Thursday, 16 June 2011

Science and Understanding by Design

Why teach Chemistry to Grade 5 students? This is the beginning conversation you would have with your grade 5 teaching colleagues if you were fortunate enough to be part of unit building with the Understanding by Design model.

This model of professional development, in my opinion, is the best learning available for teachers. I have witnessed great collaboration, rich discussions around best teaching and assessment practices and the most thorough exploration of the Alberta program of studies.

I facilitated this process at the high school level, focusing on Science 10, Chemistry 20, Biology 20 and Science 20. I can truly say that I am very impressed with the work that was done. This process has been used in our district across all grade levels and subject areas.

The process begins with Stage 1: Identify Desired Results. Teachers pour over the front matter of the program of studies in an effort to distill out the "big idea" which answers the question, "why teach ** to grade ** students". For some of us it was the first time (since being in University) that we carefully read the front matter of the program of studies. Teachers then collaborate to determine what are the life long learnings from the program of studies and are referred to as "enduring understandings". Discussions revolve around what is essential, what is important to know and do and what is worth being familiar with. It is interesting when you hear, "I didn't know that isotopes are not part of the program of studies, I always teach them!" The next part of Stage 1 includes deciding on the "essential questions". The questions are fun to create. They are questions with no obvious answer, that spark debate and that lead to discussions that uncover the enduring understandings. Questions such as, "if you can't see it, is it there?" could lead to a conversation about the nature of gases. These questions are best written in student friendly language and posted in the classroom to encourage conversation.

Next is Stage 2: Evidence of Understanding. I used to consider the unit exam to be this assessment piece and it came at the end of the unit. Using the UbD model, teachers decide on the assessment piece before the lessons are created so that the learning plan is carefully aligned. Also, the focus of the assessment is a "transfer task" where students transfer their learnings into a performance assessment where the work is truly authentic. Moreover, the transfer task is given out to the students at the beginning of the unit so they know exactly where there are headed.

Stage 3 is the development of the learning plan. This is the hardest of the collaborative work. It takes a significant amount of time for teachers to create the lessons where the focus is on the demonstration of student understanding. Many secondary teachers have used the "worksheet" model of teaching. I'm not blaming anyone - I know that when you are working alone, it is very difficult to always teach for understanding. So, when teachers are given the gift of time and allowed to collaborate to create amazing lessons, then that is what happens. The quality of the lessons were remarkable!

To see what can be created by 12 teachers in seven days, take a look at the Biology 20 UbD Teaser under the Tab, "Lesson Design" for just a teaser of what we created. As you will see the document is over 100 pages but I can only upload a mere 1.0 MB. Please remember that this was created by Edmonton Public Schools Teachers.

UbD is a great model for teacher collaboration!

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