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How Differentiated Instruction Fits into UbD

How Differentiated Instruction Fits into UbD

September 20, 2018

On the surface, Understanding by Design® (UbD) and Differentiated Instruction (DI) can look like conflicting frameworks. After all, UbD is all about creating a plan that will uphold standards across the board while DI is about creating different delivery methods for instruction that reach different learners.


It almost feels as if your are being asked to keep everything uniform while also making it individual—a paradox. Instead, though, we should consider that UbD provides a framework for standards but not necessarily uniformity.


Following the three stages of UbD will result in a clear, focused pathway of nested elements. There will be (1) an overarching goal broken down into the skills and knowledge necessary to meet that goal connected to (2) the evidence students would need to present to demonstrate their achievement that funnels into (3) specific classroom activities that lead to the creation of that evidence.


On paper, a completed curriculum using UbD looks very ordered and methodical. However, anyone who has stepped foot in an actual classroom knows that such order can quickly go awry when facing the needs of a diverse classroom of real learners.


Without a plan to address this wide array of needs, the clarity of a UbD designed curriculum can become very fuzzy very fast. In order to maintain the order and organization of the curriculum, a teacher must have DI strategies in place.


A simple way to think about the manner in which UbD and DI can fit together is this: UbD guides us WHAT we teach; DI guides us in HOW to teach it.


The foundational strength of UbD lies in the shared overarching curriculum goals. Whether these are based in state-mandated standards, a school’s individually-created standards, or some combination of these, UbD lays out a clear underlying principle so that everyone knows what the goal is. From there, UbD asks educators to design a curriculum in stages that reach these goals. The three stages of UbD:

  • Stage 1: Identify Desired Results
  • Stage 2: Determine Acceptable Evidence
  • Stage 3: Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

Identify Desired Results

Stage 1 can be conducted with DI in mind. While many of the standards are fixed, they are also broad enough to allow for multiple pathways to reaching them. Take, for instance, this eighth grade ELA Common Core Standard: “Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style.”


While thinking about what knowledge and skills are necessary for students to reach that goal, consider students with varying levels of experience in writing and reading and students with a variety of English-language proficiency. Be sure to identify big ideas that can help tie together goals and connect them across disciplines.

Determine Acceptable Evidence

Stage 2 is fertile ground for DI. When determining acceptable evidence to demonstrate a particular knowledge attainment or skill achievement, think broadly and include many different types of evidence. By providing multiple paths through which students could display evidence of attaining a goal, you have laid the groundwork for DI. To meet the standard given above, for example, a student could write a report, create a video, give a presentation, or build a model. These are very different types of evidence, but all could demonstrate attainment of the goal.

Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

Stage 3 is even more useful for DI. While the overarching goal of the class needs to be kept in mind for every student, not every student needs to complete the same class activity in order to reach that goal. A student who is struggling with the standard above, for instance, could be given a guided worksheet to help identify the topic sentence of each paragraph in the piece in order to make the structure more apparent.


Meanwhile, a student who is excelling at this assignment could be challenged to analyze more subtle features of the structure like the transitions between paragraphs. The key is that both assignments ultimately demonstrate evidence connected to the main goal of the class.


While DI and UbD are asking educators to think in two different ways, the two frameworks ultimately fit together because they depend upon one another to function. UbD requires flexibility to work in an actual classroom, and DI requires a foundational principle to provide a framework for varied lessons and activities.

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