UbD For You and Me

Wiggins and McTighe’s groundbreaking work, Understanding by Design (UbD), has been extremely influential in my thinking about curriculum, teaching, and learning.

Background: I was first introduced to the concept of UbD nine years ago – a very influential Principal organized small learning communities (though he did not call it that at the time) and gave direction on creating curriculum maps. This was in my third year of teaching and was never given direction (or afforded input) about curriculum design. I believed, then, that curriculum was designed and written by admins and given to teachers to deliver and “cover”. But my paradigm was significantly shifted and remains so now.

The Principal gave each team member an enormous set of blank UbD templates. I had never known what an “essential question” was nor had I given much thought to “beginning with the end in mind”. But the concept fascinated me and I read all that I could about Wiggins and McTighe.

After a year of working with my colleagues, we had designed over 30 units. All were complete with essential questions, skills/knowledge expectations, and chock full of resources. I thought we were done. But once we completed the review process we were told that we were now ready to keep this going. Huh? I thought it was done? No. UbD required consistent and ongoing review, redesign, and reflection. I had just undergone another shift.

Knowledge gained/Skills Learned: Years later I am now an administrator. I am responsible for moving a team of people from the doldrums of “the way it’s always been” to the liberation ideology of “this is the way it could be”. How do I do this? One tool I use is introducing UbD to my staff.

It was especially useful this year when I organized our Special Education teachers into a PLC to complete UbD units for Language Arts. This was a shift for them – I imagine they felt and will feel much the same way I do.

Using this template the team was able to map out exactly what the students should understand, how they can be sure they understand it, what concepts to key in on, and what assessments and resources can/should be used when uncovering the unit.

Intended Consequences: The Special Education staff was very understanding of the need for us to begin to think this way for our students. I also believe they found great benefit in collaborating, thinking, deciding, and designing together.

Reflection: I know there are many examples, adaptations, and versions of UbD templates. Some have been completely watered down so much so that they seem like exercises in getting teachers to produce something static rather than to design something organic. UbD has been corrupted in some schools. That’s a travesty – the unintended consequence from that type of PLC experience is that the teachers feel as though they were just subjected to another project from the admins. The shame is that UbD affords a staff the opportunity to really bond as a faculty, allows them to work as professionals, in control of their careers, their teaching, and the direction of the learning. And the intended consequence of that paradigm shift is that students will benefit and become much more engaged in the learning.