Definition of Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design is a term that describes a backward-design lesson plan model. This model is meant to meet a “primary goal of education…[which is] the development and deepening of student understanding,” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2011). Educator Diane Ravitch’s (2007) definition of Understanding by Design: A “form of curriculum planning that begins with a decision about what students need to learn as the end result. Then the teacher engages in backward design, choosing activities that will bring students to the preselected goal. Although the belief that classroom activities should be based on a set curriculum or on set learning goals is not new, this widely used program is attributed to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe," (p.. 223).

Basically, the following are the steps to planning a lesson or unit using Understanding by Design:

1. Choosing the standards and objectives you wish your students to meet.
2. Designing or choosing assessments to mark students’ understanding of the chosen concepts.
3. Designing “learning activities” to help students reach learning objectives (McTighe and Wiggins, 2005).

What Should We Know As Teachers?

As Ravitch (2007) points out, the idea of planning lessons and curriculum around objectives is not a new idea, which we can see from the fact that there are objectives and standards set forth by the states and public schools. That means we must include state and school standards in our unit planning, especially when using Understanding by Design. It is important to be well-versed, or at least have access to and knowledge of state standards and school objectives, so that we may effectively design lessons and curriculum. For teachers in Illinois, learning standards are available through this link: Illinois Learning Standards. Or, just visit the ISBE website. When planning curriculum, do not forget to include the Social-Emotional Learning Standards.


The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, 2011ß
EdSpeak: A Glossary of Education Terms, Phrases, Buzzwords, and Jargon by Diane Ravitch, 2007
Authentic Education
Illinois Learning Standards

See also Technology Integrated Unit