Curriculum Theory

On Understanding by Design I.

Jay McTighe

Jay McTighe

McTighe, J., Seif, E., & Wiggins, G. (2004). You Can Teach for Meaning. Educational Leadership, 62(1), 26-30.

I began reading McTighe, Seif & Wiggins (2004) quite recently, on a visit to our local doctor… nothing serious, but you know what it’s like, no appointment, hour and a half waiting time and anything to avoid getting involved with the over-stressed mom and her three hyperactive, screaming children opposite.

You Can Teach for Meaning, turned out to be a good idea…

The Five Key Principles
I have been a bit of a fan of Freire’s (2008) ideas of problem-solving as emancipation from ignorance, coupled with Pinar’s on-going internal conversation, intellectual journey or currere (Pinar, 2012). These, to me, seem like an embodiment of the problem-solving ethos, intended to guide such a developmental journey, with very next paragraph dealing with how the teacher can assess the success of their own teaching through the assessment of their students’ learning, e.g., “What will teachers look for as evidence that students truly understand the big ideas and can apply their knowledge and skills in meaningful and effective ways?” (McTighe, Seif & Wiggins, 2004, p. 27).

The whole approach is highly learner-centered and yet can lend itself to approaches such as Ornstein & Hunkins (2009) ideas of Broad Fields and Correlation Designs. To me, the ideas of problem-solving education are so adaptable they can be, with a little ingenuity on the part of the teacher, focused on either a very particular, subject-oriented topic or even around areas that might be considered more social-reconstructionist (e.g., in my area of ecology, I have seen many effective, problem-solving lessons on pollution and global warming that have either been subject-oriented or cross-curricula).

Ah, “Yes but’s” The explanation of “content standard and high stakes testing” is one we’ve all heard before. I used it pretty much myself when I first started reading the article and I do believe that with organisations like the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) in the U.K., it’s even tougher to avoid “traditional teaching approaches” (p. 27) and, call me a pessimist, I see and hear in Canada a lot of political rhetoric and stated policy intent, that reminds me of what led to OFSTED in the U.K. Frankly, it worries me.

Elliot Seif

Elliot Seif

Misconception 1—Teaching to the Test
The second paragraph almost made me cheer. Then the third paragraph cited research and evidence to support what most of us, me certainly, have been talking about for years, as if it were common sense that should be self-evident to anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom or tried to learn anything in their lives… “[S]tudents, to become knowledgeable and competent in a field of study, should develop not only a solid foundation of factual knowledge but also a conceptual framework that facilitates meaningful learning.” (p. 28) I shall be reading the Hiebert articles (Hiebert et al., 2003; Stigler & Hiebert, 2004).

This material is great to see in an article, but it seems almost discouraging that the authors have to be making this point so thoroughly, with citations for multiple research papers to support it, when it would seem that it should be the common-sense foundation of any rational education system. Yet that’s the point isn’t it? What we do should be evidence-based and here’s the evidence… problem-solving, interactive teaching methods, based on sound foundational knowledge (it’s difficult to write if you don’t know your alphabet), are superior to the traditional banking concept of depositing knowledge.

Misconception 2—Too Much Content
Sub-titled, “the never-ending list of essentials.” Or, “Please Canada, don’t adopt a National Curriculum.” “… U.S. mathematics and science curriculums were unfocused and included too many topics… high-achieving countries offered fewer topics at each level, coupled with more coherent and focused content.” (McTighe et al., 2004, p. 29) I have never read into this area before and so found this to be both enlightening and supportive of privately-held beliefs.

I found myself repeating, “Yes. Yes!” as I read. Drawing strange looks from other patients in the doctor’s waiting room where I sat with my iPad perched on my lap. Reading this paragraph about teaching to the assessment also reminded me of my first experience with an OFSTED inspector in the U.K., when teaching Cisco-based networking technologies. These people are a sort of cross between traffic wardens and The Gestapo, or maybe The Spanish Inquisition. Regardless, they’re supposed to be there to make the education system better for all concerned, but in actuality, they’re a source of misery and torment for anybody whose path they happen to stomp their jackboots onto.

My apologies to any OFSTED inspectors that may read this… well, no, not really.

Anyway, the pass rate for the multi-choice Cisco examination was 70%. My students all achieved in excess of 85%, the majority in the mid’ 90s. The OFSTED inspector told me that such scores represented a wasted use of time & effort, since I only needed to get the students to pass (there were not A/B or other grades, just pass or fail). Apparently I should have scheduled the examination earlier and begun teaching to the next assessment sooner.

To be kind, there’s—possibly—some truth in that, but please Canada, don’t go down this road.

“[T]he use of complex performance assessments enables students to apply facts, concepts, and skills contained in multiple standards in a more meaningful way while enabling educators to assess for true understanding, not just for recall or recognition.” (McTighe et al., 2004, p. 30)

Excellent! More strange looks from the other patients in the surgery.

This was published back in 2004 and it’s almost depressing how universally ignored it has been, but I would also be willing to wager that if we surveyed teaching staff at random, most would be open to the methodologies put forward here, and the “yes, but’s…” would still come thick and fast.

One thought on “On Understanding by Design I.

  1. Pingback: On Understanding by Design II. | Talk Curriculum

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