Understanding by Design: Teaching for Understanding

Understanding by DesignWhat teaching style do you favor? How do you present material in your class? When I was student teaching (many years ago now), I recall that we were required to observe another teacher in our supervising teacher’s department. I observed the man who happened to be chosen Teacher of the Year for his school by his colleagues. Actually, it was probably my supervising teacher who recommended I observe him. Matter of fact, I also observed the department head, who was an intimidating woman, both to her colleagues and students (she required English department members to hand in lesson plans, and I recall after one particularly didactic department meeting, the other English teachers clustered in the parking lot to “discuss” the meeting). The Teacher of the Year’s class was taking a notebook check the day I observed. He apologized for not being “up in front of the room,” but also added that he wasn’t up in front of room a lot because he “really didn’t believe in that.” What he was trying to say is that he viewed his role as a teacher as that of a facilitator or coach. In other words, he favored a constructivist approach to teaching. The department head was definitely more of a direct instructor. When I observed her class, she was standing in front of it, speaking. She called on students to provide answers.

One thing I like about Wiggins and McTighe is that they see value in various approaches to teaching; however, what they emphasize is that a good teacher needs to figure out when each approach is best. This can be difficult, however, because of our biases as teachers:

Teachers who love to lecture do too much of it; teachers who resist it do too little. Teachers who love ambiguity make discussions needlessly confusing. Teachers who are linear and task-oriented often intervene too much in a seminar and cut off fruitful inquiry. Teachers who love to coach sometimes do too many drills and overlook transfer. Teachers who love the big picture often do a poor job of developing core skills and competence. (242)

The most important quotation of the chapter, at least in my view, is that “[w]hen choosing instructional approaches, think about what is needed for learning, not just what is comfortable for teaching” (242). Teachers tend to use one instructional approach at the expense of all others, and to be honest, I have seen some hostility among teachers regarding this issue. Teachers who prefer direct instruction tend to see teachers who favor constructivism as irresponsible, unknowledgeable, lazy, and at worst, dangerous. It is not unheard of to hear that constructivists are the downfall of education as we know it, and don’t you know, education was so much better before these hippie yahoos came along and changed it all. On the other hand, I see constructivists characterize teachers who favor direct instruction as dour, boring, and punitive. In other words, they are the entire reason why kids hate school, and if they just weren’t teaching, why think of all we could change! In fact, I think we call all admit there are times when we want to learn things ourselves using a constructivist approach, and I don’t know about you, but I have certainly listened to some fascinating lectures.

The point of the chapter is not necessarily to advocate one method of instruction over another, but to emphasize that what method you choose needs to be based upon what your desired results are. All of a sudden the necessity for backward design “clicks.” How can you figure out whether lecture or a Socratic seminar would be best if you don’t know what you want the students to understand? In the words of Bob the nutrition unit designer, “What is the best use of our limited time together?” This should be the mantra of teachers planning instruction.

The two pages of formative assessment techniques are well worth some study (248-249). I like the index card summary idea. One of my colleagues uses hand signals with good results. Actually, her approach is slightly different from that of the book. She asks students to hold up one finger for one answer, two for another, and three for a third. It’s a very quick way to engage all the students and see who understands and who doesn’t. I tend to rely too much on discussion, which means if you talk a lot in class, I know what you know. I need to utilize methods of “hearing” from silent students more often (and not necessarily calling on them more often, although that would help; students are sometimes intimidated and afraid to say “I don’t get it”). I want to put a question box in my room, too. I think I already use oral questioning and follow-up probes to good effect, but there is always room for improvement.

I tend to teach grammar using direct instruction, and I am thinking that perhaps a constructivist approach would work better. But you know what? It would be harder to teach it that way. On the other hand, I think the students would understand it better. I know I am completely guilty of “marching through the textbook” when I teach grammar. No wonder I wind up complaining students didn’t learn what I taught. Teaching grammar next year is going to take some thinking.

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, instruction, constructivism, assessment, curriculum, planning[/tags]

11 thoughts on “Understanding by Design: Teaching for Understanding”

  1. Grammar instruction is a dilemma for me. A run-down of my strategies so far follows, but none has been as helpful as I'd like. I want my students to take responsibility for mechanics as much as I want them to know what is correct.

