Understanding By Design

Understanding By Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe
Reviewed by Jason Dowd, Departmental Teaching Fellow in Physics

The idea is simple enough.  In teaching, you first identify the desired results. Once that’s done, you figure out what students could do that would be evidence of such results.  Finally, you plan activities and learning experiences geared towards generating that evidence.  Easy, right?

Understanding By DesignApparently not.  Understanding by Design, the philosophy-meets-tutorial book on instructional practice by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, makes a compelling case for why these “simple” steps are not obvious, often quite difficult and rarely employed in the educational setting.  Why?  According to the authors:

“Many teachers begin with and remain focused on textbooks, favored lessons, and time-honored activities—the inputs—rather than deriving those means from what is implied by the desired result—the output. To put it in an odd way, too many teachers focus on the teaching and not the learning. They spend most of their time thinking, first, about what they will do, what materials they will use, and what they will ask students to do rather than first considering what the learner will need in order to accomplish the learning goals” (p 15).

This notion of starting from outputs and working back to inputs is the basis of “backward design.”

Perhaps the premise seems reasonable, but now you are wondering what’s so hard about it.  Well, for one thing, it is easy to unwittingly substitute a topic title for the lesson content when articulating desired understandings. “I want students to understand Newton’s Laws” provides no insights for assessment beyond suggesting a topic.  On the other hand, beginning with the phrase “I want students to understand that…” is a simple way to rearrange your thinking and ensure a full-sentence answer.  The book is filled with tips like these, along with worksheets to help instructors of all disciplines and instructional levels use these tools.

As for assessment, the authors tap into a more judicial view of evidence and suggest that “teachers […] think of students as juries think of the accused: innocent (of understanding, skill and so on) until proven guilty by a preponderance of evidence that is more than circumstantial” (p 148). What do you really know about student learning after they have completed the assigned tasks?  This suggestion raises interesting questions in the discussion of strategic learners versus deep learners.  Instructors often consider the former to be “grade grubbers” and the latter to be “excellent students,” but is it fair to attribute these qualities to students if poorly-designed assessments are to blame?

Regarding implementation, the authors highlight the importance of flexibility, revision and many iterations during instruction.  Assessment must take place throughout the process, so both the instructor and students are aware of progress towards the learning goals. Of course, if upcoming activities cannot be modified, then such (in)formative assessments are a bit like checking a grocery list while shopping on a conveyor belt; if you missed something, too bad.

The presentation of these ideas is thorough, compelling and enlightening.  References to research studies, though present, are not the focus of this work; rather, the authors intend “Understanding by Design” to be a practical guide for instructors.  So if that’s you, I strongly recommend that you check out this book and visit Grant Wiggins when he visits the Bok Center in the end of March.

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