Understanding by Design

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<ref name="test1">Understanding by Design-Google Books </ref>Understanding by Design (UbD) is a conceptual framework for education anchored on the tenet of “teaching for understanding.” Introduced by Jay McTighe and Grant P. Wiggins in 1998, UbD espouses the process of “backward design” in the development of a school curriculum.


Teaching for Understanding

"Teaching for understanding" is the main tenet of UbD. In this framework, course design, teacher and student attitudes, and the classroom learning environment are factors not just in the learning of facts but also in the attainment of an “understanding” of those facts, such as the application of these facts in the context of the real world or the development of an individual's insight regarding these facts. This understanding is reached through the formulation of a “big idea”-- a central idea that holds all the facts together and makes these connected facts worth knowing. After getting to the “big idea,” students can proceed to an “understanding” or to answer an “essential question” beyond the lessons taught.

Through a coherent curriculum design and distinctions between “big ideas” and “essential questions,” the students should be able to describe the goals and performance requirements of the class. To facilitate student understanding, teachers must explain the “big ideas” and “essential questions” as well as the requirements and evaluative criteria at the start of the class. The classroom environment should also encourage students to work hard to understand the “big ideas” by having an atmosphere of respect for every student idea, including concrete manifestations such as displaying excellent examples of student work.

Backward Design

<ref name="test2">Resources - Jay McTighe and Associates</ref>The UbD concept of “teaching for understanding” is best exemplified by the concept of backward design, wherein curricula are based on a desired result--an “understanding” or a “big idea”--rather than the traditional method of constructing the curricula, focusing on the “facts” and hoping that an “understanding” will follow. Backward design as a problem-solving strategy can even be traced back to the ancient Greeks. In his book “How to Solve It” (1945), the Hungarian mathematician George Polya noted that the Greeks used the strategy of “thinking backward” by knowing what you want as a solution in order to solve a problem.

Backward design is geared to eliminate two common flaws in the traditional method: coverage-focused teaching and activity-focused teaching. In coverage-focused teaching, educators try to cover all topics as specified by a textbook or teaching manual for the whole school year, but end up with students who do not understand why they are being taught all this information. In activity-focused teaching, educators come up with all sorts of activities that students participate in and enjoy, but again, students do not completely understand why. This is what backward design aims to resolve: to make students understand and gain a deeper insight into why they are being taught these information or made to participate in these kinds of activities.

Three steps of backward design

Backward design entails three steps:

  1. Identifying desired results
  2. Defining acceptable evidence
  3. Planning learning experiences and instruction

First stage - Identifying desired results

Identifying desired results means defining the objectives of the course/class. Desired results cannot be just limited to traditional parameters such as a good performance in state assessment tests, but rather include specific goals that contribute to a deeper understanding of a topic. One example would be the desired results from an English literature class, in which students are not only prepared to score well in national English proficiency exams, but also develop a love for reading and appreciation for literature.

Second stage - Defining acceptable evidence through the different types of assessment

The second stage, defining acceptable evidence refers to the process by which the educator will teach and gauge the level of understanding of a student. The educator should now choose which assessment methods are suited to track the progress of a student.

These assessment methods are classified by McTighe and Wiggins into three types: performance tasks, the highest test of understanding in which students are given a real world challenge wherein they must display a critical and effective use of the knowledge and skills learned in class; criteria referenced assessment such as quizzes, tests and prompts, which provide both instructor and students feedback on how well the facts/concepts are being understood; and unprompted assessment or self-assessment primarily for students, such as observations and dialogues.

Going back to the example of the English class, a teacher may ask students to create works--from a parody, an stage adaptation, or even to the extent of fan fiction--based on his/her favorite text.

Third stage - Planning learning experiences and instruction

The last stage, planning learning experiences and instruction, details students' activities throughout the class, lists which resources to be used, and evaluates if these activities and resources follow the WHERETO criteria. <ref name="test3">Indicators of Teaching for Understanding - Jay McTighe and Eliot Seif</ref> The WHERETO criteria must be met cumulatively by all activities. WHERETO stands for

  • W = Where is the unit going? What is expected? (students); Where are the students coming from? (teachers)
  • H = Hook all students and hold their interest.
  • E = Equip students, help them experience the key ideas and explore the issues.
  • R = Provide opportunities to rethink and revise their understandings and work.
  • E = Allow students to evaluate their work and its implications.
  • T = Be tailored to the different needs, interests, and abilities of learners.
  • O = Be organized to maximize initial and sustained engagement as well as effective learning.