    I tried following a grammar workbook my first year (Prentice Hall's "Writing and Grammar: Communication in Action"), to disastrous effect. I tried daily "M.U.G. Shots" (mechanics, usage, and grammar); quizzes where students correct erroneous sentences; and handouts of student work with grammar and punctuation mistakes. I have also used personalized edit sheets, an idea I got from Linda Christensen in a "Rethinking Schools" article (I believe she adapted it from Mina Shaugnessy's "Errors and Expectations"), where each student receives a sheet with a list of the mistakes they tend to make, using it as a guide to proofread their work before turning it in. Admittedly, I didn't milk this last strategy for all it was worth, and I believe it could be very useful; I didn't happen to find it so effective this year, in its limited use. The textbook-based grammar lessons were fruitless: my students memorized rules for exams, and the corrections never surfaced in their own writing. Similar with the quizzes. Using photocopies or retyped versions of their own work was somewhat effective, but I didn't see the OWNERSHIP of standard English I was looking for. If I went over a paper WITH a student, they'd pick up the errors easily with a little prodding, but they often skipped the effort on their own. I have a copy of Constance Weaver's "Teaching Grammar in Context," but I haven't adapted it to my own teaching (or finished it!).

    Is the trick designing assignments with real-world application and weight? Like, if we're writing letters to real people, or submitting articles to real newspapers, will the mechanics start to matter? In my first two years of teaching, I get the impression my students just don't see the point, especially when text messages and MySpace pages require almost no punctuation and follow a different set of rules. 🙂

  2. I love the daily M.U.G. shot. I have done something similar, and it was very effective. Most book companies call those exercises D.O.L.'s for "Daily Oral Language" exercises, which I never understood. They are written, and only oral to the extent that we discuss them! Anyway, I am going to do those with my 9th grade Grammar, Comp., and Lit. class, and I'm going to steal your term. I liked Weaver and reviewed her in my very first post (see sidebar, click on June 2005). I also love your error checklist idea, and I think that could be very effective, particularly if they are involved in designing it themselves. My students became better with peer editing. It was like seeing errors in other students' papers made them see. We will need to get some good UbD grammar stuff going over at the wiki. I think a lot of English teachers struggle with teaching grammar. The course and curriculum I teach are pretty much designed to have some "in isolation" learning going on, so my hands are tied to an extent, but I want to integrate more of the grammar instruction into the composition instruction.

  3. CAN grammar be 'constructivistly' taught? So much of grammar has already been 'constructed' by crazy people through the years. English is NOT intuitive. The rules frequently DON'T make sense. Proper English is a foreign language for most of my students…even the ones for whom "English" is their native language.

    I was blessed to be raised by people who spoke correct English. Most of my students I have to tell "If it sounds right to you, it's probably wrong!"

  4. Dana, I never really tried it in public school, and last year was the first time I made extensive use of it. The Reflective Teacher has a great peer editing worksheet that I borrowed. Essentially, when I began assigning peer editing, they used it as a guide. Over the course of the year, I found they were able to peer edit effectively without it. But I found the worksheet gave them guidance. My students tended to view it as a valuable experience for them, and I might have had a couple of students who didn't use the time productively, but they were the minority.

    April, sure, I don't see why it couldn't. Students can look at examples of a certain grammar concept — let's say apostrophes used in various scenarios. They can then write rules for how the apostrophe is used as they see it. Then we can see what the grammar book says and refine and revise. I know one thing — what I have been doing isn't working. I am not seeing transfer, and they don't remember what they have learned when I test them again later.

  5. Oo, that's nice. It gives guidance without being so specific as to confuse students who aren't sure about mistakes. (I haven't had much luck with getting them to use proofreading marks.)

  6. Actually, I also found that using the DOL's, which Claire calls MUG shots (a better term I fully intend to steal), students learned how to use proofreading marks, as I asked them to use them when making corrections.

  7. I called my "DOL".. "LAW" (Lang arts warm-up")

    That lent itself to a bazillion puns.. "It's the LAW" etc

    I was then able to teach content in w/ the grammar.. such as:

    " a indefinite pronoun such as both few many several are a better way to learn a antecedent."

    Test follwed after 8 sentences, 2 per day.. test didnt always fall on a Friday as we didnt nec do 2 each day.. BUT… on quiz day,I did reward ea kid w/ 1 point per "LAW" warm up they held on quiz day

    Was open book test w/ similar grammatical errors, so LAW paid

    Alsao made it easy to grade on myself.. sentence was either right or wrong.. ONE mistake made it wrong.. SELDO, then , did a kid make even an 85%

    graded as follows=









    0, but attempt= 25

    no attempt, or some attempt = 0 0r 10

    It doesnt sound like it, but this really worked well.

    Also, lids really had a reason (the quiz points) to save LAW

    As year progressed, I would go back to former LAWs (on test) and make similar errors

    Also, being open book/notes quiz, encouraged correct use of dictionaries and other references Z(esp "Write Source," which I loved)


  8. I just put them on my notebook checks. I chose two at random each time, in addition to eight other items I checked for, and they had to be correct or marked wrong, too. I never had any problem with students not doing them this year.

  9. I buy into McTighe's understanding by design but need ideas on how to apply to grammar. I was searching the web for ideas and came across your dialogue. Has anyone had an epiphany on the matter?

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