Understanding by Design: Planning for Learning

Understanding by DesignI’d be willing to bet most teachers’ favorite part of planning is brainstorming creative ways to evaluate students. As Wiggins and McTighe noted earlier in Understanding by Design, we are often eager to skip all the way to Stage 3 — planning activities, assessments, and projects. I like that the authors do not necessarily argue against direct instruction, nor do they debate (at least not in this chapter — next chapter, we’ll see) about particular teaching methods (such as lecture versus Socratic seminar or other myriad variations). They argue instead that any type of instruction, like any other facet of the learning experience, needs to have a purpose leading to desired understandings:

Regardless of our teaching strengths, preferred style, or comfortable habits, the logic of backward design requires that we put to the test any proposed learning activity, including “teaching,” against the particulars of Stages 1 and 2. (192)

I think sometimes I like to stand in front of the class to hear myself talk. Well, not really, but I remember how freeing it felt this year to introduce alternative ways of structuring my class that kept me out of the front of the classroom so much. It’s telling, isn’t it, that the first thing my supervising teacher did after my first full day of instruction in her classroom was to offer me a cough drop? The thing is, when I haven’t planned as well as I should have, I typically fall back into that pattern of standing in front of the room and telling students what I know. And perhaps some of them learn some things, but I would definitely like my classes to be more engaging on a regular basis.

I have been refining a historical fiction assignment at the UbD Educators wiki for a few days, and I have received excellent feedback about the assignment. Wiggins and McTighe argue that the best designs are “engaging and effective” (195). In evaluating the historical fiction project through the characteristics of the best designs (196-197), I find that:

  • The project has a clear performance goal. Students will create a wiki designed to inform an audience about the historicity of a selection of historical fiction.
  • I definitely think it is hands-on. I will, in fact, not be doing much “teaching” aside from showing students a few basics about wikis (I also want them to kind of stumble around on their own and figure out how to do things).
  • I definitely think the project focuses on interesting and important ideas. Through this small lens of looking at historical fiction, I am asking students to evaluate what they see in print — to become critical about what they read.
  • I am not sure it has a real-world application in terms of looking like a real problem, but I do think it is a meaningful project.
  • What more powerful feedback system exists than a wiki? I can offer feedback right on the wiki page about how the students are proceeding as they go and guide them if they are going astray.
  • I think a multitude of ways to approach this project exist, and students are encouraged by the design of the project to approach the project in a variety of ways while ensuring they include a few required elements.
  • One area I find lacking is models. I am sure I can find some similar wikis to show students, however. In terms of modeling, with my SMART board, that will be easy. I can go through steps (like editing pages) right in front of them and demonstrate.
  • Students will also have time set aside for focused reflection in literary circles/book club meetings to discuss the novels and time to work together in the lab. It would not surprise me a bit if they wound up using Facebook to reflect and discuss, too.
  • Variety in methods? Well, they can do a variety of things with the assignment, but I did set certain requirements. Grouping? They will ultimately be choosing their groups based on which novel they want to read. I am savvy enough to know that some kids will pick the same book so they can work together. Variety of tasks? Yes, they do have to complete a variety of tasks in order to make a final project. However, this is ultimately a mini-unit that is somewhat outside the regular curriculum; therefore, I will not be setting other tasks such as quizzes or journals.
  • I do think that the wiki could be somewhat daunting an environment for taking risks. Students are putting themselves “out there” where others can look. Perhaps they can choose wiki sites that allow protection against unauthorized viewers until they feel “done.”
  • This project definitely puts me in the facilitator or coach role.
  • I do think the project requires a certain amount of immersion, at least more so than a typical classroom experience.
  • The project allows for students to see the big picture and be able to move back and forth between the parts and the whole.

Regarding the authors’ acronym WHERETO, I really think this mnemonic device would work better if the elements were simplified and began with the letter they represent. For example, “W — Ensure that students understand WHERE the unit is headed, and WHY” (197). Why not simply phrase it “W — WHERE are you going and WHY?”

I agree with Wiggins in McTighe that “[a]ll too rarely do students know where a lesson or unit is headed in terms of their own ultimate performance obligations” (198). I do think it will be helpful to tell students from day one what the ultimate goals are so they have them in mind as they work.

