Today I attended a session on Understanding by Design (UbD) – a framework for curriculum planning designed by Wiggins and McTighe. Briefly, the idea suggests that educators begin planning by critically examining the learning outcomes that children are to acquire. Further, UbD asks that tasks and tests used to assess learning outcomes focus not just on children’s knowledge, but on their understanding and other higher levels of thinking. Throughout my pre-teacher education this idea was referred to as “backward design.”
I must admit to resisting the idea of “planning with the end in mind.” Although reasonable and logical to prepare lessons that build to achieve the learning outcomes we expect of our students, I felt that such planning – with a predetermined endpoint – created a learning ceiling in the classroom: We will learn to this point, and then no more. In this way, the curricular outcomes are targets – endpoints of a learning checklist. Have they learned this? Check. Can they do that? Check. Such a end-in-mind checklist betrays the essence and passion of curiosity, wonder and inquisitiveness.
Instead, I support Lee Makovichuk’s notion that curricular outcomes ought to be considered beginnings rather than conclusions. Such is the idea behind project based learning, wherein big picture projects ignite learning and engage children beyond learning outcomes and into real world applications. Volunteering for a project that focused on the backward planning of UbD, then, was an exercise in challenging my pedagogy.
After our initial meeting today, I’m intrigued by planning with the end in mind. As a beginning teacher, planning without the end in mind has left me questioning whether I’m “on the right track” and unsure of my effectiveness in the classroom. (And, lacking this confidence, I’m left to the whims of the lesson or day to evaluate my teaching effectiveness.) So, today’s exercise in beginning with the unit-ending, summative assessment tasks suddenly relieves the anxiety of not knowing where we ought to end up. Am I putting a ceiling on the children’s learning in my class? Perhaps. At least initially. But the confidence and excitement I have for assessing their understanding and higher order thinking skills far outweighs my concerns for limiting their learning. (Once I have a couple of teaching years under my belt, and more confidence with the curriculum, I’m sure that I’ll have the confidence to teach with more open-endedness.) Furthermore, a key take-away from today’s session was focusing on the verbs in the outcomes: creating, demonstrating, evaluating, comparing. These are exercises that lend themselves readily to an open-endedness that project based learning demands. So for me, planning with the end in mind becomes planning with the end verb in mind.