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Understanding By Design – The Way I Understand It (Part One)

I may have been one of the few to learn this new approach in teaching – Understanding By Design (UbD) – from a seminar given to Filipino educators by none other than its proponent Grant Wiggins.

But first things first. What is Understanding by Design?

1. It is a teaching approach.

UbD’s very nature makes using it recommendatory and optional, so there’s no pressure upon teachers who may feel they MUST, by hook or by crook, learn and implement UbD because it will be widely- and force-implemented. It won’t be.

2. It is created to address the need to patch the gap between theory and application.

Just like any other teaching approaches, UbD intends to solve the quintessential problem of illiteracy everywhere in the world. Only, UbD targets one particular aspect of learning: education’s relevance to life after school.

3. It introduces a new concept – Backward Design – by using old approaches to teaching, only this time, taken in reverse.

The words “old” and “reverse” being associated with the idea of “new concept” may raise a lot of issues, if not eyebrows (of prospective skeptics). UbD believes that the cause of illiteracy is what children learn from school today – that everything taught them there is no longer useful to the practical everyday living needs of individuals. And by needs, I mean – job needs, home needs, social needs, etc.

So UbD traces back to the source – the teachers’ mind-set (hence Backward design). Questions like “What should I teach these kids,” “Why should I teach it to them” and “How are these lessons and understandings useful and relevant to practical needs?” are what UbD wants the teachers to consider before writing their unit and lesson plans.

So there.

The next best question to ask is “How do I use UbD for my teaching approach?” The answer is NEVER simple, but NOT impossible. I am saying “never simple” early on because it is what it is – complicated – but I am also saying “not impossible” because it is very much doable, and, more importantly, fun.

Let’s start.

Nota Bene: I will focus on Lesson Plan-writing. Although UbD is pretty much designed for Unit Plans, it is also possible to use UbD in writing Lesson Plans.

STEP ONE: You have a topic. Let’s consider teaching lessons in (1) Grammar, (2) Math and (3) Social Science.

English: Nouns (Knowledge)

Math: Fractions (Knowledge)

Social Science: Identifying Topographical Features (Skill) – Geography

I have placed the words “knowledge” and “skill” beside the topics. It is important for the teacher to be able to understand the difference between them. To be able to implement UbD, a teacher must be able to tell whether the topic is “Knowledge Level,” “Skills Level” and more importantly, “Concept Level.”

Concept Level is the very essence of UbD. It comprises important generalities about “What we know” (knowledge) and “What we can do” (Skills). It is what governs both knowledge and skills because it uses them as tools. For example: A student who have been acing his tests in grammar may have perfect knowledge of what nouns are, but only as far as the classroom set-up is concerned. Try putting this student in a simulation or immersion activity, say, job application. No matter how complete this students’ grasp of what nouns are, he will never find connection between what he knows about them to what he was about to do, which is to apply for a job.

STEP TWO: Ask yourself, “Why am I teaching this topic,” “How is this relevant to life outside school?” The answers to these questions are what forms your RATIONALE or your BIG IDEAS (in UbD jargon).

BIG IDEAS are important concepts (Essential Understandings or EU as how Wiggins puts it) or generally accepted truths about a particular topic and its relevance to Real Needs (my jargon). Answering this is what would change the mind-set of teachers to make students realize the importance of what they are going to learn.

Nouns: I am teaching Nouns because I want my students to deduce that (1) nouns make up at least 75% of the English language, (2) nouns name important details and facts that answer the questions WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY, WHO and HOW, (3) nouns complete sentences that make up paragraphs found in business and personal letters, in stories and news articles, etc.

Fractions: I am teaching Fractions because I want my students to find out that (1) fractions represent equal parts of a whole, (2) fractions are short-cut versions of division, (3) fractions are what we do when we cut the cake into 8 equal sizes so that everybody gets a piece.

Topographical Features: I am teaching Topographical Features because I want my students to discover that (1) topographical features are unique traits of land and water forms on earth, (2) topographical features are unique in each particular place, (3) topographical features help one determine the kind of life a group of people may have in a specific region, (4) topographical features help one determine the way history was/is being shaped.

The words “deduce,” “discover” and “find out” have been underlined for a reason. This is another feature of UbD. But it will be discussed much later in this article. Notice that the last one/two items in the teachers’ list of Essential Understandings are attempts to connect knowledge and skill to practical needs such as application letters, cake-cutting and basic anthropology.

Only once you have set the parameters of learning can you begin Lesson Planning.

STEP THREE: The questions you have asked yourselves in STEP 2 are intended for you. This time, you have to CAREFULLY formulate questions that will DRAW OUT these Essential Understandings from your students without actually spoon-feeding them the Essential Understandings mentioned. This is the reason why the taxonomy “deduce,” find out” and “discover” are used. All you have to do is, once again, ask yourself the question, “What question will I ask my students in order to draw out the Essential Understandings I have prepared for the lesson?”

Needless to say, everything that you’ve learned from the Art of Questioning must be exhausted and utilized well.

NOUNS: This is done after a springboard activity on noting details wherein students were asked questions to elicit important facts from a newspaper article. The teacher then tells the students to go back to the article and underline the essential facts that were drawn out form the questions.

Q1: How are the underlined words similar to each other based on their function in language? (A: they are the same in that they all name important facts) How are words that name something generally called? (A: nouns) If I remove the nouns in the article, what will happen to the message of the article? (A: specific facts are gone). What questions did the important facts in the article answer? (A: questions that begin with WHAT, WHO, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW). How many nouns are there in this particular article? (A: too many) From everything that we’ve discovered about nouns, what 4 truths can we say about them? (A: nouns name facts, nouns answer WH-questions, nouns may not be replaced by pronouns all the time, nouns make up most of the article). Are nouns that important? (A: definitely!) Can you write a report without using nouns? (A: no) Can you write letters without them? (A: no)

In a same activity about nouns, how is asking these questions at the beginning of the lesson different from what was done here? Unlike in an ordinary lecture…

(1) the information was not fed, it was drawn out

(2) the teacher elicited the questions based on first-hand observation

(3) the students were the ones who made important generalizations about nouns and not the teacher

It goes without saying that UbD works well with the new school of thought in education: The thrust of learning must center on the student by employing student-centered approaches which allow learning by doing and by being. The difference between a regular discussion about nouns and the discussion done the UbD way, is that there is internalization of concept. The realization came from the student. The teacher was there to provide the environment. It was the students who did the learning.

FRACTIONS: The teacher brings in a makeshift cake (or a real one, whichever is more preferable). Teacher says, “I have a situation here. We are twenty in this class and I only have one cake on this table. Help!” (A: slice it into smaller pieces). Teacher mocks cutting the cake diagonally at one corner (the cake should be rectangular). (A: hey! that’s not how you cut a cake) How come? (A: if you cut the cake that way, everyone will end up having bigger or smaller pieces than the rest.) So how do we go about this? (A: divide it equally). So how about I ask you to find a way to do just that and whoever thinks of the most convenient way to do it will get the cake. (A: on most occasions, the class will most likely go their separate ways to figure it out. Let them. Expect students to go look for pens and papers to do the solving theoretically, while others may opt for a more practical means like measuring the cake’s dimension and dividing the ruler into 20, or there would be others who would reach for their pocket calculators) Stop! Here’s another problem: you are in a kitchen. There are no pens and papers, calculators and rulers in the kitchen. You cannot use calculators, measuring and writing implements.

To be continued…

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