Understanding by Design

Most of us have an ingrained sense of how to teach. This comes from the typical 12-16 years folks spend in school being taught to. Through a sort of osmosis process we get the feeling of how to teach and approach sharing knowledge with others. It builds intuition.

When it comes to online courses, most content creators are relying solely on this intuation and innate sense of instructional "design" based on their likely misplaced confidence in their own ability to convey information to others as teachers.

This is something I've been guilty of for sure, and over the past several years have sought out various enhancements to my own personal abilities as a learning designer to help the folks that I teach achieve better outcomes more consistently.

My current favorite framework for instructional design is called Understanding by Design (UbD) which is a professional educators approach to designing effective learning experiences.

UbD approaches learning design backwards. This means that we consider the outcomes that learners will achieve, but more importantly we consider how we will assess and prove those outcomes to both learners and others.

Most modern education talks about a focus on "outcomes" and ostensibly that's the goal. As a software developer, this reminds me of the field of User Experience, and in fact, UX and instructional design carry a huge amount of crossover in terms of what they are trying to achieve for the folks that are consuming the output of the design work.

The problem is that we, as designers, tend to focus primarily on what UbD refers to as the Twin Sins of Instructional Design:

  • coverage-based design - complete the source material above all else
  • activity-based design - fun and interesting activities that are more hands-on than monds-on

Both of these approaches feel natural and often present as correct, but lose focus on the true underlying outcome that learning design is meant to achieve: understanding

To achieve understanding, UbD suggests that we start with the outcomes and knowledge that we want to teach and how we will assess that the learner fully understands the knowledge and skills we are presenting to them.

In other words we use Backwards Design and avoid the trap of designing the learning activities instead of designing for understanding.

It makes me smile when I see it.