Objectives Taxonomies, part 4 of 4: Six Facets of Understanding

Following a learning taxonomy, teaching can have a logical path, consisting of rational and beneficial exercises or knowledge chunks. There are other taxonomies as well (Bloom’s Taxonomy, SOLO Taxonomy, and Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning; all links to posts on this blog), and all refer to the act of understanding the learning process.

The Six Facets of Understanding first appeared in 1998, presented in the book „Understanding by Design,” by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Actually, the taxonomy is part of the entire Understanding by Design approach (UbD), so it’s worth to know more about the entire framework. And it’s quite interesting, considering most common frameworks go from idea to execution, but not this one!



UbD is characterized by what Wiggins and McTighe call backward design (or backward planning). In standard lesson planning/course design, the focus is more on the list of goals to achieve first, without really looking at the methods or forms of assessment. Backward design takes a one-eighty and looks at the outcomes in order to design curriculum units, performance assessments, and classroom instruction. Here, the start point is the goals, and only then the design happens. You start with a goal in mind, then think and plan the assessments, to lastly tackle the lesson plan. It’s not trying to squeeze the exercises to fit the goal, but choosing them right.

The idea is to teach toward this end goal or learning goals in general. This should make sure that content stays focused, organized, and relevant to the end goal. And this, in turn, ensures a better understanding of the material. With backward design, learners are more likely to be focused on the knowledge, they’re not lost in the factual details of the lesson. Assessments, which are crucial in backward learning design, are designed before the lesson, so instruction moves learner to whey the exactly need to know.

There are three stages to backward design:

1. Identify desired results – what should learners know, understand, be able to do?
2. Determine assessment evidence – how will we know if learners have achieved the desired results?
3. Plan learning experiences and instructions – how will we support learners as they come to understand important ideas and processes?

It’s definitely interesting to approach learning design from the level of assessments, which usually come last. To help with that, Wiggins and McTighe recommend the WHERE approach to help plan them efficiently (you can see some questions mentioned above as well:

+ Where are they heading?
+ Hook them on the topic.
+ Eexplore and experience ideas.
+ Rehearse, revise, refine work.
+ Evaluation.

There is a great short paper (if you don’t want to read the book, that is) about backward design, and you can read it here (zooming possible): http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf



As mentioned, UbD offers a framework for planning and designing learning experiences, assessments, and instructions. The key premises are: focus on teaching and assessing for understanding, and the abovementioned backward design. And one part of it (at stage 2) is the assessment framework that came to be known as Six Facets of Understanding. According to Wiggins and McTighe, we only truly understand when we:

+ Can explain: provide thorough, supported, and justifiable accounts of phenomena, facts, and data.
+ Can interpret: tell meaningful stories; offer apt translations; provide a revealing historical or personal dimension to ideas and events; make it personal or accessible through images, anecdotes, analogies, and models.
+ Can apply: effectively use and adapt what we know in diverse contexts. Have perspective: see and hear points of view through critical eyes and ears; see the big picture.
+ Can empathize: find value in what others might find odd, alien, or implausible; perceive sensitively on the basis of prior direct experience.
+ Have self-knowledge: perceive the personal style, prejudices, projections, and habits of mind that both shape and impede our own understanding; we are aware of what we do not understand and why understanding is so hard.

These facets are related in a similar way to judging the quality of performance. When we say „good scenario writing” is clear, concise, and interesting – all criteria need to be met, but then each criterium is independent. The scenario can be clear, but not interesting, it might be concise but not clear, and so on. Same applies to the six facets – the learner might be able to explain an idea, but have a hard time applying it effectively. Relating this to assessments, there is no need for each facet to be tested in each assessment, but the overall goal of understanding requires all facets to be verified.



There is actually quite a lot of accessible research and explanations done about this subject, so apart from reading the book, I encourage you to read the below articles:

+ Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
+ „Six Facets of Understanding and the All Souls Trilogy.” We Learn to Change by Heather MacCorkle Edick. http://heatherssandbox.org/journal/six-facets-of-understanding-and-the-all-souls-trilogy/. Accessed 4 Apr, 2019.
+ „Understanding by Design Framework.” http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Accessed 4 Apr, 2019 (pdf).
+ Huff, D. „Understanding by Design: Six Facets of Understanding.” http://www.huffenglish.com/understanding-by-design-the-six-facets-of-understanding/. huffenglish.com. Accessed 4 Apr, 2019.
+ „Chapter 4. Six Facets of Understanding.” http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf. WebBrain. Accessed 4 Apr, 2019 (pdf).