Book Review: Understanding by Design

In the ever-changing world of curriculum, technology and standards, today’s teachers face numerous challenges that many educators of the past did not have to face. Despite those challenges, today’s teachers are still trying to reach the same goal of helping their students achieve academic success. In the book Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd Edition), authors Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe present a different approach to instructional design, which they refer to as backward design. This approach focuses on student understanding of important ideas, and it fights against the “twin sins,” as Wiggins and McTighe call them, of the more traditional instructional designs of activity-focused or coverage-focused teaching.

The premise of the book is that two seemingly different ideas are actually very much related and important to each other: design and understanding. First, the authors present the idea that teachers should design a unit in reverse, backwards from what they want the students to understand or learn as a goal or key concept. These goals or standards may be already established by the school, district or state; or the teacher can connect the instructional content to his personal teacher-created goals. After the unit goals are determined, Wiggins and McTighe advocate that the assessments should be planned before the teacher ever plans the learning activities for  the individual lessons. As a result, this backward design prompts the teacher to think about how he or she is going to assess the students’ learning before teaching the unit. The authors believe that the Understanding by Design (UbD) process moves instruction away from just “doing activities to do them.” Wiggins and McTighe also promote clarifying for students what is expected for understanding (termed enduring understandings) and what is expected for assessments (using rubrics, etc.) by stating these clearly at the beginning of each unit.

The authors’ second main idea in the backward design process is the importance that understanding plays within the learning process. Wiggins and McTighe believe that many teachers have the wrong perception of understanding, and that many teachers confuse understanding and knowledge. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) stress the importance of transfer as part of learning in order to avoid producing students that perform well in “low-level tasks but are universally weak in higher-order work” (p. 45). They believe that focusing on the goal of understanding throughout the entire design process will help teachers produce students who are able to go beyond basic answers on a test and who are also able to apply learning in other areas outside of the classroom.

After laying a strong foundation of design and understanding, Wiggins and McTighe present a three stage design process that can be used in whole or in part with any curriculum. The book and the equally valuable corresponding workbook provide numerous practical samples in many different content areas and grade levels to help teachers learn how to apply the UbD principles to their own instructional design process.

While Wiggins and McTighe may have originally written their book with the public school system in mind, there are many components of the UbD process that can be used to help reach today’s diverse group of Christian school students. Even if a teacher does not use the entire UbD concept, the ideas presented in Understanding by Design can be incorporated into any planning design or curriculum and can become a tool to help Christian school students reach academic success.

Copyright Journal for Christian Educators, Winter 2014 edition.  Reprinted with permission of the American Association of Christian Schools.


McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. P. (2004). Understanding by design: Professional development workbook. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.