Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

16 March 2011

Understanding by Design

Clark @ 6:13 AM

I have long advocated, in consonance with sound learning  principles, that in a good design process works backwards:

  • start with the desired outcomes as capabilities,
  • align assessment to the outcomes,
  • and then design the learning experience to achieve those outcomes.

This shouldn’t be new.  Recently, I was pointed towards Wiggins & McTighe’s Understanding by Design, which turns out to be a curricular approach predicated on just such lines.  I am of mixed feelings.

First, I am thrilled to see someone in formal education talking about looking at more meaningful outcomes, particularly aimed at “clarify learning goals, devise revealing assessments of student understanding, and craft effective and engaging learning activities”.  This is something I’ve been trying to argue for in my work with formal education, e.g. with publishers, schools, and more.  It’s a more enlightened approach to design.

On the other hand, it’s sort of like my reaction when we investigated what should be covered in continuing medical education and were told that we should proselytize evidence-based medicine: “what have they been doing ’til now?!?!”  I continue to be amazed at how folks go about things in ways that do not reflect what we understand about doing things well.  And what I’ve seen of their 6 Facets of Understanding seem a bit vague (and mea culpa, I have not read their thorough exposition, but it seems like YAT, Yet Another Taxonomy), though I’m perfectly willing to be wrong about that.

Interestingly, they apparently do not recommend applying this approach to individual lesson plans, and instead constrain it to curriculum level goals. I can see how the focus should be on the goal, not the time-frame, and I personally believe in spreading out learning over a longer period of time.

It’s nice to have another label to attach to good design, so I laud the initiative, and hope we can get more good design, and more understanding, in our schools and everywhere else.

1 Comment »

  1. Perhaps it was my teacher training, but as you point out, I have always created curriculum AND syllabi using that approach. I also use it for my individual classes/lesson plans. I find it is a much more flexible method of planning and design. If a lesson is not working out, but you know what you want to achieve and then what assessment tools you’re going to use, you can change your lesson plan so that is aligns with the goals and assessment tools. For example, I might assume students have the ability to do critical thinking. When we get into a lesson, I realize they can’t. So now I must develop those skills, so they can achieve the learning goals, and then I can assess them, knowing they have begun to develop critical thinking skills in that area.

    My concern with these “magic pill” books is that we are creating a system of “check-list” teachers. This is not a reflection of the authors, but rather how their work is being used in teacher training programs and teacher supervision for certification. Did they identify the goals? Check. Did they create an assessment tool? Check. Did they craft engaging learning activities? Check. Therefore, they must be effect teachers. Forget if the goals are attainable or relevant given the student population. Forget if the assessment accurately measures a student’s progress and knowledge. Forget if the learning activity supports learning the goals. Must activities always be engaging for students to learn from it?

    Comment by virginia Yonkers — 16 March 2011 @ 9:04 AM

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