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.

School Culture Rewired:

How to Define, Assess, and Transform It

“The book is intended to help you better understand the general concept of school culture, learn the strengths and weaknesses of your school culture, and—perhaps most important—influence your school culture or, if necessary, shape a new one,” so write Gruenert and Whitaker in the opening of School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It (2015, p. 3). The authors explain what to do, what to expect, and what things to look out for when trying to improve or change your school’s culture.

Gruenert and Whitaker pose the fundamental question: “Is school culture something we can predict and control, or does it control us? Put another way: Is it the sentry at the door or the monster under the bed?” (p. 17). The book presents strategies for ensuring your school’s culture is healthy and adaptable to change.

Cultural changes are difficult to put into practice because they involve people, and people are not as cooperative as things. The culture of most schools is the status quo. People are satisfied with the way things are, and thus, prefer not to change. Consequently, cultural changes are more difficult to articulate, to implement, and to assess; however, when the administration and teachers collaborate and work together as a team (Amos 3:3), even though some teachers may not fully understand the worth of a change initiative, the change is usually a positive one for the school.

Gruenert and Whitaker’s observation on structural and cultural change is insightful: “The effectiveness of a new culture depends on the strength of the people behind the change and the strength of the pre-existing culture” (p. 4). Emphasizing the importance of teachers in the rewiring of a school’s culture, the authors assert that “when teachers feel they are making a professional contribution to their school, they enjoy their work more” (p. 71).

In conclusion, Gruenert and Whitaker focus on the importance of school leadership in bringing about needed change. Change never happens without a visionary leader, whether in the school or in the classroom. Effective leaders focus on future opportunities and use problems and past failures as stepping stones to future successes.

Reading this book will give insight for how to approach rewiring the culture of your school. Although Gruenert and Whitaker write from a secular perspective, Christian school educators can gain ideas for how to improve our Christian schools and better educate our students for the cause of Christ.

What are some ways you can improve your Christian school?


Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Copyright Journal for Christian Educators, Fall 2016 edition.  Reprinted with permission of the American Association of Christian Schools.

Encyclopedia of Bible Truths for School Subjects ( Association of Christian Schools International, 1993)

Written by Ruth Haycock (originally in four volumes), Encyclopedia of Bible Truths for School Subjects is a sourcebook of information vital to Christian school teachers.  This volume provides organized, referenced, and categorized biblical truths designed to integrate every school subject.  Whether lesson preparation, research, project completion, or chapel and program development, this volume will become a trusted reference work that will allow you to work more efficiently and effectively.  A priceless resource, Encyclopedia of Bible Truths for School Subjects will deepen you knowledge and love for God’s Word while assisting you develop powerful, biblically-integrated lessons.



REWIRE: Transforming School Culture

Steve Gruenert & Todd Whitaker have skillfully addressed a topic that can often seem nebulous to an educator—school culture.  The authors establish the difference in a school’s climate and its culture:  “climate is around us . . . while culture is part of us.”  The reader is reminded that the school culture will never be changed by simply adjusting the environment; true school improvement (cultural change) comes when internal change comes to stakeholders within the school climate.

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Chapter 4 asks the $64,000 question – What type of culture do you want?”   Educators often tell me that they desire to see a “change in culture” within their school; admittedly I am often left hanging—the question is obvious.  What new culture is desired?  The authors identify various types of school culture, encouraging school leaders to identify their present state as well as target a new type of culture.

Review of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World

Perhaps more than ever, education is at a crossroad. Schools are now educating digital generation students, and alternative methods of content delivery that utilize technology and personalized digital systems are being implemented in the educational setting at an alarming rate.

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In 2011, Tom Vander Ark wrote Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World. Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart, a learning advocacy firm that promotes technology, innovation, and customized learning to make educational opportunities available for everyone.

Focus on Book Reviews: Cultivate

In Cultivate: Forming the Emerging Generation through Life-on-Life Mentoring, authors Jeff Myers, Paul Gutacker, and Paige Gutacker present a highly practical solution to working with a group they designate the Emerging Generation. This group is made up of young people ages 12 to 20-something. Since the emerging generation includes about one-half of the grades of a traditional K-12 school, this book becomes very important to those working with these young people.

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The authors of Cultivate use the process of growing plants to describe their vision for life-on-life mentoring. The book is divided into three parts. Each part addresses a different aspect of the mentoring process. The three parts are Gardening Tools, Growing Seasons, and Greenhouse Conditions.

It’s Apparent . . . You’re a Parent!

Authored by John Lehman, It’s Apparent . . . You’re a Parent! is a short but compelling read for parents or those that may yet become parents.  The author identifies the book as a help in “raising Godly children in today’s [ungodly] world.”

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There are several points that the author makes that resonated as I read and re-read the book.  Though not a complete overview of the book, let me share with you some important take-aways as I read the book.

Transforming School Culture

The reason:  Improvement in the quality of schooling can only occur at the local school.  And, improvement demands a change in the culture of the local school.  Any effort to improve a local Christian school must address competing assumptions and beliefs among the staff.

Anthony Muhammad, 2009.  Transforming School Culture:  How to Overcome Staff Division.  Solution Tree Press:  Bloomington, Indiana.

Anthony Muhammad, 2009. Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division. Solution Tree Press: Bloomington, Indiana.

The Problem

Changing the culture of a school is a difficult concept to understand and even more difficult to embrace.  Why?  Because cultural change requires altering long-held assumptions, beliefs, and habits.  Yet current research establishes the fact that there is great hope in modifying the culture of a school.

FOCUS on Book Reviews: Back to the Blackboard

Jay Adams, writing in the early 1980’s takes a look at the Christian school movement at that time and concludes:  “the Christian school has not demonstrably proved itself to be superior to the public school”  (Page 9).

Jay Adams, 1982.  Back to the Blackboard.  Timeless Texts: Woodruff, South Carolina.

Jay Adams, 1982. Back to the Blackboard. Timeless Texts: Woodruff, South Carolina.

Get your copy!  Back to the Blackboard: Design for a Biblical Christian School

The reason:  the Christian school movement has never been able to capture a vision for the ministry, a vision that conforms to what scripture has to say about the schooling of children.