Education Letter to the Editor

More Criticism Leveled at ‘Understanding’ Essay

April 02, 2007 2 min read

To the Editor:

I am a trainer for the professional-development program Understanding by Design, and have worked in that role with schools and districts throughout the United States and in other countries. Imagine my surprise, then, at reading the extremely negative Commentary about it by Kim Chase (“Understanding by Accident,” March 14, 2007), in which one person is given license to castigate a program that people enthusiastically embrace and in which thousands have been trained.

Ms. Chase’s essay begins by her writing that she would have preferred to not attend the Understanding by Design staff development in the first place. She relates that she “asked to be exempted from the workshop,” but was told that participation was mandatory. Was she biased against the program before she ever set foot in the door? You be the judge.

Her description shows that she does not like the program’s text (to put it mildly), but she somehow misses its detailed discussions of backward design, big ideas and essential questions, performance assessments, instructional practices that promote understanding, and other components that enrich the Understanding by Design big idea. Her personal experience at the workshop appears very negative, and she makes fun of the presenter. But she gives us clues that there were some teachers (how many?) who liked the in-service. She even quotes one colleague as saying, “I love this stuff! I live this every day of my life!”

The reality is that Understanding by Design is a comprehensive, multiresource approach based on significant research (including the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) that helps educators plan and design units, courses, and programs; set goals; develop assessments; and organize instruction that promotes student understanding. The goal is not to “fix” teachers, but to improve their ability to help students understand what they are learning. Thousands of teachers and administrators in this country and abroad have been through its professional-development programs with many highly qualified trainers. They have adopted many of its ideas and practices.

It is a shame that Education Week saw fit to publish one person’s negative views of the program without putting the training into a larger context, without understanding the content of the program, and without finding out how the program has made a positive difference in the lives of so many educators and children.

Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, Pa.

The writer is a former professor of education at Temple University, in Philadelphia, and has been a member of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s Understanding by Design cadre since its inception.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as More Criticism Leveled at ‘Understanding’ Essay