Friday, December 10, 2004

by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe © 1998
Pub. Prentice-Hall, 201 pages

In this book, Wiggins and McTighe offer the reasoning and the tools for developing curriculum that aims at real understanding. This book is a must read for anyone designing curriculum and is highly suggested for anyone who regularly selects curriculum. While Understanding by Design is not a “Christian Education” book, those in ministry know that if anything in life needs to be understood rather than merely known, it is God and God’s ways.


What is backward design? Backward design begins with the desired results, determines acceptable evidence, and then plans learning experiences and instruction to equip students to successfully accomplish those evidences. Desired results are worthy of knowing, are important to know and do, and are enduring understandings. Acceptable evidence is chosen across a continuum of assessments ranging from informal checks for understanding to a formal project. Generally speaking, traditional quizzes and tests assess understanding of that knowledge worth being familiar with and that which is important to know and do. Performance tasks assess enduring understandings.

What is a matter of understanding? Good curriculum design prioritizes important ideas, encourages student exploration of essential questions, has clear performance targets, and established the necessary evidence. When students understand they know and are able to use that knowledge in practical, authentic ways. Questions are an important way to focus teaching and learning. Essential questions are those overarching questions that lie at the heart of a discipline. Unit questions are content specific questions that naturally lead to essential questions. Both types of questions are important. Entry questions are provocative questions that prepare the students to begin thinking about unit questions and essential questions.

Understanding understanding. Because students are adept at apparent understanding, there needs to be a way to assess in-depth, justified understanding. Knowledge of the content of a discipline and the understanding of that discipline are not the same. One can have knowledge without understanding and understanding without accurate knowledge.

The six facets of understanding. There are six facts of understanding: explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. Understanding should be developed and assessed in all six facets.

Thinking like an assessor. There are two basic questions an assessor asks: “Where should we look to find hallmarks of understanding, and What should we look for in determining and distinguishing degrees of understanding?” (pl. 67). The criteria and indicators of understanding are found across the facets and at differing levels within each facet. This book suggests a rubric for assessing understanding across the facets and levels (p. 76-77).

How is understanding assessed in light of the six facets? Suggestions are made of several assessment tools for each of the six facets.

What is uncoverage? Uncoverage teaches the subject rather than simply about the subject. Depth and breadth are two key factors. Depth is understanding the how, why, and how to. Breadth is understanding both the details and the bridges to related topics. Uncoverage deals with “nonobvious [sic] meanings.” Descriptors for depth include unearthing, analyzing, questioning, proving, and generalizing. Descriptors for breadth include connecting, picturing, and extending. Suggestions are made for giving for depth and breadth within the six facets. Uncoverage deals with the big idea, because the big idea must be discovered, not just taught.

What the facets imply for unit design. The acronym “WHERE” is a reminder of five things to consider before beginning unit design. “Where are we headed? …Hook the student through engaging and provocative entry points. …Exploration and enable/equip. …Reflect and rethink. …Exhibit and evaluate” (p 115-116).

Implications for organizing curriculum. The form of a curriculum must follow the function of understanding. Spiral curriculum (revisiting ideas), narrative structure (using the logic of drama), and task analysis (performance accompanied by and followed by didactic teaching) are some ways to achieve this.

Implications for teaching. To teach for understanding, the method employed must match the type of learning desired. Also, assessment should occur throughout the course. Finally, the teacher’s attitude must frequently be reexamined in light of the goal of understanding.

Putting it all together. The book provides a set of templates to guide the reader through the process of designing curriculum for understanding.


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