Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 2 Months ago
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Deep Learning and Curriculum: Part 3b

As we indicated in part 3a, the selection and adoption of a curriculum that supports deep learning is extremely helpful and makes the implementation of a deep learning approach much easier. However, for a variety of reasons, it is not always possible to adopt a curriculum consistent with a deep learning approach. In that case, what to do? Another option is to thoughtfully redesign a traditional curriculum in order to create deep learning courses and units. Here are several approaches to redesigning the curriculum in order to support deep learning.


  1. Use the Teaching for Understanding (T4U) or the Understanding by Design (UbD) model to redesign the curriculum.

Both the T4U and UbD curriculum design frameworks try to focus learning around key ideas, deep learning processes, and skills, and the development of understanding, meaning, and application/transfer. Both focus on planning courses and units of study around understanding-based goals and performances of understanding or performance assessments. The UbD model is more detailed and is focused around a three-stage unit template. In stage one, goals are focused around enduring understandings and essential questions; in stage two, assessments are formulated to support student understanding and transfer; stage three focuses instruction around the development of meaning and transfer[1].

The T4U curriculum design model is focused around a four-part design framework: identifying generative topics, creating understanding goals, developing performances of understanding, and incorporating formative assessments[2].

Careful planning using these models is a powerful way to redesign a curriculum for deep learning instruction. Using either of these models to plan for deep learning requires training in the design model, considerable thought and careful planning. Even when understanding based goals and assessments are developed, instruction built around these goals can be difficult to plan and requires time to implement, since deep learning instruction is usually qualitatively different from traditional instruction.

There are a number of websites that can provide more information about these two redesign models[3].

  1. Use Project or Problem Based Learning design models (PBL’s) to redesign the curriculum


Both problem and project based learning design models (PBL’s) promote deep learning. The most extensive Project Based Learning design model was created by the Buck Institute for Education[4]. Its extensive set of resources and professional development opportunities are focused around the development of large scale projects (often units of study) that are designed around challenging problems or questions and that promote sustained inquiry, create authenticity, and implement a pubic product as the culminating experience.  The projects are focused around driving questions, multiple assessments that include a culminating product, and organizing instruction around a set of tasks.


Problem based learning has a similar design framework, but with a focus on starting from a problem to be solved, and working towards one or more solutions to the problem as the end result. Many resources are available on problem-based learning, including a classic book published by ASCD.[5]


All of these redesign options, and others, can help to develop a curriculum framework that can foster deep learning. They all require time, training, and commitment. They are all worth it.


[1] See Wiggins, Grant, and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design, second edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005; Wiggins, Grant, and McTighe, Jay, The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2011; McTighe, Jay and Wiggins, Grant, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2013. Training for UbD is offered through ASCD and others.

[2] See Perkins, David and Blythe, Tina, Putting Understanding Up Front, in Educational Leadership, February, 1994, pp. 4-7; Wiske, Martha, Teaching for Understanding. San Francisco: Jossey Bass publishers, 1998; Blythe, Tina and Associates. The Teaching for Understanding Guide. San Francisco: Jossey Bass publishers, 1998

[3] There are a number of websites that provide more information about both these models. They include the following:

T4U: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/projects/teaching-for-understanding

UbD: http://www.ascd.org/research-a-topic/understanding-by-design-resources.aspx (ASCD Resources)

https://jaymctighe.com/resources/ (author’s website with training opportunities and many resources)

https://digitalcommons.trinity.edu/educ_understandings/?utm_source=digitalcommons.trinity.edu%2Feduc_understandings%2F41&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages (sample units)

https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/understanding-by-design/ (Helpful information)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1885909/ (Helpful information)

[4] Buck Institute of Education makes a number of resources available on line and provides project based training opportunities. For further information, go to: http://www.bie.org/resources. High Tech High is a project-based school that offers professional development programs and a number of practical resources on project based learning. Sample High Tech High student projects can be found at; https://www.hightechhigh.org/hth/projects/. Student publications based on their projects can be found at: https://www.hightechhigh.org/student-work/publications/. Unboxed is the High Tech High Journal for educators, published twice yearly. Information about Unboxed can be found at http://gse.hightechhigh.org/unboxed/issue17/editors_welcome.php

[5] See Robert Delisle, How to Use Problem-Based Learning in the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1997.


Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author and Understanding by Design cadre member and trainer. He currently continues to write about and address educational issues and volunteers his time in the Philadelphia School District. His other many commentaries can be found on ASCD Edge, and his website can be found at: www.era3learning.org.

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