Understanding by Design and Iwash

December 26, 2020

When I heard about Understanding by Design which is considered an instructional model, I expected just a designerly friendly process.

Surprisingly, the model does not differ from other models for being more “ friendly”. However, it shows something more (more!) interesting. This model promotes a "new" concept of learning.

The model of UbD focuses on the concept of "learning for understanding" which is explained by the author Grant Wiggins as learning that can be transferred to other contexts or situations.

All designers know that thinking like a designer means fishing the right skills and knowledge from your background to find solutions. I think that this model describes a new way of designer It seems that the word “design” refers to the concept of "learning as a designer". According to Wiggins, the person that "learn for understanding" develops a sense of when the learning can be used. Is it just my designer core, screaming of joy and recognition? Maybe, but if you continue reading I am sure you will see how this model can create a much more deeper and involving learning environment.

What does it mean to teach and learn for understanding?

Wiggins synthesizes three main stages towards the process of learning for understanding: 1) acquisition of new information and skill, 2) making meaning of that content (i.e., coming to understand), and 3) the transfer of one’s knowledge (i.e., applying one’s learning to new situations).

When using this model, teachers prepare and give to the student the ability to gather the knowledge and skill that they intend students to acquire. Then, they also decide upon the “main learning” they want students to come to understand and develop essential questions to help students make meaning of those ideas. Finally, teachers develop performance tasks requiring transfer as evidence that students understood and can apply their knowledge or skills in authentic contexts.

The three steps of the UbD model

  • Stage 1. Identify Desired Results – In stage one we consider the goals. What should students know, understand, and be able to do? What big ideas are worthy of understanding and implied in the established goals (e.g., content standards, curriculum objectives, etc.)? What should students eventually be able to do on their own if they can meet the Standard?
  • Stage 2. Determine Acceptable Evidence – In the second stage, we consider evidence of learning. How will we know if students have achieved the desired results and met the content standards? How will we know that students really understand the identified big ideas? What will we accept as evidence of proficiency? What evidence of learning is called for by the standard (and its indicators)? 
  • Stage 3. Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction – With identified results and appropriate evidence of understanding in mind, it is now time to develop the learning plan. What will need to be taught and coached, and how should it best be taught, in light of the performance goals? What sequence of activity best suits the desired results? What instruction is needed to equip students to meet this standard? What learning experiences will help learners acquire the knowledge and skills, make meaning of the important ideas, and equip them to transfer their learning?

What is missing about Understanding by Design?

I think the power of this three-stage model trigger reflection,  and it made me think about the priority when learning. However, I missed defining the context. This could have been helpful to describe the boundaries of the learning experience. In the future, I will redesign the board to include "context boundaries" which can be helpful to be reminded of the constraints of the experiential learning to create.

If you are interested or want to experiment with this model I created a board in Invision to work on: click here or you can see the overview below:

Iwash and Understanding by Design

Here is how I used the three steps/cards I redesigned for making the first unit of the Iwash project. This unit will teach sanitation agents how to run engaging and participatory workshops on hand-hygiene and water sanitation. If you want to know more about the latest vision of the Iwash project you can read here.

example of the app design

How I used Stage 1 | Identify Desired Results:I first identify the main goal and defined more what I wanted to create, then I iterate the desired results according to the three main goals in learning: acquire, make meaning, and transfer. This exercise is quite interesting because helps you to be very detailed without losing track of the "big picture" so the main learning you want your student to remember.

How I used Stage 2 | Determine Acceptable Evidence: In this stage, I defined how the Iwash students can prove they are able to run a workshop on water sanitation for Do it Yourself practices. I first created the task the created the criteria and adjust the two steps accordingly, then I looked back at the goal to check if the tasks made sense according to the goals I created.

How I usedStage 3 | Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction: In this step, I chronologically created the steps of the learning experiences and then I placed the according to the three main learning goal, to check if all of them were covered, then I reflected on pre-assessment of the students in I wash and how the team of Iwash could check the progress of the students.

I hope you enjoy this reading, if you are interested in the model, get in contact with me I will be happy to share the redesign version of Understanding by Design!


G. Wiggins (2013, Feb 28). Understanding by Design (1 of 2). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQdLDMLrYIA

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (expanded 2nd edition).Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design guide to creating highquality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2016). An Introduction to Understanding by Design. Retrieved from: https://deltalearns.ca//toolkit/files/2016/02/McTighe-Handout-for-Delta-School-District-2.16.16.pdf