Episode 65 How to plan learning with Jay McTighe

In this episode, Dan interview’s Jay McTighe, author of Understanding by Design, and education consultant. This is the third episode of a 3-part series looking at the Understanding by Design Framework. In this episode, Jay  focuses in on “planning learning experiences”.

Creative Commons License

Episode 65 How to plan learning (Part 3 of the Understanding by Design Series with Jay McTighe) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Unit design can be difficult and time consuming for many teachers. In this series, Dan interview’s Jay McTighe and walks you through the 3 step framework from Understanding by Design. In this episode, you can discover how to plan engaging and authentic learning experiences for your students that help them to be successful learners using the Understanding by Design Framework.

Video show

Show Notes

Episode Highlights

Key Point #1: Can you quickly remind us what we have covered so far?

  • Goals and subgoals
  • Understandings not just knowledge
  • Essential questions
  • Key knowledge and skills
  • Performance tasks
  • Other Evidence
  • Self-Assessment and reflection

Key Point #2: Well this week we are planning learning experiences, and here you use the acronym WHERETO can you break this down for us?

  • Students know Where the unit is headed
  • Hook them in
  • Equip the students to learn
  • Provide opportunities to rethink, reflect and revise
  • Evaluate progress
  • Tailored for each student
  • Organised for depth of understanding

Key Point #3: Why is this approach effective in creating not just “gourmet” units, but also in training our students to be effective lifelong learners?

  • Understanding by Design can be used to focus on the skills needed to help our students become self-sufficient learning
  • It allows us to focus on the skills of learning and transfer fo knowledge
  • It has self-reflection built into the process to enable students to become better learners

Powerful Quote from This Episode

“This approach has been one of the things that’s really helped me with my programming and my unit design to create really fantastic units of work and I’ve got to say it really works it really does help to change the way that you’re teaching and to help your students to become lifelong learners and to be able to transfer their understanding and their learning into other contexts particularly into their life context” – Dan Jackson



Hello everyone and welcome again to the Effective Teaching podcast we are up to Episode 65. So, if you want the show notes etc head over to teachespd.net/65. This is our last episode in a three-part series where I’ve been talking to Jay all about his Understanding by Design framework. Thank you so much for joining me again Jay.

A pleasure to be with you dan and hello to any of the listeners who were with me in previous episodes.

So, so far Jay we’ve covered designing learning results and how to determine the kind of evidence that matches up with those design results. Can you again just quickly give us a quick recap of what we’ve learned so far in our first two episodes before we dive into planning learning experiences today?

Sure, Understanding by Design is basically a curriculum planning framework used to plan units a year-long curriculum or course or programs of study across the grades and the focus is on developing and deepening student understanding so that ultimately students can transfer or apply their learning to new situations. We have a three-stage design process that we use for curriculum planning and in the first episode, I described stage one of backward design, which is where we identify the desired results; we specify our learning goals, we also use something that we refer to as essential questions – open-ended questions that are meant to develop and deepen student understanding through exploration of the questions or inquiry into them. Stage two of backward design is where we think about evidence. Given the goals of stage one what evidence of learning, skill proficiency, understanding and transfer do we need. And so I described stages one and two in the previous two episodes.

Yes, so, for those of you who haven’t listened to those episodes please make sure you go back and listen to those episodes there episode 63 and 64. Now Jay as we get stuck into the planning learning experiences, you use an acronym I notice in the book, called WHERE… I think it’s WHERETO the acronym. Can you break that down for us in terms of how we go about thinking through our learning experiences with our students?

I actually think of WHERETO as a finer grained framework for planning instruction but it’s a good one. So the the acronym WHERETO, each letter stands for some consideration for good teaching and many teachers do things like this. The framework is just a reminder to consider them so let’s look at the letters briefly.

