Principles to Practice

Extending Theories and Beliefs into Classroom Actions

Unlimited Pathways from Here to There

Imagine you are responsible for making vacation travel arrangements for your family strewn across the nation. Everyone is meeting at an exclusive cabin in the mountains for a week-long family reunion. Your parents are 600 miles away and are afraid to fly. Your cousins live one state away and can take a major highway straight to the mountain. Your step-sister lives in a neighboring country and will gladly use her frequent-flyer miles. Your grandmother lives one state away, but only has gravel roads she can use. Your lucky brother lives in the resort town just minutes away from the cabin. Unless you are a travel agent, your mind may be baffled with high expectations and no idea how to begin planning.

In reality, each teacher is the travel agent for his or her students. The destination is the standards or goals. The beautiful view from the porch of the relaxing cabin in the woods is the successful mastery displayed on summative assessments or final projects. The departure city is the starting point for each student, determined through diagnostic assessments and surveys.

The challenging part is determining the pathway and method of travel. How will each student reach the destination efficiently with positive experiences and an eagerness to keep traveling on the learning path? We do not have GPS in the classroom; so how will we know if a student is heading in the right direction?

Once we have determined an instructional pathway and methods of progress monitoring, we have to consider all the potential obstacles. When traveling cross country, we pack snacks, first aid kits, and things to do. As teachers planning instruction, we reteach concepts, modify assignments, and create engaging activities. This is the quality teaching often called differentiated instruction (DI). Instead of being a toolbox of teaching tricks, it is a mindset and philosophy in which "the teacher proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs" (Tomlinson, 2001, p. 7).

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Planning for Instruction: Understanding by Design™

Once you know each students' pathway, how do you put it all together into a cohesive plan that will guide your unit and day-to-day lessons? One way to keep your vision, assessments, resources, and activities organized is to use a planning tool. The old familiar lesson plan book with its 2-inch squares is not really sufficient for the type of planning that differentiated instruction requires. Instead, a tool such as Understanding by Design (UbD) can guide your important work.

UbD is a framework for planning curriculum, instruction and assessment with a focus on meaningful learning that transfers across disciplines and beyond classroom walls. “Using the Understanding by Design framework, the curriculum designer prioritizes curriculum, identifies the important concepts students should remember long after details have been forgotten, and designs a learning plan to equip students with essential skills and knowledge” (Keeling, 2015, p. 22). The planning is structured into three stages: Desired Results, Evidence, and Learning Plan. It is sometimes called "Backwards Design" planning, since it begins with what we want our students to achieve by the end.

What is Understanding by Design? Author Jay McTighe explains.

UbD™ Stage 1

  • What should students know, understand, and be able to do?
  • What is the ultimate transfer we seek as a result of this unit?
  • What enduring understandings are desired?
  • What essential questions will be explored in-depth and provide focus to all learning?
Unpacking UbD - Stage 1 - Desired Results

UbD™ Stage 2

  • How will we know if students have achieved the desired results?
  • What will we accept as evidence of student understanding and their ability to use (transfer) their learning in new situations?
  • How will we evaluate student performance in fair and consistent ways?
UbD Stage 2

UbD™ Stage 3

  • How will we support learners as they come to understand important ideas and processes?
  • How will we prepare them to autonomously transfer their learning?
  • What enabling knowledge and skills will students need to perform effectively and achieve desired results?
  • What activities, sequence, and resources are best suited to accomplish our goals?
UbD Stage 3 (The Learning Plan (final))

Next Steps: Digging in to UbD™

The comprehensive UbD™ process can seem overwhelming at first. If you are interested in this framework, here are a few tips to get started:

  • Find a group of colleagues that are interested in collaborating in the creation of a unit. Conversation and creativity are infectious!
  • Start small! Set a goal to create one UbD™ lesson plan per semester.
  • Find a design template that best fits your organizational style.
  • Have discussions about enduring understandings, essential questions and the big ideas. Hearing other perspectives can help you to "zoom out" to see the big picture of transferrable learning.
  • Include interdisciplinary goals and activities. Involve other specialists in your planning. How can the music and art teachers support this in their classes? Variety will help you to meet the needs of learners with different learning styles.
  • Grow professionally with this topic by joining discussion groups, watching videos, reading books, and talking with colleagues. Look at the work of others that have already done this type of planning.
UbD™ Downloads

Templates and other resources provided by the author, J. McTighe.


Keeling, M. (2015). Backwards design considerations for the 21st-century school library. School Library Monthly, 31(4), 22-24.

McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2012). Understanding by design framework. Retrieved September 17, 2015, from

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.