Understanding “Understanding by Design” through a Southern Lens


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Mural by artists Jade Rivera
Jade Rivera mural in Lille – Photo by Ferdinand Feys C.C. BY-NC-SA

Understanding “Understanding by Design” through a Southern Lens

Wiggins & McTighe (2012) created a curriculum design framework called “Understanding by Design.” My first approach to this framework was during my M.Ed. at the University of Virginia. It was an eye-opening experience, as I worked as a teacher at a local university in Bogotá, Colombia, where curriculum design was not a common practice. Where I worked, university teachers would be expected to be subject-matter experts and ethical humans but not design curricula for the classes we teach. Instead of curriculum design, we had a list of topics that we should cover and a list of books that we had to use to cover the topics. In this context, knowing about curriculum design informed and transformed my professional practice as I began to see and understand learning (and teaching) as a design process.

This curriculum design framework is based on learning science principles. Also, I must say that learning science was a body of knowledge I familiarized during my Master’s degree. Best practices, principles, cognitive models, and evidence-based practices, among other conceptual assemblages, began to make sense to me. As a professional, I began to see myself as an instructional designer that applied learning sciences and made evidence-based decisions. I can say that my professional practice gained depth and quality during my years as a university teacher. Curriculum design and “Understanding by Design” made me a better teacher. Nonetheless, as I transitioned through the Fundación para la Equidad Educativa (FEE) to a new role, I began questioning the universality of these principles and practices.

To conclude this introduction, I will describe a talk I had with one of the teachers of my Master’s program. I had already founded FEE when I had this talk, and now I can reflect on the importance of my intuition at that moment. I approached the teacher of one of my curriculum design courses with the question: “Should I teach the “Understanding by Design” model to rural teachers in Colombia?”. I asked this question because I didn’t feel that I should teach one model of curriculum design. I felt that it was essential to teach curriculum design without marrying one model as a unique way to design the teaching and learning process. The answer to my question was (something along the lines): “Of course, you should. Do not let your teachers miss the opportunity to use and learn this curriculum design model”. Until this day, we have been teaching and applying this methodology with rural teachers to co-create Open Education Resources. Nonetheless, I can better grasp how this methodology stems from a particular context that embodies particular ideas about power relations and epistemology. In this post, I will reflect on the curriculum design process through a decolonial lens while briefly explaining some of the characteristics of the Colombian curriculum design context.

Brief History of Curriculum Design in Colombia

In Colombia, as Montoya (2016) explains in her book “El campo de los estudios curriculares en Colombia”, curriculum design isn’t part of teacher formation or professional practice due to historical and political reasons. As Villegas (2021) points out, education has been at the center of political disputes since the independence of Colombia. During the XIX century, wars among the two main political parties (Liberales and Conservadores) were fought to dispute the control of the State. One of the main differences between the two parties was their approach to religion: the conservadores embraced Spaniard Catholicism as the only possible faith and as the principal motor of social cohesion, while the liberales fought for a secular country. Evidently, the schooling system was one of the main points of dispute, as one of the wars was called “La guerra de la escuelas,” where human lives were spent over the religious affiliation of public schools. From 1887 (through the figure of the concordato) until the second half of the XX century, traditional schooling was subjugated to the morals and epistemology of the Catholic church. We can see that schools were (and are) a center of political action and that curriculum served different interests.

Montoya (2016) analyzes that four types of curricula have guided, in a broad sense, the teaching and learning process in Colombia:

  1. The traditional curriculum
  2. The “Escuela Activa/Nueva” curriculum
  3. The technical curriculum
  4. And the critical curriculum

The first two types of curriculum were part of a public debate on the schooling system. The traditional curriculum was implemented by the Conservadores and was characterized by a solid affiliation to Catholicism. Escuela Active was a contextualization of Euro/American theories and was adopted by the Liberales as a way to promote secular/humanistic education in public schools.

In 1950, Colombia invited international missions to solve educational and social problems while elites built private schools and universities, abandoning the public schooling debate (Montoya, 2016). The “international sages” recommended following instructional planning through “guías” (textbooks). The guías were developed by the international mission, and included the curriculum and learning activities. The government distributed the guías throughout the country and taught teachers how to use them. Aristizábal, Muñoz y Tosse (2008) (in Montoya, 2016) argue that from 1960 to 1975, curriculum design was considered the panacea to solving underdevelopment in Colombia. In 1976 Colombian government began a new curriculum renovation using instructional design principles with a focus on instructional technologies. Colombian teachers understood curriculum design, instructional design, and educational technologies to instrumentalize teachers and the learning and teaching process (Molano Camargo, 2011 in Montoya, 2016).

Finally, Montoya (2016) analyzes how the critical curriculum is a political answer to the instrumentalization of education. Academy and teachers began opposing the concept of “pedagogy” to the idea of “curriculum.” The concept of pedagogy was informed by poststructural paradigms and Euro/American sociology.

Nowadays, curriculum design is a practice that is not present in the Colombian public schooling system. And while it is not a panacea, it is an essential element of teaching and learning.

Brief Overview of Understanding by Design

“Understanding by Design” (UbD) is a curriculum design framework informed by learning science principles. This model is based on the concept of “backward design,” which means that curriculum designers must begin designing learning objectives before anything else. Objectives are categorized into four types: transfer objectives, understandings, knowledge, and skills. In a second design moment, teachers will design assessments (summative and formative), and in a third design moment, teachers will design learning activities. So, the design process is divided into three stages: outcomes, assessment, and learning activities.