W – the W asks the question where are we going in this learning? why are we going there? and what’s expected? So we got three different parts to the W and this implies that in the beginning of a new unit I strongly recommend that teachers not only put daily objectives on the board for a lesson but let the kids know at the end of three weeks if it’s a three-week unit or six weeks or two weeks even here’s what you’re going to be asked to do to demonstrate your understanding and your ability to apply your learning. So I’m a strong believer in presenting the performance task right in the beginning. Where are we going. We want you to be able to explain what true friendship is to investigate a historical claim, to write a narrative story for younger readers, whatever it is so the kids know not only the daily objectives but what they’re leading to. Another aspect of the W is why is this important? And that’s where when you can create more authentic performance tasks or projects the kids are less likely to ask why do I have to learn this. And what’s expected, is where you can and should work with them early in the unit to identify the success criteria or present them the rubric that will be used to evaluate their performance. So they shouldn’t have to guess what’s in your head. What is quality work? How will my work be graded or judged? They should know that upfront. Clarity about the goals is as important for the learners as it is for the teacher. That’s what the W is letting us set out right away. The one more piece of that is I mentioned in the first episode that when you have essential questions I recommend posting them in the room when you have two or three questions posted in the room they’re helping to answer. Answer the question where are we going? What are we going to be doing? You’re going to be trying to answer these questions over time.

H – The H of WHERETO refers to hook. For many topics or some topics we’ll teach, I’ll say, may not be inherently interesting to kids and so the H is how do we hook them to get their attention and hopefully keep it around the topic we’re teaching. And over the years I’ve just met so many teachers with these ingenious hooks, ways of connecting to the kids and sparking their interest. Categorically speaking, here are a few types of hooks that we know can get attention:
humour presenting something that’s humorous gets your attention
presenting an anomaly or a discrepant event or something unexpected gets your attention
an emotional appeal can get your attention
telling a story
showing a compelling photograph or a short film clip can get your attention

These are the things that hook the mind. And I actually wrote a book recently with Dr Judy Willis, and her doctorate is an MD and she’s a neurologist who spent 25 years in private practice and then went back to school to get a master’s in education became a teacher very interesting career path, and she writes about the brain and learning. And one of the things we know about the brain and learning is the brain has an attention filter. There’s so much input coming in all the time and your brain has to attend. And she said; if it doesn’t get through the attention filter it’s not getting in. So good teachers recognize the importance of capturing students attention early on and that’s what the hook is meant to do.
Permit me to give you a very quick example of how the W and the H come could come together. I worked with a teacher of mathematics of maths, who teaches ninth grade. at least in the US. And one of the math strands is statistics. And so I think it was fairly early in the year and he was teaching a very short unit on measures of central tendency, mean, median, mode, standard deviation. Not the most intrinsically interesting topic to many 14 or 15-year-olds, but here’s what he did which combines the W and the H. At the beginning of the unit he said here’s what we’re going to be learning and then he said I got a, I got a proposition for you. I’m going to allow you to tell me how I should calculate your quarterly mathematics grade. All you have to do is tell me whether you want me to use mean, median, or mode to calculate it. And I thought that was brilliant because the kids are going well what’s that, and he said, well look it can be in your advantage you can jump two grade levels if you choose the right measure. So right off the bat, and he said that’s going to be part of your final unit test, you have to look at your grades for the fourth quarter and tell me whether you want me to use mean, median or mode. That to me was brilliant. It gave them a hook about what they were I mean… they let them know what they were gonna learn, let them know partly how their unit would be assessed, and it hooked them because it’s in their interest to understand these measures. We can’t do it always that elegantly but that’s the goal.

E – the E in WHERETO the first E is how will we equip the students for their performance. And that actually aligns with the coaching analogy I mentioned earlier. You analyze what the task or the performance requires and you plan backward from that in terms of what to teach given what the students are going to need. So, here’s another big idea in UbD because there’s typically too much content and not enough time. My contention is our job is not to cover things because the danger is you could just be talking in class fast and cover more but the results of too much coverage can be superficial and disconnected learning. And so a large part of UbD is to focus and prioritize our teaching around larger ideas and transferable concepts and processes. We don’t have to cover everything there is to cover. So, when you’re equipping that that first E you’re focusing on prioritizing the most important things given the ultimate goals of transfer that you’re after.

R – the R in WHERETO is an interesting idea that gets a little subtler. The R is how might we help kids rethink or refine or revise. Because you know if you think of the phrase “coming to understand”, it suggests that this is not something you get immediately like that coming to understand means over time you’re developing and deepening your understanding of big but abstract ideas and similarly with performance. If you’re working on, whether it’s a work of art or a piece of writing or a complex problem part of STEM, you’re not going to get it perfect the first time. That’s why we have a writing process that involves draft and revision. And so that second R asks us to think about how are we going to help kids pause, get feedback, and revise or refine their work or practice the skill so that it becomes they become more proficient. And I think it’s always a quintessential challenge in teaching to have time for that. But you can’t afford not to if your goal is understanding and transfer. So, it may mean that you’re going to have to trim the amount of content you plan to cover to have time to give kids feedback and let them revise or refine or practice some more to get them ready for the game.

