Reflections On Curriculum Design…

I would like to begin my reflections on Curriculum Design with a framework that I admire greatly and have worked hard to implement in the North Vancouver School District – Understanding by Design (UbD).  This particular framework was created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, two American educational scholars and published authors who are regular contributors to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)’s UbD Exchange.  UbD is based on the principles of a ‘backward design’ model and was inspired by the work of Stephen Covey who reminds us all to “start with the end in mind”.  It is a philosophy that guides my own practice as an educator and director of instruction, whether I am designing curriculum for adult learning, or engaging in administrative problem solving.

I was first introduced to UbD in 2008, when I attended a Coast Metro workshop series with guest speaker Alison Zmuda.  Alison is an educational consultant who works with the Association for the Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in the Understanding by Design cadre. Alison was in the Lower Mainland presenting Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design, a book co-written by well-known author Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe.

Zmuda ran a three part workshop series that focused on deepening participants’ understanding of how differentiated instruction could/should be incorporated with the UbD framework in order to meet the learning styles and needs of our diverse student populations.  For people in the audience it was a first exposure to UbD, so layering Differentiated Instruction (DI) into the mix created a powerful but very advanced framework as a starting point.  Many teachers from our school district left the series a little baffled and overwhelmed by the complexity of the presentation and the proposed curriculum design process.

However, a small team from my school district was sold on the UbD model as a powerful curriculum design framework, and we were determined to introduce it to educators in North Vancouver.  The first year (2009) we invited interested teachers to join a ‘Collegial Conference’ three part series that focused on expanding understanding of UbD and building leadership capacity across the school district for this model of curriculum planning.  The series was popular, particularly with teachers from our International Baccalaureate high school who were just learning to implement into their practice the inquiry-based IB curriculum- planning model, a framework that is surprisingly similar to UbD.

We introduced that first series with this key quote from Wiggins and McTigue:

Teachers are designers.  An essential act of our profession is the crafting of curriculum and learning experiences to meet specified purposes.”

According to Wiggins and McTighe, teachers don’t pay enough attention to the importance of curriculum design.  As a result, most teachers are guilty of one of the two ‘twin sins’ in curriculum planning:

  1. ‘Activity-driven’ lesson and unit planning.  This type of planning is popular among primary teachers in particular.  In these classrooms, an ‘apple’ theme in the fall is often more about making every subject fit within the theme, than planning based on identified learning outcomes.  Other popular themes in the primary grades are bugs and dinosaurs.  I like to refer to this as the ‘birthday party’ approach to curriculum design – having your napkins match the plates and paper cups and… 
  1. ‘Curriculum-driven’ planning is the second sin, which is generally more common among intermediate and secondary teachers.  Curriculum-driven planning is essentially the equivalent of ‘marching through the textbook’.  You start at the beginning of the book, and with any luck you will get to the end by June.  Another variation on curriculum-driven planning is what I have coined “PLO-itis” – a disease common among educators who see planning as a systematic checking off of the incredibly long lists of prescribed learning outcomes common in our current Ministry Integrated Resource Packages (IRPs).

Wiggins and McTighe argue that teachers must adopt a more thoughtful and creative approach to curriculum planning.  They must learn to seem themselves as designers who shape engaging, meaningful learning experiences based specific learning goals.

With design in mind, we shaped the three sessions of our series around the three stages of Understanding by Design, which essentially map the curriculum backward from specific, targeted knowledge and transfer abilities or skills.  The three stages of UbD are:

  1. Identify Desired Results – establishing priorities for learning based on goal setting – unpacking learning outcomes to determine  ‘Big Ideas’ and ‘Essential Questions’ that guide learning and teaching
  1. Determine Acceptable Assessment Evidence – based on principles of formative assessment, the 6 Facets of Understanding and an emphasis on authentic ‘Performance Tasks’ (vs. traditional testing).
  1. Plan Learning Experiences –activities, learning experiences and lessons that incorporate 21st century skills and lead to achievement of the desired results (stage 1) and success in the identified assessments (stage 2)

That first UbD series was such a success that we decided to continue the implementation phase into the next year.  Those who had been participants in the 2009 series joined the planning team and became workshop facilitators in 2010 when we named the series “Designing Instruction for Deep Learning and Diversity”.  The length and wordiness of the original title was a problem, which was pointed out to us by one of the participants at the first session.  He suggested we needed something shorter and catchier. We agreed and renamed the series “Designs 2010”designs 2010 flyer.

Maybe it was the positive influence of the Winter 2010 Olympics (and short catchy titles created by the government prior to the Olympics – in the spirit of “Legacies 2010”) that caught people’s attention with our name change, but I like to think that it was direct focus on the concept of curriculum ‘design’ that educators found fresh and appealing.  In any case, we had record numbers of teachers and support staff sign up for the five part series in 2010, which took place in the after-school hours and provided dedicated time to school teams for discussion and curriculum/unit planning in a variety of subject areas and grade levels.  A Gallery Walk at the last session allowed participants to see all the UbD units that had been developed in collaborative planning teams. The feedback at the end of the series was very positive, and participants indicated a desire to continue learning about UbD and engaging in collaborative curriculum planning the following year.  However, they also requested a change in the format from interdisciplinary school teams to cross-district planning teams in subject or grade level groups.  They also asked us to provide them with the planning tools.  And we obliged, developing district Backward Design templates and other materials.

The following year “Designs 2011” designs 2011 attracted many of the same participants, as well as some new people who had heard the buzz from 2010.  As requested, we designed the 2011 series to facilitate grade and subject area planning, which encouraged collaboration among teachers from across the district and resulted in the development of some interesting curriculum designs.  We also continued to invite teacher leaders to become presenters, which helped build leadership capacity at the school level and sustain the momentum for learning about and implementing UbD across the district.

Sadly, there was no “Designs 2012” this year because of job action.  I am hopeful that teachers have continued to plan curriculum on their own using the UbD framework, or at the very least, that they have continued to be thoughtful and intentional with their own planning frameworks.  We need curriculum design to go beyond themes and ‘coverage’.  Students need to ‘uncover’ the big ideas themselves through inquiry, develop deep understanding of concepts, and apply their skills and knowledge to new situations in meaningful ways.


One Comment

  1. This article brought back many fond memories of the series. It is important to continue to plan with the end in mind and not get lost in the mindset of
    addressing as many learning outcomes as possible. Addressing fewer learning outcomes using the UBD model is good practice, and renders effective teaching and learning.


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