I read Meghan Everette’s post What’s the Point? -Lessons That Serve No Purpose last week. Her point about looking at the big picture when it comes to lesson design and planning resonated with me. As educators it is so important to know where we are going before we start any journey in the classroom or in the school. I enjoy the focus that this type of thinking brings to my work. I know there are some teachers who march through their teacher’s edition. But, I can’t imagine working without the big idea in mind as a teacher. I remember cringing at being given essential questions and enduring understandings (or whatever your district or school calls big ideas in curriculum) from my administration. I interpreted it as being told what to teach. Now I see there is truly flexibility in a framework. Those enduring understandings and essential questions eventually became my road map in the classroom.
I am now an Understanding by Design groupie. I was introduced to it years ago when designing curriculum for the museum school where I worked. After using it for a few unit designs I was sold on it. I am known to use the phrase “UbD it out” when confronted with any problem of practice. It has become the way I think and plan. Understanding by Design is a framework meant to guide students toward understanding. Once you are clear on the understandings your students should leave with and the essential questions they need to answer, the day to day lessons and resources you use are up to you. Not only does this allow teachers to be creative; it also leads to focus. A lot of lesson pruning happens in the unit design process with UbD. Teachers frequently evaluate whether lessons and activities guide their students to construct meaning. Sometimes lessons don’t fit in. Maybe they fit into another unit, or maybe the teachers find those lessons don’t really fit into the scope and sequence of the school year. Eventually this constant evaluation and consideration for understandings and objectives becomes a way of thinking for educators. This translates to profound and lasting student experiences with the content.
So many times we hear “Why do I need to learn this?” or “When am I ever going to use this?” Educational thinker John Dewey once said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” There is a growing body of research regarding how the brain learns and the importance of transfer. Our goal as educators is not regurgitation of material, but rather application and transfer of content and skills into real life. Because it is so focused on understandings and the take away for students, transfer of learning is naturally built into units of study using the Understanding by Design framework. Evidence of understanding happens in real world transfer tasks built into units. Students are required to connect and transfer the skills and content they have learned. This goes beyond end of the chapter comprehension questions and spelling tests.
Understanding by Design challenges us as educators to create meaningful performance tasks in which students show what they know. There is still a place for tests, quizzes, and teacher observation. But UbD allows for a deeper level of assessment, one that requires students to creatively transfer their learning to a new situation. Most importantly, this type of assessment grants students an element of choice. This choice means engagement for students and engagement leads to true understanding rooted in authentic interaction with content.
I always use the analogy of Big Ideas in museum exhibition design when introducing Understanding by Design. Curators struggle with crafting Big Ideas for new exhibits. For them the Big Idea is the takeaway. What do you want visitors to remember when they walk away? Tomorrow. Next year. Twenty years from now. Within the exhibit are a variety of objects and label text, as well as interactive components to make meaning from the content. Curators and exhibition designers consider audience. There has to be something for everyone, every type of visitor. Every choice contributes to the Big Idea.
Educators could learn from the exhibition design process when planning units of study and consider what they want students to remember tomorrow, next year, and twenty years from now. It’s not just about coverage, homework, tests, and quizzes.