Imagine, for a moment, that you have been sent on a quest. You know that you are being tested and evaluated each step of the way, but you don’t know what the test is going to be or what you are trying to accomplish.
As you set off on your quest, you come along a bunch of materials on the path. There are boards and nails, and you surmise that you are supposed to do something with theses materials, so you start nailing the boards together until you’ve constructed a giant ladder. You then move on down the trail where you get to a bucket of cement mix and some water. There’s nothing else around, so you mix up the cement and pour it into interesting shapes on the ground, creating a beautiful array of walking stones. A little while later, you come across a pile of bricks randomly strewn around the ground. You neatly stack them.
Finally, you round the corner of long road, and you get to a big sign that marks your final destination. When you get there, you find the blueprint for a house—a house that requires you to use bricks put together with cement and placed into a frame you built out using wood and nails.
You realize now that you’ve misused all of your resources. You encountered each of them out of context and did the best you could with each piece given your limited understanding of how to work with them, but you didn’t know the end goal, so you didn’t understand how they fit together.
This is the risk of not starting at the end when designing curriculum. You can end up with several interesting, even brilliant, projects that are disconnected from one another and can take away from the ultimate goal. This is especially true when working on a district-wide curriculum that will require the separate work of multiple educators, each with their own vision and perspective. It’s absolutely crucial that there not only is an overarching blueprint for the group but that the overarching blueprint is shared and clearly communicated.
The Understanding by Design® method puts this idea into practice through three meaningful stages. If a district curriculum is to be useful and meaningful, it needs to go through each of these stages in order, starting at the end to create an intricate, flexible web of activities that all have a strong foundation holding them together.
It is unequivocally necessary to know where you want to end up before you start going there if you want your curriculum design to function smoothly. Collectively, the team should determine what the goals are and use existing standards and curriculum expectations to make sure they are thorough.
Once the goals are agreed upon, make sure that they are specific. What knowledge and skills are necessary to meet those goals? What are the big ideas? What do students need to be able to understand in order to achieve them?
How will you know that students have accomplished the goal? This is the driving question behind Stage 2. In this stage, educators are asked to think like an assessor before thinking like a teacher. Imagine what evidence you could present to demonstrate that a student had met a specific goal. Be sure to consider a range of assessment methods so that students can demonstrate their abilities in multiple ways.
This is typically the part that educators do best. They know what kinds of activities are engaging and interesting in the classroom. They know what gets students excited about learning, and they are often eager to get started.
If this stage comes after Stage 1 and 2, then all of those amazing teaching skills will be put to use in a way that strengthens the overall curriculum goal. However, if activities are planned first, it is very difficult (and sometimes impossible) to make sure that the goals of the curriculum are being met.
Educators are smart, resourceful, and passionate. If they know and believe in the goals and what evidence needs to be displayed to show those goals have been met, they will be able to create lessons and activities that meet those needs. If they do not understand or believe in the goals or know what evidence is being taught, they will struggle to create meaningful lesson plans and instead end up with activities that feel shoehorned in after the fact.
A good district-wide curriculum plan goes through each of the three stages and gives educators enough time to both contribute to the formation of the goals and evidence guidelines as well as enough time to meaningfully implement them into their classroom planning.
If you want your students to build a house, then everyone involved should have the blueprint from the beginning.