Tips for Moving UbD Forward in your Classroom or School

Sep 23, 2020

Understanding by Design (UbD) offers a robust curriculum-planning framework. However, UbD is not an easy planning process. When expanding the use of UbD for your classroom or school, we offer the following tips to ensure quality while avoiding “overload” to yourself or your staff.

Start Small

As with any other skill, practice in designing units will improve your ability and efficiency. In fact, if you keep at it, we predict that your experience will parallel that of thousands of other teachers who have found that UbD unit design becomes a way of thinking. However, we caution against trying to plan everything you teach using UbD, at least right away. Since this design process is demanding, we recommend planning two or three units a year as a start. Then, expand to additional units in future years.

Work Collaboratively

If possible, work with a colleague or two when planning UbD units. Most designers find it valuable to bounce ideas around during design, give each other feedback along the way, and examine student work together. Once you and your teammates get the hang of it, you can “work smarter” by dividing up the planning work among department or grade level teams; e.g., you take the lead in developing unit 1 and 3, while your teammate plans unit 2 and 4. Then, you share.

Think Big

As you become familiar with the Understanding by Design framework for unit planning, you may have wondered: if we truly apply Backward Design, wouldn’t it make sense to design the overall curriculum and courses before units and lessons?

Well, yes.

In an ideal world, unit designers would be able to draw upon overarching elements (transfer goals, understandings, essential questions, cornerstone assessments and multi-grade rubrics) that had already been established at the programmatic, departmental and course levels. Indeed, that is the very approach to district and school curriculum planning that we advocate and describe in Schooling by Design 2.

However, our experience in introducing the Understanding by Design framework to teacher-designers favors the Goldilocks approach ; i.e., begin in a design space that is bigger than a daily lesson but smaller than a year-long curriculum.

Once you become comfortable planning at the unit level, it makes sense to think “bigger” and map the entire year using UbD elements. Indeed, this is a natural evolution for school teams as well as district curriculum committees.

Plan to Adjust Based on Results

Unit design is a means to an end; i.e., engaging and effective learning. Consequently, the most effective teachers constantly monitor the effects of their designs – “along the way” through formative assessments and at the conclusion by analyzing student performance. We recommend that you get in the habit of planning adjustments to your design (during and after) in “real time.” Working with electronic design templates (for example with the Unit Planner) makes ongoing revision a natural part of the overall process.

How Not to ‘Kill’ UbD

We end on a cautionary note, suggested by the section title. Alas, too many well-meaning administrators and enthusiastic teachers have unwittingly ” killed” UbD instead of helping it flourish and grow. Here are six potential problems with corresponding recommendations for avoiding them:

Ways to Kill UbD from the Start Action for Starting UbD on the Right Foot
Mandate that every teacher must use UbD for all of their planning immediately (without sufficient training, on­‐going support, or structured planning time). Think big, but start small:

  • Work with volunteers at first
  • Ask all teachers to plan ONE unit per semester for starters
  • Encourage teachers to work w/ a colleague or team, and begin w/ a familiar unit topic
  • Provide some designated planning time
Introduce UbD as this year’s focus (suggesting that UbD can be fully implemented in a year; and that last year’s initiative bears no relation to it). This approach fosters a “This too shall pass” attitude among staff. Develop and publish a multi-­year plan that show how UbD will be slowly implemented as part of a strategic plan.
Attempt to implement too many initiatives simultaneously (e.g., UbD, Differentiated Instruction, Curriculum Mapping, Professional Learning Communities, etc.) Develop a multi-­stage, multi-­year plan to improve a current initiative via UbD; e.g.,

  • curriculum mapping
  • differentiation via Essential Questions and Authentic Tasks
  • unpacking Standards via “big ideas”

Develop a 1-­page graphic showing how all local initiatives are really inter-­connected parts of an overall effort (e.g. limbs of a tree, pieces of a puzzle, supports of a building, etc.).

Assume that staff members understand the need for UbD and/or will naturally welcome it. Establish the need for a change (the diagnosis) before proposing UbD as the prescription. Make sure that staff see UbD as an appropriate response to a need they recognize and own.
Provide one introductory presentation on UbD and assume that teachers now have the ability to implement UbD well. Design professional development backward from your goals. Build a year composed of design workshops, study groups, and action research, during which staff go through many cycles of learn/try/get feedback/adjust.
Offer UbD training for teachers, but not for administrators. Give administrators and supervisors the same training as teachers. Establish parallel tracks of training for administrators in which they learn how to supervise and support UbD; e.g., how to conduct in-class “look-­fors,” establish peer reviews of units, form PLC teams to analyze assessment results, etc.

Bibliography

1. Excerpted from Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. The Understanding by Design Guide to Advanced Concepts in Creating and Reviewing Units (2012). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

2. Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. Schooling by Design (2007). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

 

About Jay McTighe

Jay McTighe is an experienced educator and noted author, providing consulting services to schools, districts, regional service agencies and state departments of education through McTighe & Associates. He also serves as a strategic partner for Eduplanet21, which has created the best Understanding By Design (UbD) planning software available today. Schedule a demo.

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