Understanding by Design: Gaining Clarity on Our Goals

Understanding by DesignI had a great deal of difficulty with this chapter. It probably didn’t help that my reading of it was rather disjointed — I have two small children here at home, and I probably needed to marshal all my concentration and read it in the library or somewhere quiet. The chapter describes and summarizes the terms “Established Goals, Understandings, Essential Questions, Knowledge, and Skills” (56).

The first passage that really spoke to me discussed “Established Goals”:

[T]he greatest defect in teacher lesson plans and syllabi, when looked at en masse, is that the key intellectual priorities — deep understandings of transferable big ideas, and competence at core performance tasks — are falling through the cracks of lessons, units, and courses devoted to developing thousands of discrete elements of knowledge and skill, unprioritized and unconnected. That is why content standards exist (regardless of the quality of specific standards): to prioritize our work, to keep our eyes on the prize, and to avoid the intellectual sterility and incoherence that comes from defining our aims as hundreds of apparently equal, discrete objectives to be “taught” and tested out of context. (58)

I made a major mistake in one of my early job interviews. I had not yet graduated (I needed to complete a cross-cultural class and a 20th century literature class during the summer to finish up, but I was done with English Education courses), and I was invited for an interview at a Middle Georgia school. The principal asked me how I planned to ensure that the QCC objectives (the old standards used to guide Georgia educators before standards were revised some years ago) were met. With all the arrogance of youth, I proceeded to explain that the objectives were broad — any number of tasks might suitably ensure objectives had been met; therefore, my approach would be to plan lessons and go through the QCC objectives to see which ones applied. True story. D’oh! I can’t believe how dumb that sounds now that I look back on it. I knew right after I said it that he was no longer interested in hiring me. Well, truth be told, I wasn’t too interested in the job either, but I went to the interview hoping for an offer in case I couldn’t get my first choice. I don’t think most educators would be so ballsy as to say outright that this is how they ensure they meet standards, but I wonder if it isn’t a common practice. What I basically communicated to that principal is that I didn’t think standards were as important as my pet lesson ideas, and that I could figure out how to twist and finagle the standards to fit my plans rather than use the standards to design my plans.

Wiggins and McTighe point out that when they were “writing the first edition of Understanding by Design, the standards movement was still so new [they] hardly mentioned it in the book” (60). The first edition was published in 1998. The standards movement is often traced to the 1983 report A Nation at Risk (Overview of the Standards Movement). The movement might be said to have reached a head with the passage of NCLB. It might be that the authors recognize the passage of NCLB as the moment when the standards movement became serious in terms of real repercussions for failing schools. I like the description of standards provided by Education Week (via Overview of the Standards Movement).

  • Academic standards describe what students should know and be able to do in the core academic subjects at each grade level.
  • Content standards describe basic agreement about the body of education knowledge that all students should know.
  • Performance standards describe what level of performance is good enough for students to be described as advanced, proficient, below basic, or by some other performance level.

Wiggins and McTighe discuss several problems with standards:

  • The “Overload Problem”: Simply too many content standards exist, and we do not have the time available to learn them.
  • The “Goldilocks Problem”: Standards are too big or too small.
  • The “Nebulous Problem”: Standards are so nebulous that “teachers will interpret [them] in different ways, thus defeating one of the intentions of the standards movement — clear, consistent, and coherent educational goals” (61-62).

As I am most familiar with Georgia’s standards, I feel most qualified to comment upon them. In my opinion, our state standards are fair. I think they are doable in terms of the time we have, and I think they are neither too broad nor too narrow. I do, however, think perhaps some of them are nebulous enough that teachers might interpret them as they please. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t have said what I said at that job interview ten years ago. True, our standards have been revised since then, but I still think they are somewhat nebulous. Of course, to be fair, this also presents the teacher with the freedom to approach the subject in a variety of ways and still meet state standards. As a teacher in a private school, I am not beholden to Georgia’s standards per se, but I do find them useful in planning my lessons and making sure I stay on track.

I liked the authors’ discussion of “big ideas”:

The big ideas connect the dots for the learner by establishing learning priorities. As a teacher friend of ours observed, they serve as “conceptual Velcro” — they help the facts and skills stick together and stick in our minds… A big idea may be thought of as a linchpin. (66)

The authors quote Bruner (1960):

For any subject taught in primary school, we might ask [is it] worth an adult’s knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person a better adult. A negative or ambiguous answer means the material is cluttering up the curriculum. (66)

This is a good point and can be hard with material we’re passionate about; therefore, I wonder what was meant by “primary school.” K-12? Or just what we usually think of as elementary school — K-5 or 6? Or even just early elementary — K-2 or 3? I think as we move up into secondary school, content becomes more specialized and is likely taught by a content specialist. Therefore, can all of it necessarily be “worth an adult’s knowing” and would “having known it as a child [make] a person a better adult”? One could argue that it depends on what that adult wants to do or be in life, I suppose. I know a lot of middle and high school teachers have been told at some point that something they thought was critical was somehow not going to be important in life.

Wiggins and McTighe go on to discuss the difference between “big ideas” and “basics.” “Big ideas are at the ‘core’ of the subject; they need to be uncovered; we have to dig deep until we get to the core,” while basic ideas are the framework or foundation (67). I like the authors’ statement that “we need a ‘preponderance of evidence’ in order to ‘convict’ a student of meeting stated goals” (69). In other words, we must make sure students have mastered content standards through a wide variety of measurements before we can say they are definitely guilty of “understanding” content.

In terms of “finding big ideas,” the authors suggested two tips in particular that I think will be useful: “look carefully at state standards” and “circle key recurring nouns in standards documents to highlight big ideas and the recurring verbs to identify core tasks” (73-74). The authors remind us again that we are experts as teachers, and the “Expert Blind Spot” can prevent us from making big ideas obvious to students. We need to think like students in order to help them grasp big ideas and truly understand the content.

On pp. 79-80, the authors share a rubric for self-assessment and peer review of “any assessments purporting to involve true application with authentic challenges.” I believe this rubric might be helpful to participants at the UbD Educators’ wiki, so I provided a rubric page. For example, I think the Pythagorean theorem problem described on p. 42 and in this post might be considered a 3 on the authors’ rubric. It looked unfamiliar to the students taking the test, but did give students “clues or cues” that “suggest[ed] the approach or content called for” (79). “The main challenge for the learner is to figure out what kind of problem this is, from the information given. Having realized what the task demands, the learner should be able to follow known procedures to solve it” (79).

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, assessment, education[/tags]

One thought on “Understanding by Design: Gaining Clarity on Our Goals”

  1. I just finished this chapter this evening. I too found the idea of deciding what is "worth an adult's knowing, and whether having known it as a child makes a person a better adult," to be particularly insightful.

    This book is really helping me look at what I teach in terms of the "big questions" and I am hoping that will inform my curriculum development. The writing is a little dense at times, and occasionally I get lost in the detailed examples, but so far, so good!

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