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Understanding by Design

ASV shapes long-term educational objectives for students at every grade level with a focus on transfer
By Carlos Minuesa
Understanding by Design

The 21st-century school aspires to teach through comprehension, but how do teachers know when students have understood a topic? What indicators reveal an effective and practical acquisition? There are various types (interpretation ability, implementation, perspective...) and schools like the American School of Valencia (ASV) are using them in order to renovate their academic programs and to respond to challenges in contemporary education. “Traditional education is a transfer of information, but these days students can google the content,” explains Elizabeth Imende, expert in the Understanding by Design (UbD) framework who has been leading professional development workshops at ASV. “What is important is, can they use that information when there is a real challenge or problem?” The implementation of the UbD environment entails a detailed review of the academic programs and their horizontal and vertical sequencing, that is, grade to grade and for each of the subjects. The process has always as its focus the transfer goals (long-term learning), according to Imende. “We have spent six months working at the math core level to really think about what we want ASV students to be able to do after they leave school. And then eventually we get into the design of the day-to-day lessons. But it is important for teachers to think about the long term.” Understanding by Design is consistent with ASV’s philosophy of “teaching for comprehension and critical thinking.” Schools that apply this method learn to “map the curriculum around big ideas and essential questions,” which helps students to “develop the 21st-century skills of critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration,” explains Dr. Ann Kox, Preschool and Elementary School Principal and Curriculum Coordinator. Updating the contents of the curriculum also implies a change in assessment methods. It is here where performance tasks come in. These tasks must be “enriching,” Kox and Imende state. “Teachers should design a task around an interesting and genuine question or challenge; it should admit different approaches and encourage cooperation and group work. By completing it, students learn to analyze, interpret, and be perseverant,” Imende says. The workshops held this year were focused on transfer goals—that is, long-term objectives—and cornerstone tasks (key tasks in each subject and grade). The educator invited by ASV encourages parents to trust the process: “Education is changing, and we know that the accumulation of information is not the only way to prepare students. American School of Valencia has done incredible work coming up with transfer goals and explaining what they want the students to do in the long term. I can say from my perspective that you are in good hands. Encourage teachers, and ask them about these transfer goals!”

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