Designing Instruction for Effective Teaching and Learning

Version 3I have written elsewhere in this blog, and most educators agree, that the best learning takes place when instruction is, among other things, planned, intentional, and measurable. One of the most useful models for planning instruction is Understanding by Design (UbD). One of the authors, Jay McTighe, explains UbD in this video. In this article, I will lay out the planning template, and provide commentary on each step. For some, using this template for planning will seem like extra work, and perhaps seem too time consuming to be of practical use. I encourage teachers feeling this way to persevere long enough to see the improved results in your students. Once you do, you will realize the extra time is worth it, both in seeing your students do better, and in making teaching those students more fun.

I first became introduced to UbD in a manner similar to that described in the linked video above. I was given a small group of teachers to lead in writing, piloting, and revising a unit plan for a single grade of students in music. We learned about UbD in a class together with all other groups who would be writing a unit, and then began meeting for two hours a month writing the unit. It took half of a school year to complete the project, and then we each piloted the unit with our classes at the grade for which it was designed. After teaching the unit, we met again, shared our assessments of the unit, came up with improvements, and then published the unit to our district curriculum guide, so that all music teachers in the district would have access to it.

The template for planning instruction has 3 stages. Stage 1 is “Desired Results.” In UbD, we start with where we want our students to be in their learning when they have completed the unit. Simply put, in order to reach a destination, you have to know where you’re head to from the very start. We begin with establishing goals, and stating the content standards the unit will guide students to achieving. First, we answer the question, what relevant goals will this design address? We use the professional standards for music to answer this question. The word “relevant” is important, because we are preparing students to be able to do something; to obtain knowledge, skill, and proficiency in order to us these, to apply them, to a specific task. This is how they prove they understand what they have learned. Successfully applying what they have learned to a new situation will be evidence that understanding has taken place; understanding is what we are after, not just learning.

Understanding is further laid out as “big ideas.” These are goals, broad in scope. They are things that overlay the discipline, in our case music. They are not goals, which are specific to a learning activity. At this point, you list the big ideas or concepts that you want students to come away with. These big ideas are not facts they must know, though they will surely learn facts along the way. Facts are learned, but learning itself is not understanding. We continue by asking, what specific understandings about the big ideas are desired? What misunderstandings are predictable? It is always valuable to anticipate errors, and teach students accordingly.

With understandings in hand, we now move on to essential questions. What provocative questions will foster inquiry, understanding, and transfer of learning? Students gain understanding by being put in a position where they are able to seek out solutions to problems and answers to questions on their own either individually or in groups. Students do not gain understanding by being given the answer and asked to memorize it. That is learning, but not understanding. These questions are leading questions that get them to understand the big ideas. They address the heart of the discipline (music), and are intended to provoke and sustain interest. These questions are open-ended: they do not have an obvious or single answer.

From essential questions, we move to objectives, which are outcomes. Objectives state what students will be able to do when instruction is completed. What key knowledge and skills will students acquire as a result of the unit? These outcomes are observable and measurable, so that students can demonstrate and you can assess. What should students eventually be able to do as a result of acquiring the knowledge and skills you have taught them? This cannot be limited to recalling knowledge on a test. It must be something that students do that apply the knowledge and skills to a new situation. With big ideas, understandings, essential questions and objectives prepared, we are ready to move on to stage 2. Keep in mind that you will not be doing stage 1 for every class you teach, as with a lesson plan. You will prepare stage 1 for the entire unit. As you will see, stage 1 work will inform lesson plans; it does not replace them.

Stage 2 is Assessment Evidence. In stage 1 we unpacked the final destination of the learning. Stepping backwards from there, we now define what students will do to demonstrate their understanding. At this stage we will construct assessment tasks. Through what authentic performance tasks will students demonstrate the desired understandings? In other words, how do we know they have achieved what we stated in stage 1? We want authentic performance-based tasks that have students apply what they have learned, and demonstrate their understanding. These tasks are designed to require students to operate at the application level or higher on Blooms Taxonomy. As part of the assessment task, we will establish criteria for assessing performances of understanding. This can include rubrics to guide students in self-assessment of their performance, and rubrics, given and explained to students ahead of time, to be used by the teacher to evaluate student performance. Other forms of evidence can include formative assessments, can include both individual and group performance, and can also include such things as students ability to teach another student, or to problem solve via written formats.

With assessment evidence established, we are now ready to take the entire body of our work and from it create learning activities. This is where the traditional lesson plan comes in. Learning activities are an outline or description of the activities students will do to meet the desired objective, which is a point on the journey between the start, which is where we are in stage 3, and the destination, which is where we will be at the end of the unit. In order to write a lesson plan, we must segment the process by which we get students to the point where they can complete the unit and successfully demonstrate the understanding we stated in stage 1. Learning activities covering that days segment must be written for each class meeting, and must always be designed to move students closer to the desired outcome. By segmenting the journey into class-sized increments, the total number of sessions needed to complete the unit can be determined.

Better planning results in better instruction, and better instruction results in better learning for all students. As we are challenged by remote learning and the circumstances into which the pandemic has thrown us, excellence in planning instruction is more important than ever. UbD is an effective way to make instructional planning excellent.


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