Understanding by Design

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Understanding by Design, or UbD, is a tool utilized for educational planning focused on "teaching for understanding" advocated by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their Understanding by Design (1998), published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.[1][2] The emphasis of UbD is on "backward design", the practice of looking at the outcomes in order to design curriculum units, performance assessments, and classroom instruction.[3]

"Understanding by Design" and "UbD" are registered trademarks of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development ("ASCD"). According to Wiggins, "The potential of UbD for curricular improvement has struck a chord in American education. Over 250,000 educators own the book. Over 30,000 Handbooks are in use. More than 150 University education classes use the book as a text."[1] As defined by Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design is a "framework for designing curriculum units, performance assessments, and instruction that lead your students to deep understanding of the content you teach,"[4] UbD expands on "six facets of understanding", which include students being able to explain, interpret, apply, have perspective, empathize, and have self-knowledge about a given topic.[5]

Backward design[edit]

Main article: Backward design

Understanding by Design relies on what Wiggins and McTighe call "backward design" (also known as "backwards planning"). Teachers, according to UbD proponents, traditionally start curriculum planning with activities and textbooks instead of identifying classroom learning goals and planning towards that goal. In backward design, the teacher starts with classroom outcomes and then plans the curriculum, choosing activities and materials that help determine student ability and foster student learning.[6]

The Backward design approach is developed in three stages. Stage 1 starts with educators identifying the desired results of their students by establishing the overall goal of the lessons by using content standards, common core or state standards. In addition, UbD's stage 1 defines "Students will understand that..." and lists essential questions that will guide the learner to understanding. Stage 1 also focuses on identifying "what students will know" and most importantly "what students will be able to do".

Stage 2 focuses on evidence of learning by assessment. Teachers plan performance tasks and evidence of understanding. Performance tasks determine what the students will demonstrate in the unit and what evidence will prove their understanding. This can include self-reflections and self-assessments on learning.

Lastly, stage 3 lists the learning activities that will lead students to your desired results.[7]

Teaching for understanding[edit]

At the centre of the McTighe and Wiggin’s narrative is the idea of "Teaching for Understanding.” While many teachers claim to want their students to understand, the authors suggest that the ambiguity of the word “understanding” has a detrimental effect on contemporary lesson and unit design. An important distinction made throughout their writing is the difference between knowing and understanding. Knowledge, in its most basic form is the facts surrounding a particular subject/topic. Understanding on the other hand, is the meaning between the facts.[8] In their article on science education, Smith and Siegel argue “that education aims at the imparting of knowledge: students are educated in part so that they may come to know things.”[9] While a student can know a lot about a particular subject, teachers globally are beginning to push their students to go beyond simple recall. This is where understanding plays an important role. The goal of Teaching for Understanding is to give students the tools to take what they know, and what they will eventually know, and make a mindful connection between the ideas.[10] In a world that is filled with data, teachers are only able to help students learn a small number of ideas and facts. As such, it is important that we give students the tools needed to decipher and understand the ideas. This transferability of skills is at the heart of McTighe and Wiggin’s technique. If a student is able to transfer the skills they learn in the classroom to unfamiliar situations, whether academic or non-academic, they are said to truly understand.[11]


Wiggins and McTighe clarify that:[12]

  1. "It is not a prescriptive program."
  2. "It is not a philosophy of education, nor does it require a belief in any single pedagogical system or approach."
  3. "It is focused on the design of curricular units (as opposed to individual lesson plans or broader programs)." The authors have discouraged the application of UbD approach to a system of daily lesson planning although it seems to be a natural way to proceed. In the book, they provided examples on why they discourage it.
  4. "Although teaching for understanding is a vital aim in schooling, it is just one of the many. There are cases when 'understanding' is neither feasible nor desirable. The developmental level of students will determine the extent to which conceptualization is appropriate; at other times, it will make in-depth understanding a lesser or tangential goal."
  5. The book is "built upon the conditional premise: IF you wish to develop greater in-depth understanding in your students, then the ideas & processes of understanding by Design apply."

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b (nd) Authentic Education. GrantWiggins.Org. Retrieved 6/7/07.
  2. ^ Learn More. Understanding by Design website. Retrieved 6/7/10.
  3. ^ Reed, J. (nd) "Education book reviews: McTighe, Jay & Wiggins, Grant (2005). Understanding by Design. Second Edition. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development." Missouri State University. Retrieved 6/5/07.
  4. ^ Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (nd) Understanding by Design: A brief introduction. Center for Technology & School Change at Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved 6/7/07.
  5. ^ (nd) Topic 3: Developing Goals and Objectives: Class Notes: Six Facets of Understanding. Foothill De Anza Community College District. Retrieved 6/7/07.
  6. ^ Hammond, G. (nd) Multiple methods of assessment. Red River College. Retrieved 6/7/07.
  7. ^ Wiggins and McTighe (2006). Understanding by Design. Pearson: Merrill Prentice Hall. p. 24. ISBN 0-13-195084-3. 
  8. ^ Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  9. ^ Smith, M., & Siegel, H. (2004). Knowing, Believing, and Understanding: What Goals for Science Education? Science & Education, 13(6), 553-582. doi:10.1023/B:SCED.0000042848.14208.bf
  10. ^ Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  11. ^ Smith, M., & Siegel, H. (2004). Knowing, Believing, and Understanding: What Goals for Science Education? Science & Education, 13(6), 553-582. doi:10.1023/B:SCED.0000042848.14208.bf
  12. ^ Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J.(2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd Ed. USA). Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.