Understanding by Design: The Big Picture: UbD as Curriculum Framework

Understanding by DesignIn “The Big Picture: UbD as Curriculum Framework,” Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe elevate the discussion of backward design to its application for designing K-16 curricula.  OK, I see the benefits, and I’m ready to start, but I don’t see how everyone who factors in designing the curricula for K-16 students would get on board with me.  In fact, I don’t even think all of my peers at my same school, indeed in my department, would all be willing to work with me.  I think some of them would be very excited about trying, but even after Jay McTighe presented at our school, I sensed that not all of my colleagues were intrigued.  Given, too, that I teach in a private 9-12 school, I have another issue to contend with — neither I nor anyone else at my school can tell our “feeder” schools what to do with curriculum.  It’s great that occasionally they ask us for our input, but we are all separate entities, and they do not report to us, nor we to them, nor any of us to a larger “district” office, as in the case of public schools.  If we could get more public school systems on board with designing curriculum using backward design, I think great things could happen, but frankly I despair of making it work curriculum-wide in my own setting.  I happen to work with some very thoughtful colleagues who plan learning experiences with the best interests of their students at heart.  In fact, I am, at times, awed by their ideas and the collegial atmosphere in my school.  However, not all of them necessarily feel UbD is the way to go, and they have the freedom not to go in that direction.

Well, if I cannot revise an entire curriculum using UbD, then I can at least start with the courses I teach myself.  Figure 12.2 on p. 278 provides an model for revising a particular course.  As I read through the essential questions created for a U.S. history course on p. 279, it occurred to me how very interesting the course sounded.  Framing courses with essential questions really does foster inquiry and curiosity.  Furthermore, the assessment tasks designed to meet New York state standards in World History on pp. 284-85 all seemed like very challenging, but very interesting projects to undertake.  My sense that I have been cheated because my education was not structured using UbD grows as I continue reading this book.  I have to say — because I forgot to mention it yesterday when I posted my reading journal for the previous chapter — that I was dismayed to learn that Bob the Nutrition Unit Designer was a fictional person.  I give credit to Wiggins and McTighe for making him seem so real!  I thought he and his unit were a true case study  being used as a model.

The examinations of rubric criteria and longitudinal rubrics in this chapter were somewhat dry, but I identified with the statement “As with all rubrics, students will need to see examples of work for each score point if the rubric is to be useful for self-assessment, self-adjustment, and understanding of the teacher’s final judgment” (287).  This is piece I am missing in terms of using rubrics with students, I think.  I have written about this before, and quite recently.  Realistically, it will take quite some time to compile models of each score point.  In the interim, I will continue to use rubrics, but will personalize comments for students so that they understand why they were assessed certain grades.

You know, this chapter certainly drove home a suspicion I have held for some time.  Bright students who succeed in school often do so in spite of the education they’re receiving and not because of it.  I am really excited by the prospect of applying what I have learned about UbD, but a growing frustration with not being able to change everything burbles beneath the surface.  As Wiggins and McTighe so aptly note, “centuries of tradition die hard” (299).  We “falsely believe that what worked for [us] will likely work for most others” (301).  Does this description remind you of anyone you’ve every worked with?

[Overreliance on the textbook] is logical and may be easily applied.  It simplifies and objectifies the task of the curriculum worker, the teacher, and the administrator.  The least capable teacher can assign pages in a textbook and hear pupils recite the facts involved.  He can give evidence that he has done his part by covering a given number of pages.  Thus he has an alibi for failure because he can place the blame for low achievement on his pupils. (298)

So to fix everything, “[a]ll we need to do is agree on the core performance tasks in each field, and design programs and syllabi backward from them” (300).  Oh, is that all?  So simple, yes, but so complicated at the same time.  As I said, I would love to do this, but I don’t see it happening.

What I can do, however, is start with my syllabi and incorporate Wiggins and McTighe’s suggestions into design of my own courses and my approach to material.  Some handy suggestions for elements to include in a syllabus appear on p. 300.

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, backward design, assessment, planning[/tags]