• Beth Overby

A fresh take on Understanding by Design

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

I recently participated in a virtual workshop all about designing authentic, engaging, and rigorous curriculum. The workshop leader shared Halliday's Learning Through Language model, which encourages us to think about what students are 'learning,' 'learning through,' and 'learning about.' He presented this model in a graphic similar to this one:

This made me think deeply about how we can use this model when backwards planning our Units of Inquiry. I wondered how these labels applied to PYP learning and teaching, particularly thinking about what the difference was between 'learning ABOUT' and 'learning THROUGH.' I collaborated with our literacy team lead to discuss this. We thought about the PYP elements of knowledge and skills, but we debated which one we learn about and which one we learn through.

Knowledge, in our minds, connects to our curriculum and our school's learning outcomes, which are more subject-specific and content-based. Skills are our approaches to learning, which are transferrable between subjects and contexts. So which one do we learn ABOUT? Do we learn about skills through curriculum, or do we learn about curriculum through skills?

We decided that we learn 'about' skills rather than curriculum. If we learn 'about' the curriculum, then we might end up focusing on the specific facts and figures rather than the lifelong learners that we want to develop. Rather, we want our students to discover how to become researchers, thinkers, communicators, social beings, and self-managers THROUGH the lens of our curriculum.

An example of this might be:

Fourth graders learn ABOUT media and advertising THROUGH the development of analysis, viewing, and creative thinking skills.


Fourth graders learn ABOUT analysis, viewing, and creative thinking skills THROUGH the lens of media and advertising.

To us, the second one lends itself naturally to our philosophy of learning and teaching. If we want our students to develop these approaches to learning skills, then we can do this authentically through a specific lens of knowledge.

The final circle is 'learning TO BE.' We determined that this was our overall end goal based on the Learner Profile and the dispositions we wanted our students to develop through inquiry. So, our version of this learning model ended up looking like this:

When we applied this model to our planning, we found that we were able to really plan for understanding by design because we focused on the big picture of what we wanted for our students. Here is an example from our grade 2 unit with the central idea:

Interpretation of artifacts contribute to our understanding of the past.

In reflecting on this model, we discovered our next steps of reflection and action:

-What falls in the middle?

-What are the connections between the overlapping circles?

-Where does formative assessment play a role?