Woodcarving: Return to Understanding by Design

Part of my ritual of planning is always a return to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. When I first decided I wanted to be at a teacher, I had spent a lot of time thinking about the purpose and structure of schools, and it was only when I opened this book (then still in its first edition, parts of which I actually like better than the second and much more widely read), that I learned how to accomplish what I wanted to with my students. Whenever planning a new course, I return. This was either my sixth or seventh time reading the book cover to cover.

Each time I return, I am glad to find that more and more has become my “common sesne.” So much of the ideas from UbD have become ingrained and automatic for me, that sometimes I even forget where the ideas came from. At the same time, the re-reading experience is one that often leaves me wanting to bang my head against the wall, as I find the solotuions for problems I faced were there waiting for me all along. (Though I was reminded recently by one of the professors I worked with at Swarthmore, that sometimes we can only see the solutions when we are ready to).

As I read, I noted the ideas and checks that I want to be mindful of while I plan:

  • I need to do a better job of making sure my students know why we’re doing what we’re doing. I used to be much better about this, but one of the unintended consequences of greatly improving my classroom management over my carreer is that I’ve taken shortcuts when it comes to making the case and explanation for what we’re doing in class. I need to remember that at all points my students should be able to articulute the answers to the questions:

What are you doing?
Why are you being asked to it?
What will it help you do?
How does it fit with what you have previously done?
How will you show that you have learned it? (UbD p. 17)

  • On a related note, I need to incorporate students feedback as a regular part of my course, not only something that happens at the end of units or semesters. At the end of last year, I was particularly inspired by the feedback Paul Blogush and Larry Ferlazzo got from their students, will be borrowing some ideas from them as models.  And rather than writing the evaluation at the end of the year, I want to “backwards design” my course in someway from what I hope students will write at the end of the year.
  • I need to remember that the “established goals” I begin my planning process with are not just the standards and things out of my control, but are also the course objectives I have identified as being very important.
  • I need to work in opportunities for students to rethink and revise their work and ideas. I no longer have the excuse of “we have too much to learn before the Regents” to not build in time to do this.
  • The goal is always transfer: that my students are gaining understandings they can apply to new situations (often ones that are unforeseeable in the future).
  • Students should not be able to do well on performance tasks only by working hard.

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