Book Review: “Upgrade Your Teaching: UbD meets Neuroscience” by McTighe & Willis

Heading back into the classroom to teach a bespoke course developed within the Strategic Direction of my school is one thing, but to do it in one of the most difficult and disrupted times in education is daunting. I have always love the art and science of education, so I am looking deeply into how to integrate J.E.D.I., Wellbeing, through the lens and the concepts of Understanding by Design, and Neuroscience. This book popped up at just the right time.

You’d be interested in this book if you:
1) Want to underpin your pedagogical design with neuroscience
2) Want to deepen your understanding of why UbD works
3) Are looking for a great refresher on UbD
4) Are looking for great planning templates for course design


Why Video Games are a Great Brain-based model of Learning:

The video game experience models effective learning by the brain andthus offers a guide for effective teaching strategies. We have identified four elements of this model the educators can replicate to enhance the learning of the their students: (1) establishing a desirable goal, (2) offering an achievable challenge, (3) providing constant assessment with specific feedback, and (4) acknowledging progress and achievement en route to a final goal. (pg. 16)

If you’ve played a video game, you know this to be true. Personally, I’ve been playing Insomniac’s SpiderMan and the sequel Mile Morales – both are incredible examples of narrative learning, integration of digital tools, and scaffolded agency, embedded within a cycle of feedback.  But there is more:

McTighe and Willis proffer educators to construct assessments in a similar way as video games: non-catastrohpic, allowing for revisions, and connections directly to the desired goal:

Desired goals, as in the video game model, offer the potential for the instrinsic satisfaction and pleasure of a reward induced by dopamine (pg. 93)


Wellbeing is How the Brain Learns Best: Patterns, Predictions and Plasticity

The brain cannot learn when it is under threat or perceived threat. The limbic system take control and patterns cannot be recognized, signals get confused and it is hard to see what is coming next. In such a state, the brain cannot learn and create new neural pathways.

The classroom, the school itself, must work to sooth the limbic system, so that the amygdala can open the gates to the higher functioning elements within the brain. Once this is done, the educators can begin to do the deep work of promoting pattern recognition, promoting learning instances and routines that allow students to make predictions.

Making correct predictions is one of the strongest dopamine elevators…Experiencing accurate predictions and the resulting satisfaction of goal achieve leads the brain to remember the related choices, behaviors and actions and to seek more opportunities to repeat them. Concomitant effects include enhanced attentive focus, motivation, curiosity, memory, persistence, and perseverance. (pg. 10)


Student Agency is the Process and the End:

The OECD’s report reads:

Student agency is not a personality trait; it is something malleable and learnable. The term “student agency” is often mistakenly used as a synonym for “student autonomy”, “student voice” and “student choice”; but it is much more than these concepts. Acting autonomously does not mean functioning in social isolation, nor does it mean acting solely in self-interest. Similarly, student agency does not mean that students can voice whatever they want or can choose whatever subjects they wish to learn. Indeed, students need support from adults in order to exercise their agency and realise their
potential. (OECD, Student Agency for 2030)

Great connections to the work of Stuart Shankar again!

Through a neuroscience approach to pedagogical design within the UbD framework, student agency serves as a motivator, and well of resilience, and what we want for all of our students: “Students need instruction, guidance, and practice to help them learn how to apply effective self-monitoring strategies to academic tasks, and teachers can apply a gradual release of responsibility protocol.” (pg. 126. In short, using UbD and developmentally appropriate approaches through neuroscience:

For student to truly be able to take responsibility for their learning, both teachers and students need to be very clear about why is being learned, and how they should go about it. When learning and the path toward it are clear, research show that there are a number of important shifts for students. Their motivation improves, they stay on task, their behaviour improves and they are able to take more responsibility for their learning. (Pg. 46)


How to Get there:

It would be too much to go into the wealth of resources, provocations and ideas that fill this book for how to engage students. I recommend to you that you search the web for the following:

1) The AMT approach: This is an approach that begins with Acquisition.  This includes how to activate prior knowledge with your students through analogy, stories and the like. The “M” stands for Meaning Makingthe more ways that learning is experienced, the more effectively it is incorporated, stored and retrieved from memory. The “T” pushes the educator to design experiences for students to Transfer their learning to new situations. (Pg. 96)

2) The WHERETO Model: 
Students should know Where the unit is headed and Why the new learning will be important to them
The educator designs experiences to Equip students with the necessary knowledge, skills and understanding so that [the students] know what is expected of them and how to meet those expectations
Students are given opportunities to Rethink big ideas, Revise their work based on feedback
– Students should have opportunities to Evaluate their progress and reflect on their how they are learning and who they are as learners
– Educators should be looking for opportunities to Tailor their learning experience design to multiple modalities
– Educators must be Organizing the sequence of learning experiences to maximize student engagement


I really think that this book popped up at the right time for me – heading back to classes but beginning remotely, with the strong possibility to move back to F2F partway through… I need to be flexible and keep the students wellbeing at the forefront, otherwise, regardless of the learning experiences I design, they will have difficulty seeing the patterns and making predictions.

I recommend this book for the wealth of resources, and as a great provocation to reconsider, evolve your practice and reflect on what learning experiences you want to provide for your students.

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