Resource Review: Understanding By Design

Understanding By Design book coverResource: Understanding By Design
Authors: Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe
Published by: Merrill Education / Prentice Hall, Inc.

Wiggins and McTighe begin Understanding By Design with the assertion that all teachers are designers, even if they may not think of themselves in that way: Teachers are designers of learning, of environments, of students' experience. More specifically, they claim that instructors can increase the effectiveness of their teaching by employing a process that they call "backward design."

In the typical classroom, instructors - or, in their terms, "activity designers" - often think of lesson planning as a process of moving forwards. First, a typical instructor considers the beginnings of her course, for instance, how the text opens, what materials are available, or how to best explain the foundational concepts to students. From there, she considers student learning as building from those early explanations. Concepts around the construction of structures might begin with a lecture establishing students' understanding of center of mass, for example.

Wiggins and McTighe believe, however, that this forward-looking approach to creation of course materials and activities is, essentially, backwards.

Understanding By Design curricular priorities graphInstead of choosing a point from which to begin, instructors should, rather, try to "think like assessors," imagining what students should know at the end of a course unit - the big "enduring understandings" that they will take away - and how they might show their engagement with or mastery of these concepts. In other words, if the ultimate goal is students' ability to design creatively within a set of specific constraints, then the instructor must first consider how the students might demonstrate their learning. The answer could be participation in a design project, in which case the instructor - now assessor - should think through the goals for the project as specifically as possible, and imagine what evidence would show that students had met the goals.

For instance, how would students show that they understand the basic principles of a certain type of construction? Would one kind of assessment be enough? Could different forms of assessment - for instance, the construction of a design prototype, the presentation of the prototype, and an analysis of how the prototype might be used - reveal different kinds of student expertise?

As a result of developing this vision of what might occur at the end of a course, instructors can then more easily imagine what students need to learn in order to achieve these goals - and thus, more easily dictate what the course's lectures, activities, and prepatory project steps might cover. Understanding By Design includes a good bit of Wiggins and McTighe's exposition of this theory, but also many practical tips to help instructors rethink course designs by using problems and projects to frame and motivate what students do, what they learn, and what they take with them into the future.

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Tags: Resource, Assessment