I met a teacher who had a great analogy I thought, he, and this is a veteran teacher high school level, he said I’ve learned in my career that I have to, when I plan my units, I have to plan for a speed bump he calls it you know little bump in the road. That invariably I’m not going to be as far as I want to, there will be some things that interfere or some kids just need more help, and so I built in a little time. And he said I use that to have kids review, refine, revise. If the kids have got it we can move ahead, if half the class has got it they can move ahead. But I need time to make sure that I address those pieces.

E – The second E in WHERETO is around evaluation. And this is particularly where we talk about self-evaluation, self-assessment and self-reflection. A simple way of doing this is to have a set of questions that kids are expected to respond to during and especially after a major unit of study or after a major performance task. What did you learn well? What areas are still rough? What are you most proud of? What would you do next time differently knowing what you know now? What mistake did you make that really helped you learn? What do you want to accomplish next? These are self-evaluation and reflection questions. And self-directed learners need to learn these, practice these, so that they become internalized. We want them thinking this way on their own without prompting but we prompt them to get them to become habitual.

T – finally the T in WHERETO has to do with tailoring. I would have used a D for differentiation but it didn’t fit the acronym. But the idea of tailoring is again something that the best teachers understand and try to address. Taylor means, how might we respond to the differences that we have in learners. I mean we know that kids vary in terms of their knowledge base coming in, their skill levels, their interests, and even their preferred ways of learning. And while we can’t individualize our teaching, unless we have two or three kids only, we can tailor our teaching or differentiate to try to address student interests and student needs. Many teachers do this for instance, where they might have a skill group. Skill grouping so kids that need more practice or more direct instruction and modeling get that in a smaller group, where some other kids can move on. We can give kids some voice and choice often in performance tasks for example if the goal is argumentation you might give them choice of the issue, the audience they’re trying to persuade, or even the format because it could be in the form of an essay, a position paper, a letter to the editor, a blog post. And so giving kids some voice and choice is another way of differentiating or tailoring. One size fits all teaching is not optimum for all kids so the best teachers, like the best coaches, do some adjustments and differentiation as part of their teaching.

O – all right the last letter O. This is an interesting one and i’ll try to be brief. The O has to do with how are you organizing your overall learning plan? And in our book we wrote about kind of three approaches: there’s teacher as tour guide, which is typical instructional sequence where in history you start from the past and move forward or in math you start from the basic skills and move to more advanced skills. You know you follow a textbook you follow a pacing guide on a curriculum map this is sort of the traditional way in which knowledge is unfolded for students. But here’s an alternative way which I know in the states is getting a lot more interest and you can frame your teaching around problems or projects. And if you’re familiar with project-based learning, project-based learning doesn’t start with all the steps and then you put it together at the end. Project-based learning or problem-based learning even more so, puts you in the middle of a problem or a project and you’ve got to solve it or you’ve got to work on the project. And then what you need to work on is what you learn along the way but it’s driven by the problem or the project.

My daughter, Maria, taught at a school in the US called, high tech high, in San Diego California, and it’s all project-based learning for grades nine through twelve. You can go to their website high tech high and you’ll see what I think are amazing examples of student projects. And their whole curriculum is based around authentic projects. For example, one semester the entire semester of students who work with my daughter and another teacher their project was to research design and actually construct a tiny house 300 square feet or less, energy self-sufficient, to be erected in a park in San Diego at a given date. And the rubric for it, by the way, was meeting the San Diego building code, and everything went backward from there. Now that’s kind of an extreme example, most traditional schools can’t do that.

I’ve actually… I plan on doing a similar thing with my son in a couple of years.

Well no, it was it was extraordinary and go to high tech high and you’ll see all these projects that students have done. And so that’s a different organizational scheme where you’re planning backward from some product or project.

