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UDL in 15 Minutes with Carla-Ann Brown

The Power of Backward Planning

In this episode of UDL in 15 Minutes, I interview Carla-Ann Brown about her combined use of backward planning and UDL to help design inclusive and culturally sustaining environments and lessons. For this blog, I’m going to spend a little time with backward design which is what Wiggins & McTighe called it when they wrote about it in their book Understanding by Design (UbD) (1998). The overarching reason for backward design is to plan from the assessment backward to the beginning of the lesson or unit. Before anyone starts hollering, “You should never teach to the test!!!” let’s take a moment to understand the premise of UbD and backward design. I’m going to use UDL to get you there.

If you’ve been listening to UDL in 15 Minutes for a while (there are over 50 podcasts!), you’ve heard my guests and me talk about growth mindset (Dan Schmidt and Shelbi Fortner), formative assessment (Christina Khatri), and the importance of continuous growth (Ian Wilkins). We’ve had these discussions from the position of UDL and how these are outcomes of our design. We want our learners to increase their growth mindset. We value formative assessments and understand that they are more valuable than summative assessments. And we need our students to experience and recognize their own continuous growth. But these things do not happen unless we design them into the lesson or environment. Design is key. This is the same premise from which Wiggins and McTighe come.

UbD also tells us two other main points. First, if we want our learners to successfully achieve the goal, we must design processes and activities into the lesson or unit to provide those opportunities. Second, lessons and units are most powerful when students participate in deep thinking, metacognition (they think about their own learning), and they have multiple opportunities to revise and revisit their work. They are digging deep into understanding versus a primary focus on knowledge. How is understanding different than knowledge?

According to UbD (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), when we understand something, we can articulate the meaning behind it. We grasp the theory of the topic. We understand that most knowledge is not absolute and there are multiple dimensions (e.g. be sure to listen to how Carla-Ann talks about how she teaches history from a culturally sustaining position rather than a dominant culture position). We also comprehend when to use a skill or component of knowledge. Ultimately, knowledge is not enough; we must have understanding. This is why UbD and UDL are so well aligned!

Speaking of theory, a complaint that educators have about UDL is that it is too heavy in theory, but just as UbD points out (i.e., for us to understand something, we need to grasp the theory of it!) that same theory is what makes UDL so powerful! For example, once educators grasp the impact and value of variability, the importance of providing multiple options, and that all design should move all learners toward becoming expert learners taking action through the framework begins to make sense. Without those theoretical underpinnings, though, UDL can feel (and is) hollow. UDL is not a group of coherent facts; instead, it is a collection of research and practice that offers us an understanding of why we should make certain design decisions. UbD is, in fact, a process that can help you understand UDL.

If you’ve not read about UbD before, or you feel like what you’ve read before didn’t give you enough meat, you can read the second chapter of Wiggins and McTighe’s more recent edition of their book on the ASCD website. This chapter will take you more deeply into the concepts of knowledge versus understanding. Other reliable sources include Edutopia, the Cult of Pedagogy, and Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching.

UDL is a powerful framework and UbD can help you determine how you’re going to apply it in your environment. I invite you to see how the two compliment one another in ways that support the development of expert learners.


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.