"Teachers must become the creators of curriculum rather than the dispensers of curriculum developed by others [and] become able to make the link between the unpredictable activities that can happen beyond the classroom and student performance standards set by the district or state."

- Gregory Smith, 2002


Understanding Places

Authentic work emerges from the problems and perplexities of local places. Essential questions happen in local places and teachers can organize school work around these real questions. Forming questions to design curriculum is the basis of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s (1997; 2005) foundational work: Understanding by Design that gives teachers tools to link standards, best practices and local places.City street

Understanding by Design, or “planning backwards” offers teachers a way to design curriculum that engages students with the complex task of understanding our world. Because of the clarity of the process, teachers can take big, difficult complex problems of the real world and pose learning opportunities for students that are doable—and measurable. As the backwards design process works—they then can identify what a student would need to know, do and understand to reach that new learning and then design outcomes and learning activities that will support that students’ journey to new understanding. 

Essential Questions Happen in Places

Where else to discover authentic questions and about how the world works but in the places where we live? The forests, streams, streets and neighborhoods provide the setting for students to explore the BIG IDEAS of literature, social and natural sciences, math, art and the meaning of civic engagement. These questions, whether subject-specific or universal, exist and come to life in the places where we live.

Enduring Understandings Develop in Places
Path in Woods

Learning is iterative. Truth-building -- for each individual -- happens in the context of the places where we live. We come to understand big ideas by engaging in the world around us and verifying or questioning what we already know as we integrate new information. Our communities (natural, built and human) provide settings to build enduring learning that has been questioned, verified, revisited and used in collaboration with other people.

Teachers Determine Plan for Learning in Places

Designing meaningful learning experiences that align with a clear purpose is a complex and rigorous intellectual activity. Using Understanding By Design, teachers have a process to take a big idea, frame an essential question, consider what evidence will show this new learning and then determine a pathway to that understanding. Teachers identify what students need to learn and do and then plan “backwards” to get to that new learning as they engage students in their communities.

Evidence of Authentic Learning Emerges in Places

Places provide an authentic social context for student accomplishment. It is hard to do worthwhile things in the abstract. For students to accomplish worthwhile, meaningful work, they need to do it with and for other people. When students participate in uncovering new information and find an opportunity to share information with and for an authentic audience, they find personal reasons for learning. Authentic assessment can be defined when Students at water treatment plantstudents ask questions and design answers in the context of community to demonstrate mastery of content, process and meaningful results.