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Understanding by Design and Backwards Planning

As per Allison’s request, I’ll take a break from grading and laundry to say a few words about my new process and understanding on unit design using Wiggins and McTighe.

First of all, I understood conceptually creating essential questions but for some reason, when I started looking at a particular novel, I would get so close to the story and the themes that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees; especially when I had the pressure of designing 8+ units each for my 6 classes. It’s a lot of work and it’s daunting. But what I figured out is to forget about the story line, and think about the largest spectrum of understanding possible for the work. For example, I’m preparing a unit on Huck Finn for next quarter (2 weeks and counting down). I’ve never read it before (eek!) and I found it easier to come up with essential questions (does a novel need a hero and a villain to tell a good story? or, what role does prejudice play in people’s lives?) than I did for a novel I read through and through before teaching it. Because I wasn’t so concerned about plot and characterization, I was able to focus on the big meaning, the big message. When I figured this out, I was then able to step back from the novel I had read to discover the big question:  what is the relationship between conflict and change?

From there, I was able to break down my overarching question into seven other essential questions:  explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge.

Explanation:  How does conflict lead to change?

Interpretation:  How does conflict influence a person’s decisions and actions?

Application:  What problem-solving strategies can people use to manage conflict and change?

Perspective:  How does a person’s point of view affect how they might deal with conflict or change?

Empathy:  How might it feel to live through a conflict that disrupts your way of life?

Self-Knowledge:  What personal qualities have helped you to deal with conflict and change?

From these questions, I now know how to approach the book Memory by Margaret Mahy (although we’re 7 chapters into it already…) and what they need to get out of each chapter. I now have an idea of what the final assessment will be. Having the target up front really does help to focus the direction and energy of the unit.

I still haven’t decided on a final assessment for Memory, but I have next quarter’s units rolling and I’m figuring out a lot of what I didn’t quite understand before about this type of unit design. It’s almost as if I had to have the experience of what doesn’t work to understand what does. When I was doing my MA Teaching, we talked about Wiggins and McTighe off and on through some of my courses, but never in-depth. I can see the value of a whole course on how to accomplish this type of unit design, including the ability to create a handful of units this way, too, for the experience of it and models to use later.

This post seems fairly disjointed but I captured as much as I could on this. Mostly, the breakthrough was about figuring out just how to ask and develop essential questions and how once you have those, everything else really falls into place.


3 responses to “Understanding by Design and Backwards Planning

  1. allison October 19, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Thanks so much for posting this! Your example helped tremendously. I’m planning for tomorrow myself, but I will be keeping this post in the back of my mind. Thanks. 🙂

  2. Holly October 21, 2008 at 6:57 am

    I think that it sounds wonderful! I can tell that you are doing a great job at teaching and I hope that your students will appreciate your knowlege and your hard work. We all know how unappreciative and close minded some teenagers can be… Not all, of course, though. Great job! It certainly helped me to understand this whole concept better…

  3. habitsofamouse October 24, 2008 at 3:52 am

    I keep meaning to comment, but every time I get over here, the phone rings! Anywho…I love the example that you posted. I’ve been a fan of backwards planning for a while, but this helps show it even more in depth than what I normally seem to think of the style off the top of my head.

    Thanks for the example!

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