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"Understanding" UbDⓇ Curriculum Design


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Understanding as a “mental grasp, comprehension and the power to make experience intelligible by applying concepts and categories.” 


In the Understanding by DesignⓇ Institute, Jay McTighe explains that in writing a UbDⓇ unit, we are focusing on understandings as concepts, themes, principles, and processes. They are transferable ideas, and we frame them with the sentence starter “Students will understand that…” 


We know that when we ask individuals to shift their ideas and practices, it can be challenging. You’ll have willing participants and hand-raisers, and you will have those hesitant to change. However, the more our team knows about the shift we are asking them to make, the easier it may be. 


So, let’s use the ideas and definitions about understandings, and apply them to how we can approach Understanding Understanding by DesignⓇ. We want curriculum writers and implementers to understand that:


  • The number one factor impacting student learning and achievement at the school level is a coherent, guaranteed, and viable curriculum delivered to all students (Dr. Robert Marzano, 2003.)
  • Understanding by Design (UbD) is a framework for designing a guaranteed and viable curriculum.
  • Understanding by Design involves a three-stage backwards design process, in which we ask curriculum writers to start with the end in mind. ​​The UbD Unit Template embodies the elements of UbD and this 3-stage design process.
  • Having a deep understanding of the UbD Template and the components of a unit will allow designers to develop complete and substantial units.
  • Good teachers working by themselves will not have the same impact as a group of teachers (school, district) working together to implement a coherent and agreed-upon curriculum.
  • ​​The Eduplanet21 UbD software provides a powerful platform to house the curriculum, support effective sharing of curriculum units, allow ongoing revisions, and enable leaders to manage the overall curriculum.  


In this article, we will focus on two of these understandings, and how they work together. Allowing your team to LEARN TOGETHER about Understanding by Design and then implement a curriculum design and writing process is something we believe will make a significant impact on your success.

Creating a Deep Understanding

Schools and districts take a variety of approaches to teaching Understanding by Design to their staff. One approach would be a book study with one or more of the books Jay McTighe has authored or co-authored about UbD. Another approach is for the curriculum leader to create a learning experience for the teachers about Understanding by Design, based on their knowledge and the philosophy and goals of the organization.


What if you could combine elements of each of these to create an unparalleled learning opportunity for your team? You can when you effectively utilize the Understanding by Design professional learning institute. This Institute allows schools and districts to provide a collaborative and guided process for learning about UbD as a whole while gaining an in-depth understanding of each of the stages. 


The Institute is broken into nine courses, or Learning Paths, with the first six exploring the key ideas of UbD and guiding the development of UbD units. These are suited for educators who are new to this design process or ones needing a review of UbD. The three Learning Paths that follow focus on the review and refinement of previously developed curricular units. 

Here is a summary of the content of the various paths:

  • In UbD 1, participants learn about the big ideas of Understanding by Design, including what backwards design is, and get an overview of the three stages. 
  • In UbD 2 & 3, participants dive deeper into Stage 1, learning how to write transfer goals, understandings, essential questions, knowledge, and skills.
  • Participants in UbD 4 & 5 learn more about assessment and performance tasks. 
  • UbD 6 wraps up the design portion of the Learning Paths by exploring engaging learning activities and developing lessons for the unit. 
  • The final three Learning Paths (UbD 7-9) are for those more experienced with writing UbD units and are designed to help participants review and refine the units they have already written.


The UbD Institute is designed as an asynchronous learning experience. Individual educators can view the Learning Paths on their own, 24/7. However, we find that most organizations employ a hybrid approach combining asynchronous and in-person (or live virtual) experiences.


This allows their team to move through the content at a similar pace, have live discussions about the content, and apply their learning by designing and sharing curriculum units. It also ensures that the team has the same understanding of the philosophy, principles, and practices of UbD.

Key features of the UbD institute include the ability to:

  • Learn directly from Jay McTighe, co-author of Understanding by Design through videos and supporting content;
  • Engage in interactive activities that can be customized by your organization;
  • Explore the content in smaller “chunks” to customize it to the needs of the group; and 
  • Access Global Resource Libraries and Discussion Prompts created by Jay McTighe, providing interaction with other organizations working on the same content.

Working Together for Maximum Impact

Helen Keller is quoted as saying “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” We believe the same goes for learning about effective curriculum design. Bringing your team, or a subset of your team together to learn about Understanding by Design before and during the curriculum writing process will not only enhance their learning, it will have a positive impact on their writing, designing, reviewing, and refining. 


As an organization, you can create PLCs or cohorts within the Eduplanet21 platform, so teams can complete the learning together. As illustrated in figure 1, successful implementations have included starting the professional learning and curriculum development process with a group of administrative and teacher leaders who become your curriculum champions.


This group becomes “Cohort 1.” Perhaps 3, 6, or even 12 months later you add a second cohort. This group is your early adopters. They participate in the Institute as “Cohort 2” and members of Cohort 1 provide feedback and guidance. Cohort 1 begins drafting their UbD units, building their experience by the time Cohort 2 is ready to begin. Depending on the size of your professional staff, this process or cycle is repeated one or more times.  


"Understanding" UbDⓇ Curriculum DesignUbD Roadmap 

Roadmap for Understanding by Design

With the UbD Institute, participants will gain competence and confidence in designing high-quality curricular units. And, when combined with Eduplanet21’s Unit Planner, your team can learn and develop the UbD curriculum on a single, unified platform. 


Think of the Institute as your “Google Maps” of backwards design curriculum writing, with completed units as a destination. You may choose different routes to the destination than other schools, but the foundational knowledge needed to get there is the same. 


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