Backwards Planning – Understanding by Design

In our district, Understanding by Design (UDB) is old hat (in a good way). Everyone knows it and uses it. We’ve had Grant Wiggins come and speak, work with us a few times. and it’s the basis of how pretty much every curriculum planning starts in our district. None of this is to brag. But I assumed, based on this interaction, that everyone knows about UDB and Wiggins and McTighe, but recently, I’ve learned that’s not the case. 

Without outlining their entire work and replacing their text, because really how could I, I wanted to provide a brief overview here of how I start my planning process with UDB in August each year. If this seems useful to you, I HIGHLY suggest buying the book I linked above because it is easily the most important and useful thing I own when it comes to curriculum planning.

So the premise of UDB is backwards planning or “starting with the end in mind,” as the gentlemen say. For me, I look at the course I’m provided and try to think about what I want my students to know by the end of the year. As someone who teaches high school English, I’m a strong proponent of skill mastery usually being the end goal, and the level of mastery I desire and the specificity of what they master comes from their grade level, ability level, and what I know they need to enter the following year’s classroom (in my case, their senior year of high school). 

Once I have those end goals listed, I then start planning backwards. How will I know my students are there? What assessments will I provide to determine their level of proficiency? I then design and/or list assessment (projects, essays, presentations, etc) and create rubrics that outline my expectations. 

Again, backwards from here, I think about how will I prepare them for these assessments? What do I need to cover and how in order to get them ready to reach mastery on these skills/assessments? This is where I plan my activities and formative assessments. I try to match the parts of the rubric to formative assessments and check-points over the course of the unit and the year, so I can see how the students progress. Doing this, I can catch them before the major assessments if there are issues or misunderstandings. Depending on my time, I might also put engagement strategies in here and various formative assessment strategies, to keep things fresh and interesting in the classroom. 

Only after all of this do I add in the content. For me, the focus is on what I want my kids to learn HOW to do by the end of the year, not WHAT. The what is still important to me – I’m an English teacher, after all, and I love books, especially classics (though YA lit is a huge thing for me too!). Once I have the rest of the plan done, I match content to the assessments and activities, asking myself which content will best convey these ideas and skills to the students? As much as people may think English teachers just pick books they love (and in a different way, we do), we usually pick books we know are great at illustrating things like theme, syntax, imagery, etc. In picking those, that’s where what we like might come into play, but what comes first is what teaches the skill or idea best. 

Usually, within picking the content, I try to use a theme to connect the texts. I wrote an earlier post on trying to decide between units by theme or skill and concluded I prefer a balance of both. With this style of planning, you can get that. Once you have your skills covered, then you can pick your theme to unify your texts as well, giving students a grounding for discussion and connection (another set of skills!). 

Obviously, this is an EXTREMELY rough outline of UDB, so I highly suggest getting your hands on a copy of the book if you can (either edition). Let me know below – how do you plan? Have you used UDB? Do you use another style? What’s your process? 


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