Understanding by Design

I thought I’d take a slight detour away from Bloom and into a related set of authors: Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.  Thinking about the way I’ve been taught to begin every student learning objective with the word “understand” (as in, “Students will understand . . . ”) is surely something “rooted in” (as the critical theorists would say) Bloom, but something I dimly recalled being straight out of Wiggins and McTighe – especially their popular ed book, Understanding by Design.” So I thought I might revisit that book to see how it aligns with Bloom.

As it turns out, Wiggins and McTighe are an especially interesting companion to Bloom – they are explicitly carrying on his legacy, building on his work, speaking in conversation with him, modifying him, and sometimes adapting him to suit new purposes.  Plus, I’m fairly sure this is where that “students will understand” dogma that I was taught probably comes from – I’d forgotten what a central feature it is in this book.  But how do they define “understanding”?  And how does it relate to Bloom’s goals?

One side note before I dive into the book:  As I remembered from my first read-through some years ago, I really enjoyed re-reading Understanding by Design.  I appreciated the focus of Wiggins and McTighe’s work on identifying the most important and worthy goals in education and pursuing them with clarity.  I appreciated their connection to and clear familiarity with the seminal figures in education (they often quote Dewey and Bloom, for instance), and their constant real-world examples.

At the same time, as I started re-reading, I remembered something more negative from their work, as well:  For two authors so focused on clarity, Wiggins and McTighe are often surprisingly unable to define what they mean regarding the basic concepts of their philosophy.  This is nowhere more clear than in their repeated – shaky – attempts to define “understanding” – for them the core, critical goal of education.

Like Bloom, Wiggins and McTighe define true learning as something deeper and more meaningful than “knowledge,” which they – again, like Bloom – define as memory of facts and details.  Teaching for this sort of discrete knowledge is ineffective, argue Wiggins and McTighe, because uncategorized knowledge vanishes with short-term memory.  Instead, the real goal – understanding – is more substantial.  The trouble is, Wiggins and McTighe define it in a number of different ways.  First they call it “a mental concept, an abstraction made by the human mind to make sense of many distinct pieces of knowledge.” They build on this notion of understanding later by claiming that understanding is being able to use facts to solve a problem, or being able to glean a meaningful conclusion from facts.  “To go beyond the facts and approaches to use them mindfully” (39), as they write.  They also suggest that understanding requires a specific impetuous: “meeting a challenge for thought.” If all of these definitions seem disparate, I agree.

As for evidence of understanding, they suggest that doing something correctly does not necessarily imply understanding it – instead understanding requires that one was deliberate and conscious about pursuing a method and incorporating knowledge, often understood as being able to explain why one did something.

Then Wiggins and McTighe make a striking remark.  They write, “As Bloom (1956) put it, understanding is the ability to marshal skills and facts wisely and appropriately, through effective application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation” (39).

I thought this was a tremendously interesting understanding of Bloom, one, I might add, that I do not recall in any fashion from my recent reading of his book.  In fact, such an understanding would seem to extend Bloom beyond what I believe most readers take him to be saying; it is to say that somehow all of the levels of the taxonomy, so painstakingly described as apparent ends in themselves, are in fact meant to be understood as mere ends to an ultimate goal – understanding – one that not only fails to merit its own section of the book, but which is in fact barely mentioned at all!

Then Wiggins and McTighe throw another curveball.  They write an entire sub-chapter on how a critical component of understanding is “transfer” – the ability to determine how to apply knowledge and skills to new and unfamiliar problems.  This is surprising because it is a substantially narrower definition of understanding than they just used above.  This definition seems to align only with a single level of Bloom’s taxonomy: application.  In fact, Wiggins and McTighe explicitly tie “understanding” to this level of Bloom, writing: “Transfer is the essence of what Bloom and his colleagues meant by application” (41).  They later write, “To understand a topic or subject is to be able to use (or ‘apply,’ in Bloom’s sense) knowledge and skill wisely and effectively” (43).  Still later, when explaining who to assess for understanding, they quote Bloom on how to assess for application (48-49).

I thought this was odd: first understanding seems to be some wide, capacious, unstated secret endpoint of Bloom – but then it turns out to merely be one of the middle levels of the taxonomy – application.

To make matters worse, Wiggins and McTighe return in the next section to an earlier idea they’d alluded to: that true understanding is BOTH Bloomian application –being able to transfer knowledge and skills to solving unfamiliar problems – *and* being able to “transfer” smaller bits of knowledge into larger mental schemas of meaning: “The learner must take what were initially bits of knowledge with no clear structure or power and come to see them as part of a larger, more meaningful, and more useful system” (43).  In this sense, “understanding” becomes both application and a kind of mental schema-making.    

As if this isn’t enough confusion, Wiggins and McTighe – having ended the chapter on trying to define “understanding” rather unceremoniously – then return to the question again two chapters later: “The Six Facets of Understanding.” They pick right back up, trying to define “understanding,” and – in my view – not making things particularly clearer.  They write, “The word understanding has various meanings, and our usage suggests that understanding is not one achievement but several, and it is revealed through different kinds of evidence” (82).  So much for newfound clarity.  Then they proceed to outline six different “facets” of understanding . . .  I’ll hold off from describing these, but suffice to say they didn’t make the concept of “understanding” much easier to . . .  understand.


In the end, this was a fascinating detour from Bloom into two of his most influential modern heirs.  I respect and enjoy both of these writers, Wiggins and McTighe, a great deal, particularly Grant Wiggins.  But I was taken aback at how unclear their book was about the educational goal of understanding itself.  What I take away from Wiggins and McTighe is the importance of the “by design” part of their book title – the rational, conscious, intentional creation of educational goals, both large and small, and the deliberate, rational attempts to get students to reach these goals.  As for their conception of “understanding,” itself, you could say that, at best, they wrestle manfully, or perhaps pursue Socratically, the biggest questions:  What knowledge is of most value?  What should be the end of a good education?  I still think that Bloom’s work is far more valuable as an outline of educational goals, and Wiggins and McTighe’s challenges only underscore how hard it is to do what Bloom did in the first place.