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May 13, 2009

Backward Design – My Experience

by fambrojoe

Training of Trainers program with Jay McTighe

Quote from Stephen Covey

Understanding by Design is a becoming a core part of the value system of our faculty.  It is a challenge to create a culture of UbD, especially with so many initiatives that are underway as a young school.  Having made considerable progress across all divisions, we are really beginning to see some of the principles reflected in curriculum development.  Teaching for understanding has become a discussion topic throughout the school and implementing in with obtainable goals is enriching our professional culture.

Participating in a Training of Trainers program with Jay McTighe, one of the authors of Understanding by Design, is proving to be an invaluable professional experience.  Seventy-four international school educators are Understanding by Designparticipating in a 2 year program that is to provide two levels of training for participants:

  • Year 1:  The first year focuses on developing knowledge and skills to conduct basic in-school training, review and give feedback to unit designers, conduct peer review sessions and assist in long-range UbD training.
  • Year 2: The second year focuses on developing knowledge and skills to conduct advanced training, support curriculum development with integration of differentiated instruction, and coordinating an on-going UbD program within schools.

This course is deepening and solidifying my understanding of UbD.   An introductory course last summer at the ASCD Summer Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, taking the online professional development course from ASCD and working with our faculty this year to build this philosophy into our culture has been a good start, but the Training of Trainers program is strategically important to support the school’s ongoing commitment to the UbD philosophy .

My Experience at our first workshop meetings

Recently, the 74 participants gathered for three days of meetings at Singapore American School, which is hosting the program.  This was the first meeting and I was impressed with many of the people in attendance.  While I had never met many of them, others I knew personally or had seen at regional trainings throughout the year.  Prior to our first workshop meetings, participants were required to participate in online discussions and complete both unit design and unit review exercises.  During the workshop sessions there were many discussions, collaborative activities and presentations.  Jay McTighe is a master communicator who is keenly aware of his audience and he constantly scans for non-verbal clues to guage audience engagement.  Jay speaks with his hands a lot and I find it interesting to watch him as he interacts with people in a large group setting.

Though the participants had varying degrees of UbD understanding and implementation at their schools were at many different stages, there was significant time allocated for collaborating and working with people in similar school setting and/or with people that have similar professional responsibilities.  One of the highlights of the event was sitting at a table with a group of other MYP Coordinators from the region.  The discussions were interesting although they sometimes (ok… often) centered around IB-MYP.

Further thoughts

Understanding by Design by Jay McTghe and Grant Wiggins is an important, undergirding philosophy for teachers that want to build classrooms for 21st century learning.  Teaching and learning is not simply about memorizing fact and being knowledgeable.  Teaching and learning is about “understanding”.  In conversations on modern pedagogy, this concept arises again and again because of the need to shift our pedagogical idealogy away from more traditional schemes of learning assigned sets of information/curriculum that is often limited to lower level skills and knowledge.

Additionally, Understanding by Design undergirds and supports the successful implementation and operation of IB programs within a school.  While many would argue that UbD is mostly applicable to PYP and MYP programs, it became increasingly clear during our workshop that it is important for IB-DP as well.  UbD gives our whole school a common terminology, understanding and pedagogical outlook so that we can have professional discussion across divisions.  It gives us a greater coherence in curriculum design across the IB programs and school divisions so that the continuum is clearer for faculty, parents and students.

– Many thanks to Singapore American School and Mark Boyer for organizing this training (
– More about Understanding by Design – McTighe and Wiggins (


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