In terms of hooking students, I found the following true and disheartening:

[M]any students come to school somewhat unwilling (and not always expecting) to work hard. And they typically misunderstand that their job is to construct understanding as opposed to merely take in (and give back) information that teachers and texts provide. (2o2)

In fact, I have lamented this particular problem several times as I wrote my reflections on this book. We need to “make the knowledge gained usable in one’s thinking beyond the situation in which learning has occurred” (202).

I liked the idea of hooking students by “[p]resenting far-out theories, paradoxes, and incongruities” to “stimulate wonder and inquiry” (204). After all, the mystery genre is wildly popular among readers. Everyone likes a bit of a puzzle.

Clay was wondering if the book’s authors would address digital literacies:

In fact, with the advent of technology it has become possible to target lectures to emerging student interest and need, in a “just in time” way. Students can do a WebQuest, or go to a Web site for a lecture when certain background information is needed, so that class time can be better spent on a teacher-facilitated inquiry and coaching of performance. (205)

Of course, I have already argued that we might not see a great deal of Web 2.o practices in this book because 2006-2007 seems to have been the year that Web 2.0 “broke” into the collective consciousness and inspired various educational applications. I can’t help but think that Wiggins and McTighe have to be very excited about Web 2.0 and its implications for learning.

On pp. 214-215, the authors describe an inductive approach to learning a task that I think I can tweak and apply to a study of The Odyssey with the larger questions of

  • What can we learn about the roles of women as compared with those of men (I have never had a class yet that didn’t get really indignant at some point about Odysseus’s repeated infidelities in comparison with Penelope’s unwavering faithfulness)?
  • What can we learn about the notion of hospitality in ancient Greece (and the larger Mediterranean and Middle East) compared to our own?
  • What did the Greeks value in a hero? How is that different from what we value in a hero?
  • How does the structure of the epic facilitate storytelling?

I’m sure I could think of others, but I think I could construct a good unit just based on those four.

As a hook for my historical fiction unit, I can’t help but recall an episode of Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives in which he examines Richard I, Richard II, and Richard III of England. History has largely maligned Richard III, but Jones pointed out several very positive changes that resulted from his reign. I remember reading (I think it was connected to Sharon Kay Penman’s novel The Sunne in Splendour) that Henry VII had as much to gain from the the deaths of the Princes in the Tower as Richard III did. But history remembers Richard III as the great villain. So great, in fact, that no King Richard has since followed. We probably owe a great deal of our view of Richard to Shakespeare’s portrayal of him in Richard III. And let’s face it, Shakespeare, living during the reign of the last Tudor, would have had plenty of incentive to put Elizabeth’s grandfather in a positive light. I might be able to work up a bit of a story to illustrate how historical fiction can impact the way we view historical personages through this example.

So let’s take a look at my historical fiction project through the WHERETO framework.

  • W — The ultimate goal is clear. Students will seek to determine what one can learn from historical fiction, how reading it is different from reading history texts or historical documents, and how reliable historical fiction is.
  • H — I think perhaps the King Richard III story might do for a hook if it is presented in an appropriate way.
  • E — Students will engage in and explore the big ideas through literature circle/book club discussions and research of historicity, culminating in presentation of what they learn.
  • R — Students will revise and reflect as they learn more through research and receive feedback.
  • E — Students can complete a self-evaluation in the conclusion or I can make it a separate piece. In fact, that might be better; if students have to publish their reflections, they might feel uncomfortable. I feel comfortable reflecting honestly about myself online, but I realize my students might not.
  • T — My students are all tracked. This is a college prep class. I think a wide variety of approaches will enable students to tailor the assignment themselves, but the homogeneity of my students will perhaps render tailoring for different levels a nonissue. Of course tailoring for personalization will be important.
  • O — I think the sequence of learning activities will work well toward building the desired understandings. In fact, I envision this activity being a semester-long inquiry with little work inside a class (literature circle meetings perhaps every 3 to 4 weeks, class time to familiarize students with wikis). Aside from that, students can do the work outside class. In fact, they can even do the group work part of the assignment online on a hidden page of the wiki.

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, planning[/tags]

One thought on “Understanding by Design: Planning for Learning”

  1. Dana, Are you National Board Certified? (aside SC pays for the process if accepted/certified and it's also an extra 10 thou/yr plus cert for the same)

    I write because this is a common declaration among tchrs who made it: I now know what/why/where I am going, purpose of/god evaluations.. IE process–> evaluation

    Prob didnt word that well. Maybe you got the gist tho


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