The WHERETO criteria are also the indicators to see if the course fits the idea of “teaching for understanding.”

This can be illustrated in some activities for the English class. For example, showing the movie “Clueless” in class can fulfill the W, H and E criteria--W, showing an example of creating a work from a literary source (“Clueless” is a modern adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma); H, the movie hooks the attention of the students; and E, as the students enjoy the film, they are able to experience the key idea that literature can be enjoyed and is alive.

This does not mean, however, that backward design does not use traditional methods of teaching. It only espouses that traditional and alternative methods be used hand-in-hand, in the appropriate contexts, to achieve the desired results.

Six Facets of Understanding

According to Wiggins and McTighe, students can be said to have understanding when they:

  • Can explain by providing thorough and justifiable accounts of phenomena, facts and data;
  • Can interpret by offering an individual insight to ideas and events;
  • Can apply and use that knowledge to diverse contexts;
  • Have perspective by seeing things in the context of the big picture and viewing these critically;
  • Can empathize by finding value in what others may find as implausible, basing a sensitive perception on prior direct experience;
  • Have a self-knowledge or self-awareness that enables them to see what shapes and impedes their own understanding.

Research Base supporting UbD

Several tenets of UbD are supported by data compiled in the book “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2002). The book, a synthesis of studies conducted by the American National Research Council, demonstrates some of these points:

  • For applicability, learning must be guided by generalized principles. Knowledge gained through rote learning or plain memorization is not readily applied compared to knowledge learned with understanding;
  • Feedback is an important component of learning, but opportunities to provide feedback are scarce in classrooms;
  • Many assessments measure only propositional (factual) knowledge and never ask whether students know when, where, and why to use that knowledge.

Other tenets of UbD have also been supported by studies influencing student achievement in American public schools, such as one by Smith, Lee and Newmann in 2001 which show that interactive methods of teaching help students learn more in reading and mathematics. Interactive teaching--defined by the study as “applications or interpretations of the material to develop new or deeper understandings of a given topic” -- are similar to the methods espoused by the UbD.

Understanding by Design in the Philippines

Because of its success in the United States, the UbD framework slowly made its way into the Philippine education system. Earlier implemented by private schools, the integration of the UbD framework in the public school system was begun as early as 2007, with an order by then Mayor Enrico “Recom” Echiverri that the framework be implemented in the Basic Education Curriculum of Caloocan City public schools. This move was backed by Senate Resolution 1295, filed by Sen. Manny Villar in August 2009, which supports the implementation of the UbD framework in the Basic Education Curriculum.

Among the private schools, PAREF Southridge School took the lead in implementing UbD in 2003. Its then Academic Director, Christian Zaens, was trained by Grant and McTighe in the ASCD Seminar in New York. The following year, Mann Rentoy [(www.mannrentoy.com)][1] and three other school officers received training from McTighe in Bangkok, Thailand. The school has since then been fully implementing UbD in its academic program. The results showed dramatic improvements in the students' performance in the various College Entrance Exams.

The UbD framework will be formally implemented in the Philippines through the 2010 Secondary Curriculum which will be implemented in AY 2010-2011. The 2010 curriculum, currently under pilot testing in 22 schools all across the country, has included several topics that are similar to the UbD tenet favoring the application of knowledge in real-world situations. These topics include Consumer Education, to be applied across all subjects and intended teach students about the 18 Fair Trade Laws, and the Stock Market Basics topic in Economics for fourth-year students.

