Master of Arts in Educational Technology (OMET) Pepperdine University  
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Book Review
  Understanding by Design - Wiggins & McTighe

Although this book was written for educators who want to design more effective curricula and assessments, I found it extremely helpful. I learned what a curriculum, designed for understanding should be able to do. A good design should help students uncover what lies beneath the facts and “ponder their meaning” (p. 103). In the OMET program, we have been trying to understand constructivism. This philosophy of a more connected learning experience classifies how a constructivist teaches. Meaning cannot be taught. The student has to construct the learning experience with coaching from the teacher. Chapter one caught my interest immediately. The whole concept of Backward Design was an eye-opener for me. A concept so simple yet so effective—“best designs derive backward from the learnings sought” (p. 14). Educators need to be more thoughtful and specific and consider the meaning when designing a learning activity. Great designs must be purposeful, engaging and effective and where students ask and re-ask questions about big ideas with a rich experience base.

Authors, Wiggins and McTighe, use a three-stage approach to backwards design: identify desired results; determine acceptable evidence; and, plan learning experiences and instruction. I agree that teachers need to move away from coverage-based teaching that relies heavily on a textbook for guidance. The yield for most students is disturbingly low. Coverage only method leaves students with “no sense of the whole” (p. 45). Using Understanding by Design (UbD) Standards validates the curriculum’s strengths and areas that need improvement producing higher-quality designs. Assessments should be fully developed before instruction begins. This defines what the student should understand and be able to do which ultimately enables student performance. By using backward design, we serve two purposes: aimless coverage of content and isolated activities that don’t connect to the intellectual goals.

There lies a distinctive difference between knowledge and understanding. “An understanding is a mental construct, an abstraction made by the human mind to make sense of many distinct pieces of knowledge” (p. 37). The goal of understanding should be to take what you’re given and go beyond the facts using through effective application and evaluation. Also understanding means being able to transfer something learned and create new knowledge. Knowledge then is a “set of facts, skills and procedures that must be learned by heart” (p. 39).

I know first hand what it means to fall prey to the “Expert Blind Spot,” criticizing others for not comprehending something that seems so simple to me. Wiggins tells the reader that even misunderstanding is learning. It can be an incredible tool for the teacher. The information was unsuccessfully transferred to the student. This creates an opportunity for instruction that the teacher might have other wise missed if the student had not admitted that they didn’t understand.

Chapter 5 describes, in depth, six very important facets to understanding: explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. Developing enduring questions that “push us to the heart of things” are essential in teaching for understanding. Essential questions frame the goals and lead to deeper understanding and to more questions. Wiggins concludes that goal, role, audience, situation, performance and standards (GRASPS) are key elements that should be used in the creation of performance tasks. Students will be able to master complex ideas and tasks if they reflect, rethink and revise what they’ve learned.