An Examination of “Understanding by Design” in the National Music Education Standards: Perspectives and Practices of Music Teachers and Music Teacher Educators      


Daniel C. Johnson, University of North Carolina - Wilmington

Amber Dahlén Peterson, Southwestern College

Amy Spears, Nebraska Wesleyan University

Jonathan Vest, University of Tennessee at Martin


The purpose of this research proposal is to report the work of an ASPA curriculum subgroup formed at the 2013 SMTE Symposium. Because the new national music education standards use UbD as a curricular foundation, co-authors of this proposal sought to examine how music teachers and music teacher educators understand and implement this approach to curriculum.


Unveiled in 2014, the new national music standards were developed using the framework of Understanding by Design (UbD) by Wiggins and McTighe (2005), specifically to address essential questions and enduring understandings. To guide pre-service teachers in using the new standards effectively, music teacher educators must be familiar with UbD and how to implement it into the music curriculum and classroom. Similarly, practicing teachers need to understand and implement these principles in their curriculum design to apply the national standards. Accordingly, co-authors asked: to what extent do music teacher educators understand UbD? and to what extent do music teachers and music teacher educators incorporate UbD in their teaching?


To address these questions, co-authors designed a two-phase study. In phase one, they collected written responses to an online survey from 300 music teachers and music teacher educators across the country. Results indicated that a majority of respondents (n=170) have little or no knowledge of UbD, and even more (n=225) indicated the music education faculty at their institutions did not work to address the UbD model in undergraduate music teacher education. Data also indicated no consensus on how the term “framework” is defined (curricula, methodologies, standards, etc.)


In phase two of this study, co-authors conducted and recorded semi-structured, follow-up interviews with respondents who indicated they would be willing to participate. Thirteen music teachers and music teacher educators spoke with one of the co-authors to extend the investigation and provide more informed insights. Interview questions were developed based on a review of the written survey data. Co-authors asked participants to elaborate on their understanding and use of the UbD framework and principles in terms of music education, and to contextualize their responses in terms of their university or P-12 music setting. To examine responses for an in-depth understanding of participants’ perspectives and practice, co-authors independently analyzed written transcriptions of each interview as open coding and then compared coding agreement of the resulting in-vivo codes (Charmaz, 2006).


Three themes emerged from the data: perceived curricular benefits of UbD, instances of conceptual repackaging, and perceived pedagogical disadvantages. For benefits, participants largely focused on essential questions and/or backwards design in regards to the lesson planning process and tended to relate the UbD model to active music making. Participants reported using many UbD principles regularly without the specific vocabulary. Participants also expressed some concerns with a one-size-fits-all curricular model, without room for flexibility.


In addition to discussing these emergent themes, co-authors will present suggestions for further research and implications for praxis, which include developing a stronger, richer community based on the new national standards as framed by UbD principles.




Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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