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In Understanding by Design (2005), Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe seek to provide educators in any field, at any level, with a a framework for "good design -- of curriculum, assessment, and instruction -- focused on developing and deepening understanding of important ideas" (3). The framework they have created, "backward design," is not prescriptive, nor does it seek to advance a philosophy of education. Rather, it "presents a robust approach to planning," in particular the design of curricular units (7-8). The authors welcome the usage and adaptation of the Understanding by Design model, and this Web site reflects our conceptualization of discrete curricula in African American literatures using the Understanding by Design framework.

Backward design consists of three stages, Wiggins and McTighe write, and these stages inform the creation of each curricula presented on this Web site:
(1) "Identify desired results": "What should students know, understand, and be able to do? What content is worthy of understanding? What enduring understandings are desired? In State 1 we consider our goals, examine established content standards (national, state, district), and review curriculum expectations. Because typically we have more content than we can reasonable address within the available time, we must make choices. This first stage in the design process calls for clarity about priorities" (17-18).
(2) "Determine acceptable evidence": "How will we know if students have achieved the desired results? What will we accept as evidence of student understanding and proficiency? The backward design orientation suggests that we think about a unit or course in terms of the collected assessment evidence needed to document and validate that the desired learning has been achieved, not simply as content to be covered or as a series of learning activities. This approach encourages teachers and curriculum planners to first 'think like an assessor' before designing specific units and lessons, and thus to consider up front how they will determine if students have attained the desired understandings" (18).
(3) "Plan learning experiences and instruction": "With clearly identified results and appropriate evidence of understanding in mind, it is now the time to fully think through the most appropriate instructional activities. Several key questions must be considered at this stage of backward design: What enabling knowledge (facts, concepts, principles) and skills (processes, procedures, strategies) will students need in order to perform effectively and achieve desired results? What activities will equip students with the needed knowledge and skills? What will need to be taught and coached, and how should it best be taught, in light of performance goals? What materials and resources are best suited to accomplish these goals?" (18-19).
On each author page, learning activities provide educators with research-based, standards-driven exercises and assignments that elicit from students the evidence you need to assess their learning and understanding.

What's more, we recognize that identifying desired results requires making tough choices and setting clear priorities. The team-written overview of the author and text that appears on each page aims to help you by identifying and articulating those priorities for you, based on up-to-date, comprehensive literary research and study. To facilitate your utilization of those results-based overviews, we follow Wiggins and McTighe's helpful framework, "Clarifying Content Priorities":
(1) "Worth being familiar with": Here we ask, “[W]hat do we want students to hear, read, view, research, or otherwise encounter?” (72).
(2) "Important to know and do": In this section, we work to “sharpen and prioritize our choices by specifying important knowledge, skills, and concepts that have connective and transfer power, within this unit and with other units of study on related topics.” Here, we work to “identify[y] the prerequisite—that is, enabling—knowledge and skill needed by students in order for them to successfully accomplish key complex performances of understanding, that is, transfer tasks” (72). Our understanding of "transferability" comes from Wiggins and McTighe's definition: “[t]he ability to use knowledge appropriately and fruitfully in a new or different context from that in which it was initially learned. For example, a student who understands the concept of ‘balanced diet’ (based on the USDA food pyramid guidelines) transfers that understanding by evaluating hypothetical diets for their nutritional values and by creating nutritional menus that meet the food pyramid recommendations” (352).
(3) "Enduring understandings": In this section, we identify and analyze “[t]he specific inferences, based on big ideas, that have lasting value beyond the classroom. In [Understanding by Design], designers are encouraged to write them as full-sentence statements, describing what, specifically, students should understand about the topic. The stem ‘Students will understand that …’ provides a practical tool for identifying understandings. In thinking about the enduring understandings for a unit or course, teachers are encouraged to ask, ‘What do we want students to understand and be able to use several years from now, after they have forgotten the details?’ Enduring understandings are central to a discipline and are transferable to new situations. For example, in learning about the rule of law, students come to understand that ‘written laws specify the limits of a government’s power and articulate the rights of individuals, such as due process.’ This inference from facts, based on big ideas such as ‘rights’ and ‘due process,’ provides a conceptual unifying lens through which to recognize the significance of the Magna Carta as well as to examine emerging democracies in the developing world. Because such understandings are generally abstract in nature and often not obvious, they require uncoverage through sustained inquiry rather than one-shot coverage. The student must come to understand or be helped to grasp the idea, as a result of work. If teachers treat an understanding like a fact, the student is unlikely to get it” (342). Wiggins and McTighe contrast “uncoverage” with “coverage,” likened to textbook knowledge that obscures and obfuscates. They continue: “Three types of content typically demand such uncoverage. The content may be principles, laws, theories, or concepts that are likely to have meaning for a student only if they are seen as sensible and plausible; that is, the student can verify, induce, or justify the content through inquiry and construction. The content may be counterintuitive, nuanced, subtle, or otherwise easily misunderstood ideas, such as gravity, evolution, imaginary numbers, irony, texts, formulas, theories, or concepts. The content may be the conceptual or strategic element of any skill (e.g., persuasion in writing or ‘creating space’ in soccer). Such uncoverage involves clarifying effective and efficient means, given the ends of skill, leading to greater purposefulness and less mindless use of techniques” (352-353).
Not only does this framework animate our discussion of every writer and text; every discussion of author and text likewise animates each set of learning activities, creating a self-reinforcing, recursive immersion in the works and ideas of these eight canonical writers.

From Understanding by Design, expanded 2d edition, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD. © 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more about ASCD at

For more information about "Understanding by Design," please visit ASCD's online store, where visitors may purchase the publication or become a member of the UbD Exchange, or ASCD's publications, where visitors may browse sample chapters of the book.

  © 2008 | Last rev. April 13, 2009