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Understanding by Design

This Foundational Concept can be found in the following module pages:

Teachers create curriculum based on the state standards when they unpack those standards to make them teachable in the classroom. The backward design process starts with unpacking standards, then moves on to actual curriculum development.

Because teachers cannot teach every possible concept and skill specified (or implied) by content standards, unpacking standards involves deciding what concepts and skills to teach. Advocates of Understanding by Design (UBD) recommend that teachers use the curriculum to help students learn the most powerful ideas. These ideas belong at the heart of a discipline; yet they also apply across disciplines and in life outside of school (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

What are those powerful ideas or, in Wiggins and McTighe’s parlance, those “big ideas,” that students need to understand? Given that they are ideas that are essential to the discipline and useful to the students’ further learning in the discipline as well as their success in other disciplines, there is still a great deal of room for differences in teachers’ judgment about which ideas are most powerful. Thus, one of the first decisions teachers can make in using the process of working backward from content standards involves identifying what big ideas to teach.