Understanding by Design


Defined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design is a "framework for designing curriculum units, performance assessments, and instruction that lead students to deep understanding of the content being taught."  Our goal is not only to teach a bunch of facts about subjects so that students can repeat those facts on a test.  Our goal is to identify the really important concepts that will have lasting value for the students, and to lead them to understand those concepts deeply.  We evaluate understanding by using the 6 facets of understanding (see below).  In short, true understanding allows students to make connections (big picture) and appropriately transfer what they understand in new situations.  True understanding lets them be capable and creative problem solvers and prepares them for the challenges of life in the 21st Century.


Understanding by Design in a Nutshell:
Step 1. Desired Results
Step 2. Assessment Evidence
Step 3. Learning Plan

The Understanding by Design planning process starts with identifying the desired results (programs of study, enduring understandings, big ideas that we hope the students will understand for many years, essential questions that guide students in uncovering a deep understanding of the big ideas), identifying the evidence that will demonstrate true understanding (authentic assessments), and finally designing learning experiences that lead to understanding and prepare students to demonstrate that understanding and answer the essential questions.

The Six Facets of Understanding

Wiggins and McTighe have identified six facets of understanding: explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge.  They are most easily summarized by specifying the particular achievement each facet reflects.

When we truly understand we:

Can explain

Students can provide thorough, supported, and justifiable accounts of phenomena, facts, and data.  They can explain both the "what" they know and "why" it is true.

Can interpret

Students can tell meaningful stories; offer apt translations; provide a revealing historical or personal dimension to ideas and events.  They make it personal or accessible through images, anecdotes, analogies, and models.

Can apply Students can effectively use and adapt what they know in diverse contexts.  They can solve new and challenging, realistic problems.
Have perspective

Students can see and hear points of view through critical eyes and ears. They see the big picture and can recognize their own perspectives, biases, and opinions as well as those that are different from their own.

Can empathize:

Students find value in what others might find odd, alien, or implausible.  They are able to connect emotionally with the positions of others.

Have self-knowledge

Students perceive the personal styles, prejudices, projections, and habits of mind that both shape and impede our own understanding.  They are aware of what we do not understand and why understanding is so hard. (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998)

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