Thursday, January 08, 2009

ED 665: Understanding by Design 1-2

I have been a big fan of UbD for a couple of years. After we started our incredible staff development work a couple of years ago, a friend and colleague of Karl Fisch’s, Chris Lehman, suggested the book since his school, The Science Leadership Academy, uses it extensively. I picked it up and read it right away buying the workbook as well. Soon, I found out that a colleague of mine, Lauren Gaffney, used it in her graduate studies at Trinity University as well. We have talked about UbD a lot with our cooperative planning on English Literature and 9th grade units. She has actually showed me more applications of it seeing as how the first time I read it, it was challenging to make it work in my mind.

There are a few areas I want to concentrate on regarding UbD. First of all, I see real value in doing things differently. I think as a teacher it is so easy to do things the same way things have always been done whether they have been successful or not. UbD forces you to reexamine everything you have always done. I wonder at times if I will ever get to a point that I do not do this. Change is challenging and inspiring all at the same time. It is challenging because you do not know if what you are changing will be successful or not. And do schools really support you do something different especially if it takes a while to get to a place where it does make a difference? Change is also a challenge because when you have previously been successful for so many years, why do you need to do things differently? Change is inspiring because when you do see the impact of the change work in ways that were never imaginable before and truly transform kids’ lives as well as your own, then why wouldn’t you change? To continually change is hard work.

At AHS, we are going through the second year of PLC’s defining essential learnings that will hopefully someday lead us to sharing best practices. I am still awaiting this light at the end of the tunnel. But I see real connection between our PLC work and the value in UbD. We need as a school to really examine what we value, what we want kids to learn and focus on those essentials. I am not sure if I agree so much on the common assessment piece of the UbD puzzle, but I see it as a need to measure understanding for all kids. How else are we going to know if all kids are learning since they have a multitude of teachers all teaching in a variety of ways? If someone is getting kids to understand the material on a deeper more engaging level, I want to know what they did to get there.

The other aspect of the UbD book that I have some issues with is the rubric. Now, I am a fan of giving kids the “head’s up” of what they are going to be assessed on, but after reading some Alfie Kohn and thinking about what I see from my kids when I do give them a really detailed rubric, is that they only complete what the rubric tells them to do. I can see rubrics adapting to my problem if they could be viewed as more of a jumping off point for some kids, but not the end all be all I think they tend to become.

I loved the second chapter of the book that really examines the difference between knowledge and understanding. A few years ago, I was asked to be part of a grading pilot program examining doing grading differently and if we were really using grades to show learning and understanding or were they mere measures of being a good kid. Ever since Tony Winger’s insight into this subject, this has been an area I have focused a lot of thinking about. I really have tried to instill in my own students the difference between knowledge and understanding. In fact, right now my students are reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind and we discussed today about in the conceptual age if thinking is different and facts are available to all, what is school going to be like? Is school going to remain the same as a regurgitation platform of facts? Or instead, will school finally change and adapt to meet the needs of an ever connected student body? Because if facts and knowledge are available to all, we need to rethink how we do school. We need to reexamine everything we are doing and maybe that all start from doing things backwards- beginning with the end in mind.

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