This past Tuesday, we had the great fortune to have Grant Wiggins at our faculty meeting. He is doing some work with a couple of our teachers and as we were talking several months ago the topic of state assessments and how teachers prepare their students came up. As we discussed the topic, I was thrilled that he would be willing to come to one of my faculty meetings to talk about how preparing students for assessments (all assessments) is a matter of instructional design.
Understanding by Design is a familiar concept to many educators. On a very basic level it is about knowing where you want to go with learning and planning backward to achieve that. This basic description doesn't begin to explain the nuances of the practices involved in UbD, but it is a starting point. I felt as though I had a decent understanding of UbD until Grant Wiggins spent about 80 minutes with us and truly brought it to life! I think the piece that I failed to fully reflect upon was the concept of "Teaching for Understanding."
This led to a discussion of the importance of transfer and what that means for children and assessment. It is one thing to make sure things get covered and standards get checked off, but it is another to have proof that students understand what has been taught and can transfer that understanding to a variety of situations. In particular, it is important to ensure that they can do this without the supports provided by the teacher or the scaffolding of a question that provides all of the information to answer the question.
Standardized assessments are not supportive. They do not scaffold. They ask students to transfer the things that they have learned in class (standards) to a situation or problem that is likely different and unfamiliar.
So, what does that mean for teaching, learning, and assessment?
I think one of the most powerful concepts that I took away from this meeting was that we must look at what it is we want our students to learn and understand, figure out the things that are getting in the way of them doing that, and design our instruction accordingly. As we do this, we must also gradually allow them to demonstrate their understanding with less scaffolding. Once again, you may say that sounds like a simple concept, but if you take a step back and think about scope of that task, it is the hard work of planning that must go in to teaching.
This brief post does not do justice to the many ideas we discussed and that are floating around in my mind as I reflect upon the time with Grant Wiggins at that meeting; but, hopefully it will give readers a spark to revisit Understanding by Design. I know that our staff will be looking at how we approach our units and lessons through this lens.