Unit Design

With the focus provided by our design principles, content anchors, and teaching tools, we design and implement teaching units, spanning several lessons, for particular grade levels and tailored to particular curriculum requirements. We use the Understanding by Design® (UbD) framework by Wiggins and McTighe (2005) to guide unit design around essential questions and enduring understandings about the nature of human behavior and sustainability. The scale of the unit allows educators to connect big ideas across learning actitivies and content, thus fostering networked learning in students. Furthermore, unit design can take advantage of the freedom and flexibility that is often afforded by grade-level curriculum standards in order to sequence content within one school year in a manner that best sparks student interest and achieves understanding.

Currently, we are focusing on the design and implementation of a 10th grade unit on human evolution and behavior tailored to the biology curriculum standards in Saxony, Germany.

Understanding by Design® Components

UbD asks education designers to frame units around Big Ideas, captured in targeted understandings about these ideas, common misconceptions around those ideas, as well as essential questions that guide and link inquiry across learning activities. Our unit designs are built around the understandings, misconceptions and essential questions listed below. Particular units aim at all or a subset of these understandings and essential questions, complement them with particular knowledge and skills, and identify particular formal and informal assessment tasks as well as a learning plan spanning several lessons, that help achieve and document enduring understandings. Through iterative design, implementation in real-world classroom settings, assessment and reflection with students and teachers, and subsequent design refinement, we aim to develop classroom units that are effective across contexts and provide teachers with guidance on local adaptation.

Understanding by Design Intro_EN


Students will understand that . . .

  1. Our everyday behaviors and experiences have many causes, going all the way back to their evolutionary origins.
  2. Humans have been shaped by natural selection and cultural evolution to have an elaborated capacity to cooperate beyond kin.
  3. The evolution of human social behavior is relevant to the sustainability dilemmas of today.

Addressed misconceptions

  1. Phenomena in biology are caused by intentions of single agents.
  2. Evolutionary theory implies that selfish behavior is always adaptive.
  3. Today’s sustainability problems tell us that humans are intrinsically worse than other species at sharing resources and using them sustainably.

Essential Questions

  • What does it mean to be a human in today’s world?
  • What was it like to be the most ancient ancestors of our species?
  • What will it be like to be a human in the future?

Unit or Lesson Specific Questions:

  1. What are the causes of an observed behavior?
  2. What are important causes in human evolution?
  3. How are the causal factors of human evolution linked to each other?
  4. What are important conditions for humans to cooperate towards common goals?
  5. How do ancestral causes of human behavior relate to the sustainability dilemmas of today?

Understanding by Design references and resources

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

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2004). The Understanding by Design Professional Development Workbook. Alexandria, VA, USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/103056.aspx

ASCD Understanding by Design® page - links to introductory resources, articles, books, videos, online courses on UbD

Jay McTighe and Associates - free resources including unit design tools and templates, reading and video material on UbD