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When we say backwards, we mean forwards: UbD in a nutshell

Aldo Anzures Tapia1

Aldo Anzures Tapia

In this article, the author explains the concept of ‘Understanding by Design’ and how that applies to teaching and learning.

As we know, the PYP pushes us to think forward by thinking backwards, but what does that mean?

Understanding by Design (UbD) or as vox populi calls it “Backwards Design”, is a curriculum design approach that pushes our teaching and learning forwards, rather than backwards. In this approach, curriculum developers (i.e. teachers) think about curriculum as a route with defined goals and desired results. These goals and results are based on understandings, and are established before teaching. Learning is conceived as the building of understandings, and teaching as the path where these understandings will be constructed.

Thus, when we use UbD, we are designing for understanding. Any curriculum developer that would like to follow this design should at least think about the first step: defining the understandings that we want our learners to build. As a second step, we need to determine acceptable evidence of the comprehension of these understandings. Lastly, we need to plan learning experiences in order to facilitate the learning construction. But, what is an understanding? What are the other key elements of this approach?

Enduring understandings

An understanding is not a stance, but a process that can be visualized as something flexible and transferable. The identification, teaching and assessment of understandings are not easy tasks. Thus, an identification of how understandings could evolve in educational settings is important for having effective curriculum practices and truly plan for understanding. Understandings can be seen as (but not limited to) variations of the following facets:

  • Explanation: learners explain their choices and conclusions;
  • Interpretation: learners demonstrate knowledge through context and specific examples;
  • Application: learners are able to use the knowledge;
  • Perspective: learners see knowledge through different lenses;
  • Empathy: learners understand and feel knowledge by “being in the other’s shoes” and;
  • Self-knowledge: learners are aware of their scopes and limitations.


Essential questions

These questions need to be dynamic and should promote connections between previous and new knowledge. They aim for clarity of the enduring understandings, but not for definite answers. Overall, these questions need to be designed while keeping the audience and an expected impact in mind.

Established goals

These are the ‘priorities’ for instruction and assessment. They can range from facts to skills, and can often be seen as the ‘school curriculum objectives’. These address the specific needs of the context, and are not as broad and universal as the understandings.

All in all, allowing learners to express their knowledge through any facet of understanding, finding answers to the essential questions, or addressing the established goals, would be effective as long as we can verify the results. How can we do this? When teachers follow this design, but lack feedback from the context, it can become a counter-productive practice, one that promotes unguided misunderstandings. This is the reason why assessments are important tools for feedback.


As we have seen, understandings are multifaceted phenomena, thus a variety of assessments are necessary to depict their whole picture. Is basic that the assessments depict how they will show evidences of their learning, not just by repeating what they experienced in the classroom, but also by transferring the skills, knowledge and attitudes fostered in a new situation.

In order to do this, the curriculum developers need to see assessment as an opportunity for learning and not as the final stage of it. Assessments are a guide for the teachers and learners. For the former, it can give information to distinguish between the learners that understand, the ones that seem to understand, and the ones that do not during a specific unit. For the latter, it is an opportunity to build their skills and knowledge, and an ongoing invitation for learning. In this way, assessment is understood as a learning experience, and not a teaching-learning obstacle.

Points to keep in mind

  • The facets of understanding are not in a hierarchical order but rather in a descriptive one.
  • Questions can be tricky, since many times learners want to satisfy the question poser, rather than the inquiry to which they are invited.


If you would like to read more about Understanding by Design (UbD), please see the following books by Wiggins and McTighe:

The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units 2011
Understanding by Design 2005
Understanding by Design: Professional Development Workbook 2004

Aldo is currently working with the PYP development team as an External Curriculum Developer, engaging with the ‘Language and Learning’ and the ‘Context and Culture’ task groups. You can read more about the scope of his ideas in his blog:


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