UbD Template

A vital axiom (that I will call the ” expertise axiom”) that supports this model is that teachers must decide what students must learn and the learning outcomes. In the following video, Grant Wiggins explains it through these words:

And it is like the famous line of Pasteur: “Chance favours the prepared mind”. You are totally prepared for teachable moments not in a sens of “Oh that is a cool student comment. Let’s just run with that for five days”. That’s not serendipity. That’s letting the students write the curriculum, and that’s not what I am not talking about. I am talking about being so prepared where you want to end up, that you here a potential student comment as a fantastic entry point to go where you want end up. In other words, it is your job to know where we want to end up. I don’t think we make any apologies about that. But part of of where we want to end up is building autonomous, proactive, thoughtful people; not marching some stuff causing some typical learning.

As a teacher, I benefited from this planning approach as it clarified my learning goals and better plan my classes. When I began teaching, I had a list of topics I should cover (and with facts that students had to memorize). Practicing curriculum design generated a better sense of the educational purpose of my classes while making me a more effective teacher.

A Critical Approach to “Design”

Arturo Escobar (2018) questions what responsibility design has in the current State of the world and how design can be understood critically to allow the creation of new worlds. We can think of the current State of the world (understanding the current State as the development project that cascades from Euro/American countries to the rest of the world) as the result of a flawed design process. The wrongness of the design process involves the dualistic view between designers (experts) and users. Through a colonial lens, this design project can be understood as a design nightmare, where the Euro/American progress ideals erase other ways of living and relating, resulting in one single narrative of “experts” deleting every different narrative.

A new design dream was overtaking the world; we are still engulfed by it, even though, for many, as for the Earth itself, the dream has increasingly turned into a nightmare. What the United Nations envisioned was a sweeping “elimination design” (Fry 2011) of its own, aimed literally at scrapping the vernacular design and endogenous practices that for centuries had nourished, for better or worse, the lives of millions throughout the centuries (Escobar, 2018).

It is possible to approach this nightmare from different lenses. We can approach it from a feminist perspective, where patriarchy is being enacted through design decisions; or through an ecological perspective, where non-human beings are just instrumentalized and consumed in raging neoliberalism; or through a decolonial view, where a single narrative is imposed through different types of violence to homogenize and eliminate autonomy. The effects of these design decisions are being felt in our social and ecological crisis, with a possible future where humans will not be able to live on this planet due to environmental conditions product of global warming.

Escobar argues that we must approach “design” in a novel way that allows us to design possible futures where we can have a livable world and humans and non-humans are well-being.

Autonomous Design: the centrality of autonomy and the rise of the communal

Escobar borrows ideas from Varela and Maturana’s theoretical framework (Systems Theory) to understand the notion of autonomy, relating autonomy to the concept of autopoiesis. The concept of autopoiesis is a greek neologism that translates to auto-creation or auto-making (as ποιέω means to make – something), and it refers to the trait the self-maintaining trait of systems. Varela and Maturana use this concept to understand living cells, communities, and other systems. In this sense, Escobar (2018) portrays autonomy as the realization (autopoiesis) of the communal, and it is opposed to heteronomy (here, I invite you to think in single narratives that tend to erase other narratives).

Thus, autonomous design is a “Design praxis with communities that has the goal of contributing to their realization as the kinds of entities they are” (Escobar, 2018). This definition also encompasses the ideas that Ezio Manzini (2015) brings to the table when he states that in our world, “everybody designs” and that the role of designers must be to support the design of others. Escobar (2018) states five principles of autonomous design:

  1. Every community practices the design of itself.

  2. Every design activity must start with the strong presupposition that people are practitioners of their own knowledge and from there must examine how people themselves understand their reality.

  3. What the community designs is an inquiring or learning system about itself.

  4. Every design process involves a statement of problems and possibilities that enables the designer and the group to generate agreements about objectives and to decide among alternative courses of action. The result should be a series of scenarios and possible paths for the transformation of practices or the creation of new ones.

  5. This exercise may take the form of building a model of the system that generates the problem of communal concern.

Questioning who is the Designer in “Understanding by Design”

Through our FEE practice, we have been using the “Understanding by Design” model to co-create curricula with rural teachers and professionals from diverse disciplines. It has been a fruitful experience for teachers as they have become acquainted with curriculum design practices and principles. They enjoy the process and take their own understandings and practices out of the process.

Nonetheless, it is essential to challenge Wiggins’ “expertise axiom” to enable autonomous design within teacher communities/educational communities. My challenge is regarding students as agents of knowledge. Why must teachers design and define all learning outcomes and guide all learning activities toward these outcomes? Isn’t it contradictory to Wiggins’ claim on fostering autonomy in students?

Some other questions arise regarding how teachers can become designers (in Mazzini’s meaning) and how to appropriate curriculum design to allow the pluriverse to emerge.

  • How can teachers design to nourish their community?
  • How can FEE design to nourish the teacher community?
  • How can curriculum design beyond UbD can look like in the Colombian context/s?

(Image taken from: https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/understanding-by-design/ CC BY-NC. )

(Jade Rivera | Photo by Ferdinand Feys (https://www.flickr.com/photos/ferdinandfeys/) C.C. BY-NC-SA)

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