<ref name="test6">DepEd Memo No. 71, s. 2009</ref>The 22 Pilot Schools for the 2010 Secondary Education Curriculum

  1. Ilocos Norte National High School, Laoag City (Region I)
  2. Mangaldan National High School, Pangasinan (Region I)
  3. Isabela National High School, Isabela (Region II)
  4. Angeles City National Trade School, Angeles City (Region III)
  5. Quezon National High School, Lucena City (Region IV-A)
  6. Jose J. Leido, Jr. Memorial National High School, Calapan City (Region IV-B)
  7. Tabaco National High School, Albay (Region V)
  8. Masbate National High School, Masbate (Region V)
  9. Nueva Valencia National High School, Guimaras (Region VI)
  10. Sta. Barbara National Comprehensive High School, Iloilo City (Region VI)
  11. Cebu City National Science High School, Cebu City (Region VII)
  12. Dr. Cecilio Putong National High School, Tagbilaran City (Region VII)
  13. Ayala National High School, Zamboanga City (Region IX)
  14. Valencia National High School, Valencia City (Region X)
  15. Daniel R. Aguinaldo National High School, Davao City (Region XI)
  16. Digos City National High School, Digos City (Region XI)
  17. New Society National High School, Gen. Santos City (Region XII)
  18. Pigcawayan National High School, Cotabato (Region XII)
  19. Surigao City National High School, Surigao City (CARAGA)
  20. Ramon Magsaysay High School, Cubao, Quezon City (NCR)
  21. Makati High School, Makati City (NCR)
  22. Pines City High School, Baguio City (CAR)

Other revisions in the 2010 curriculum include provisions for a Madaris and Madrasah-based curriculum for Muslim students in schools in Mindanao, plus an Indigenous Peoples' Curriculum, also to be implemented in rural areas.

<ref name="test4">DepEd Understanding By Design Staged </ref>On February 4-6, 2010, a National Education Conference on Understanding by Design was held at the Manila Hotel. The conference, sponsored by the Fund for Assistance to Private Education, also had a Visayas/Mindanao leg held on February 8-10, 2010 <ref name="test7>DepEd Memo 472 s, 2009</ref> . During the conference, DepEd Secretary Jesli Lapus announced that the 2010 Revised Secondary Education Curriulum (RSEC) will be rolled out this June 2010 and will be implemented initially for First Year High School only. Accordingly, Department of Education representatives released the Curriculum Guides for each subject area, together with the Teaching Guides for the first quarter of First Year High School, thus temporarily assuaging the fear of a lack of materials to use for the implementation of UbD.

Local educational publishers have also responded to the need for instructional materials aligned to UbD. Textbook publishers such as Rex, Phoenix, Diwa, and <ref name="test5">Vibal Conducts ICT+UbD Seminar for NCR, N. Luzon School Administrators</ref> Vibal have adapted Teachers' Manuals and Teaching Modules to principles and suggested templates of UbD. Vibal has also launched a UbD website to aid educators in understanding and implementing UbD in the Philippines.

In the summer of 2010, the Department of Education will begin intensive mass trainings of public school teachers all around the country for the implementation of the 2010 Secondary Education Curriculum. The Fund for Assistance to Private Education (FAPE), which has been mandated to conduct trainings for private schools under the Educational Service Contracting (ESC)/ Educational Voucher System (EVS) programs, has actually begun training private school teachers on UbD and the RSEC since the summer of 2009. Other private schools are also in the process of adapting the UbD framework into their curricula, including schools under De La Salle Philippines and Holy Name University in Tagbilaran, Bohol.

Some Key Terms in UbD

Assessment - a long-term, learning-focused act of determining the extent to which the desired results are on the way to being achieved and to what extent they have been achieved. This is different from evaluation in the sense that evaluation is short-term and credential-focused.

Big Idea - the main idea which not only connects all the disjointed facts that are taught in a class, but also make those facts worth learning. The building blocks of “understanding,” big ideas are not necessarily limited to just one area of study. An example is the big idea of “freedom of speech”: it not only limits itself to the field of social sciences and the law (basic human rights, how is it defined in the constitution?) but also extends to the humanities (the banning of literary works, etc.).

Curriculum - the blueprint for learning; it takes and plans content in order to conduct effective and engaging learning and teaching that are based on the desired results.

Desired results - the objectives of the course; it consists of intended outcomes (the understanding), achievement targets and performance standards (traditional parameters such as national achievement exams).

Understanding - making connections and binding together knowledge into something that makes sense so that said knowledge can be widely and effectively applied in realistic tasks and settings.


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