature and writing. In fact, most problematic is this standard:

The student reads a minimum of 25 grade-level appropriate books or book equivalents (approximately 1,000,000 words) per year from a variety of subject disciplines. The student reads both informational and fictional texts in a variety of genres and modes of discourse, including technical texts related to various subject areas.

I applaud Georgia for wanting students to read more, but what are they supposed to understand as a result? That reading can be informative and fun? That reading can help you become a better writer because you are exposed to models of good writing? Neither understanding is listed anywhere in the standard. I wish that the standards were framed in terms of essential questions, as example standards from Virginia and Michigan provided in the text were framed (134). To be fair, when I double-checked the standards, I found that a newer, more helpful version exists than the one I printed out for my use about two years ago, but I still see the critical idea of understanding missing in some of the standards. I think too many of them are like the Civil War example given by Wiggins and McTighe: “I want students to understand the causes of the Civil War” (135). In fact, to satisfy my curiosity, I looked up the Social Studies standard in U.S. History to see what the standards require students to learn about the Civil War:

The student will identify key events, issues, and individuals relating to the causes, course, and consequences of the Civil War.

  • Explain the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the failure of popular sovereignty, Dred Scott case, and John Brown’s Raid.
  • Describe President Lincoln’s efforts to preserve the Union as seen in his second inaugural address and the Gettysburg speech and in his use of emergency powers, such as his decision to suspend habeas corpus.
  • Describe the roles of Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, William T. Sherman, and Jefferson Davis.
  • Explain the importance of Fort Sumter, Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and the Battle for Atlanta.
  • Describe the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • Explain the importance of the growing economic disparity between the North and the South through an examination of population, functioning railroads, and industrial output.

In reading over this standard, I was struck by the fact that it doesn’t ask that students necessarily engage in inquiry about the “significant and interrelated causes of the Civil War — the morality of slavery, fundamentally different views about the role of the federal government, dissimilarities of regional economies, and a clash of cultures” (135). Much of the standard’s requirements seem to ask that students regurgitate a series of agreed upon answers, when the truth is that we are still in some disagreement about the causes of the war. Perhaps the writers of the Georgia standards could have used Wiggins and McTighe’s prompt for framing understandings: “Students should understand that” Instead, “Students will identify…” seems to indicate that students simply need to plug in the correct responses instead of really understand why, for example, people in the two regions disagreed about so many fundamental issues or why certain battles were critical in the outcome of the war, or even why figures like Ulysses S. Grant or Robert E. Lee rose to such prominence and importance. I would like to think plenty of Georgia teachers do, in fact, lead their students to these understandings, but it would be nice to see the standards framed in such a ways to help teacher see what students should understand.

Wiggins and McTighe provide a graphic organizer on p. 137 that will help teachers ferret out essential questions and understandings. I decided to try using it to frame some essential questions and understandings for a study of the epic poem Beowulf. I have to agree with Bob — it was hard. I had to really think about what was important, why we should bother studying this piece, and what students should “get out of it.” I would love for you to look at the Beowulf Filter wiki page I created at UbD Educators’ wiki. Only members of the wiki can create pages, but anyone can comment by clicking the tab that says “Discussion,” so please look over the filter and tell me what you think.

Ultimately one of the problems in planning is that some of us, myself included, have sometimes considered the plans or assessments as the end result rather than a means to a result. No wonder students ask us why we’re doing something or what the point is. If we haven’t figured out a way to articulate that yes, there is a point, and a very good one, we run the risk of sending the message that there is no point or that we don’t know what the point is, either.

I feel like Bob:

Having lots of knowledge doesn’t mean you can use what you know. I recall last year when two of my better students, who aced all my quizzes and tests in the nutrition unit could not analyze their family’s menu planning and shopping to come up with a more nutritious plan. (I also noticed that they ate mostly junk food at lunch.) I’m beginning to realize that my original understanding goals for the unit [on nutrition] are not adequate. I merely identified an area of concern — good nutrition — and thought that the state standards sufficiently explained what I was after. But the content standards for nutrition do not specify the particular understandings that my students are supposed to acquire. They merely state that they should understand the elements of good nutrition. So I need to be more specific: What ideas about nutrition should they come to understand and take away from the unit? (144-145)

Bob’s comments made me think once again of the student I mentioned in my post on chapter 2. She resembles Bob’s students who seem to get the material, but obviously don’t because they are unable to apply it. What I need to do next year is craft assessments that show this. Students should not be making A’s and B’s if they really don’t understand the big ideas or even topical ideas. We reward students who fish for and memorize the “right” answers. What I have been doing, I think, is telling students what I understand, and some of them have simply memorized my understanding without really coming to understand themselves.

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

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

5 thoughts on “Understanding by Design: Crafting Understandings”

  1. "Perhaps the writers of the Georgia standards could have used Wiggins and McTighe’s prompt for framing understandings: “Students should understand that…” Instead, “Students will identify…” seems to indicate that students simply need to plug in the correct responses instead of really understand why, for example, people in the two regions disagreed about so many fundamental issues or… "

    Your quote above stayed with me as I worked today. One of the issues that came up in the push for better standards was the drive to get away from standards of "Students will understand" because they were too vague. Standards that state "Students will identify/recognize" are easier to assess, thus easier to build into standardized assessments. It was easier for standards writers to come to a consensus on what exactly are students learning (regurgitating). Your thoughts?

  2. You're right, it is easier to write standards framed in this way, but I think Wiggins and McTighe have a valid point about the transferability of these types of standards. Asking them to, for example, merely identify isn't enough if we want to engage higher order thinking skills. On Bloom's Taxonomy, "identifying" would be at the bottom in Knowledge. It would not be anywhere near the Application, Synthesis, and Evaluation levels. If that is the case, and we are talking about standards for an entire curriculum and not just, say, a lesson, then I think they need to be framed in a more open-ended way.

  3. I need to go through the Georgia standards more carefully before I can speak to Georgia's standards, but Wiggins and McTighe mention other state standards that do indeed address big ideas and assess understanding. They are worded in the form of essential questions.

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