And then the third part, that’s maybe more suited to the humanities, is the idea of curriculum as story. And here’s a quick example of what that might look like. Think about what novelists or mystery writers or filmmakers do to get you into a story. They rarely start with a chronological sequence. Some of the best stories whether in writing or on film immerse you into a situation or they preview something. I remember you know some years ago the Indiana Jones series, the the first episodes shows young Indiana Jones as a child and and he’s playing with snakes and he’s afraid of snakes. And that’s a preview to something that comes much later in the in the movie. And so, curriculum is story, is interesting and it works in some subject areas. So, for example, in History, rather than starting with a chronological march from the past to the present, what if you started with a very contemporary issue and analyzed it and looked at different positions on it, looked how people were thinking about it and looked at the patterns and then said well how have people in the past dealt with the same thing. And the story is whose story is it? How are they defining the problem? How did they resolve it? What can we learn from the past about our present issue? And so, it, in other words, the O refers to how you organize how you sequence and how you frame learning. And it’s just something to be meant to be provocative and to think that there’s not just one journey through learning.

Thanks Jay, that’s very informative. I think at this point let’s switch now to you telling us more about how you can use this approach to Understand by Design framework to not just create gourmet units, like I like to call them, but actually how can we use it as a whole to train our students to become effective lifelong learners?

Well, as I mentioned, in I think the first episode, if lifelong learner and self-directed learner is one of our long-term transfer goals and ideally it would be a goal for the entire school so that we’re planning backward not just one teacher one unit but the whole school is planning backward with self-directed learner as a long-term goal. We would identify things that we want kids to understand about lifelong learning that would be in stage one. We would have essential questions that we would have on our walls and around the school. What’s my goal? How am I doing? What feedback do I need? How do I know when I’m done? What did I learn from this? How do I know what to believe and what I find? and so forth. And we would use those routinely. Then in stage two, I would expect to see assessments that involve self-directed learning. So whether it would be through individual or team inquiry projects or project or problem-based learning. In project and problem-based learning the general emphasis is that the students are going to self-direct the project within some parameters established by the teacher so that we’re giving them practice in self-directedness. And then in stage 3, our teaching needs to often directly teach the skills that they’re going to need but then deliberately step back and so we’re going to shift from the direct instruction and modeling role teacher, much more to the coach and feedback giver, so that increasingly the students are doing the directed learning or directing their learning as opposed to waiting passively to be told what to do. And then I would also say at the school level, or at least at the department or grade level, the teams ought to identify very specific indicators of self-directedness. Use a T-chart again, what would we see in a self-directed learner that we don’t see in someone who’s not? Those very specific indicators are ones that I would make public to the kids, I would teach toward them, and I’d have the kids self-assess – are you getting better at critically analyzing? Wwhat information you find or are you better at self-assessing to know where you are? Are you better at seeking and acting on feedback from others? So that these become very overt goals. In other words, we’re going to build towards self-directedness by design.

Well Jay, I want to thank you so much for the time you’ve given me to go through these three episodes. you’ve really given a lot of information, a lot of value here for our teachers who are listening. So, thank you so much.

Oh my pleasure Dan thanks for the opportunity.

Now of course for our listeners, if you haven’t yet, please make sure you listen to episode 63 and 64. This is episode 65, so if you’re on the show notes or if you haven’t got the workbook yet you can head to teacherspd.net/65 grab the workbook, go into more depth, complete that. If you submit it back to me you’ll get three hours of NESA registered PD, which will also if you’re not from NSW, you can get a certificate of completion.

It is really a fantastic system that Jay has come up with obviously with Grant.

Make sure you subscribe if you’re enjoying this podcast, subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss future episodes.

This approach has been one of the things that’s really helped me with my programming and my unit design to create really fantastic units of work and I’ve got to say it really works it really does help to change the way that you’re teaching and to help your students to become lifelong learners and to be able to transfer their understanding and their learning into other contexts particularly into their life context. but as for now i’ll see you next week

Enjoy This Podcast?

Changing the world through teaching goes beyond the classroom. That’s why it’s a big no to settle for mediocre professional development. If you enjoyed this episode of Effective Teaching Podcast, don’t forget to hit subscribe and share it with your peers!

Subscribe on Google Podcasts, Android, Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

To fostering effective unit design for lifelong learning,


Leave a comment to let me know your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.