Curriculum Theory

On Understanding by Design II.

Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VT: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Chapter 11. The Design Process. (pp. 254-255)
Chapter 12. UbD as Curriculum Framework. (pp. 256-301)
Appendix: Sample of 6-Page Template. (pp. 327-332)

I’ve been interested by the amount of material on Understanding by Design® (UbD) across the web, and that UbD is now a registered trademark of, and owned by, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). I find it interesting because, as a framework for teaching and curriculum development, it seems to me to be hugely positive in many aspects, yet, as an (admittedly European) professional practitioner and now a graduate student, I’m surprised at the lack of coverage of UbD in the U.K.

Perhaps that says more about my breadth of reading than it does about a major framework for learning and assessment.

Wiggins & McTighe discussed UbD as a framework for curriculum development, non-prescriptive and not adhering to any particular pedagogical philosophy, that attempts to avoid the “twin sins: aimless coverage of content, and isolated activities that are merely engaging (at best) while disconnected from intellectual goals in the learners’ minds” (p. 56).

In avoiding the “aimless coverage of content”, the authors promote a “backward design approach” in stages, beginning with establishing overall goals through content standards, defining what understanding students should be able to draw from the curriculum and essential questions on what students “will know” and “be able to do” as part of guiding such understanding.

Secondly, performance tasks which evidence levels of understanding by demonstrating skills are recommended as methods of assessment, possibly including self-reflections on learning (returning me to my reflections of Pinar’s currere in On Understanding by Design I). Intrinsic to their design and conception of a curriculum framework is the idea of feedback within the design process. This is illustrated well by figures 11.9 and 11.10 (pp. 273-274).


Figure 11.9 (from Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p.273), illustrating feedback mechanisms in curriculum unit design. 


This illustrates an on-going cycle of teaching and refinement of design according to student needs and standards.


Figure 11.10 (from Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p.274), illustrating feedback mechanisms in the design of a curriculum unit.


This illustrates how the skills and needs of students feedback into the design of a unit from the outset, provoking revision of the design and further feedback from assessment and student requirements.

This does not really compare to the Ontario Course Profile, whilst the Ontario curriculum is designed around performance and assessment (as are many other curricula), it is not focused on understanding, nor does it factor in feedback based on specific student requirements.

In addition, the Ontario profile—just the one I’ll refer to here, though there are others—is closely related to textbook content, with little cross-disciplinary influence, whereas UbD eminently lends itself to Ornstein & Hunkins (2009), broad fields and correlation curriculum designs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s