Curriculum, Instructional Tools

UbD is A-OK with me!


I read once that you should never explain or offer a disclaimer for your own writing.

I’m also not one to always play by the rules.

And, so:

Disclaimer 1: I’m completely on-board with Understanding by Design. I’ve used this planning framework frequently and con gusto (though rarely to its full capacity– never took the time to write out an entire WHERETO in real life) in my own professional development as a teacher. I’ve also found it quite helpful to revise some of my old lesson plans to fit within UbD frameworks.

Disclaimer 2: I will always be intrigued by the critical perspective of any idea, no matter how wonderful it seems and how well it works for me. Call me a cynic! But a learned one, ever-inspired by curiosity and the pursuit of teaching excellence. 

This week, I’m thinking about Understanding by Design framework and lesson plans that follow this format. Need a refresher on what exactly UbD is? Read Chapter 1 (free) by its creators! Not into reading (what are you doing on this blog!?)? The lovely Avenues: The World School has the YouTube version of UbD champion, creator, author, and researcher Grant Wiggins himself.

Since I’m not actively in the classroom at the moment, I paged through a few lessons, which, as I said, are close-but-not-exactly in the UbD framework. As I worked through the UbD framework, I thought a little bit more about lesson plans that are drastically different than UbD (think- worksheets, prescribed activities with little flexibility, etc.). And, during this unit, I found myself naturally wondering:

  • Is there pedagogical opposition to UbD?
  • If so, why is UbD pedagogically opposed? (this excludes motivation-based resistance to UbD, aka- I’m too lazy excuses, and refers principally to educators/administrators who are aware of and not bought in to UbD)
  • Are there emerging alternatives or competing strategies to UbD?

After a brief internet search, I found several blog posts and personal opinion pieces critiquing UbD. I took a gander on beloved EBSCO, but couldn’t readily find a great deal of information on UbD critiques (much of the primary research is on a singular case study). Here’s a running list of the critiques I unearthed from the Interwebs:

UbD is a one size fits all for all subject areas.

-Shouldn’t the money and time for training teachers how to design a lesson using UbD be spent instead on deepening their understanding of content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge? teachers need support in upgrading and updating their knowledge of content and pedagogy. These are things that cannot be addressed by simply changing the curriculum or changing the way of preparing the lesson plan, much more its format.

-No empirical evidence exists that states UbD is effective

-teachers had a lot of difficulty in making a UbD-based plan

-appears to promote “teaching to the test”.

-I do not quarrel with the design steps laid out in Backward Design. My quarrel is with the sloganism. It is commonplace to begin any adventure by focusing on the outcome first.*

-The concern here is that in some quarters Backward Design is packaged and promoted as something new and innovative. There is nothing new about the concept of beginning the learning process with a clearly stated purpose and anticipated outcome for the learner.*

(* From the very entertaining and thorough blog of Dr Larry Creedon)

Perhaps the most compelling/cogent arguments I found were that it’s a time sensitive process and that there is a risk of teachers spending so much time with the process that it actually becomes less student-centered as a result. As a teacher, I have to admit that doing the ENTIRE process of UbD is cumbersome, and I’ve never been accountable to turn in lesson plans or even show evidence of my entire unit. Instead, it’s more of an encouraged process that we are given time for at the start of each semester. This looks like teaching teams coming together to get a big picture evidence of Steps 1 and 2, which include big ideas, essential and guiding questions, performance tasks (big projects and smaller assignments, as well as “Students will know” and “Students will be able to,” which are written as learning targets based on standards. This approach, I find, is quite sustainable and allows the planning to indeed be on the end in mind…which is exactly what it should be! If I were required to do this for each and every lesson, I’d likely burn out, focusing more on the final product (a lesson in a specific format) versus the process. The approach I’ve used also allows for a fair degree of flexibility and maneuverability.

I’m left wondering a few things:

  • When schools decide to implement UbD, what is the process of implementation? Is it every lesson plan? Are teachers held accountable for turning in a “portfolio” of all of their lessons?
  • What flexibility exists in a more rigid or traditional school with respect to UbD plans? Can a teacher readily pivot the curriculum, or are they “locked in” once they create a UbD unit plan?
  • Will we see empirical evidence on UbD soon? (a la Hatte’s comprehensive meta-analysis in Visible Learning)

When UbD is implemented in a school, what is the process? Does it come from administration? What is the teacher support? Is this often associated with a curriculum coach? (Here are many ways not to do it!)

[Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash]

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