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Life... in Backward Design


I used to think I was pretty normal. Now I'm beginning to wonder if I, too, am an eduholic.

I guess the first tip-off was earlier this summer when I started talking about backward design. I mean really talking about backward design.

Like most teacher prep programs around the country, Teach For America's teachers are taught to use backward design in their planning. I had first learned about backward design, aka UbD in reference to "Understanding by Design" by Wiggins and McTighe, back when I was a first year teacher. I used it to design my unit plans, but it wasn't until earlier this summer when I was preparing to train our first-year teachers that I really sat down and understood the truth behind backward design. It wasn't until then that I saw the light.

For those unfamiliar with the magic of backward design, it is actually not magic at all. It is the principle that Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe articulated and popularized in their book that effective planning starts with the end in mind. (For fellow BD aficionados, the following four paragraphs are on the how-to of backward design.)

How to backwards design
What does backward design look like when planning at a course, unit or lesson level? Before even starting to brainstorm those really fun lessons on longitude and latitude, teachers need to first truly understand the learning goals and enduring understandings they're striving toward. What does standard 9.2A really mean, after all? What enduring understandings should the students be really understanding by learning about longitude and latitude? What's the point of learning this?

After that, they need to determine what it will look like when students demonstrate mastery of those learning goals. Will they be able to locate places on a map using coordinates and lines of longitude and latitude? Will they be able to explain the purpose of the imaginary lines? Will they take a paper-pencil test? Will they design their own maps?

Only after two first two steps do backward designers begin planning. What will you need to teach to get your kids to be able to find locations on a map using lines of longitude and latitude? Do they need to first define the terms and identify the lines on a map? How will you teach it?

When working with our new teachers, we kept these three steps of BD on the board:

Step 1) Identify Desired Results: Where are we going? What must students know and be able to do at the end of the year/unit/lesson?
Step 2) Determine Acceptable Evidence: How will we know that we have gotten there?
What assessments will show us that students have achieved our goals?
Step 3) Plan for Instruction: How will we get there? Exactly what must I teach and when, in order to lead my students to achieve our goals?

Pitfalls of not BD'ing
At first blush, this may seem backward (ha ha.) If you're trying to plan your unit, doesn't it make sense to think about how you're gong to teach it and what activities you'll use, and make the assessment last? Well, yes. It does make sense. We've all done it. But by making the assessment last or by not starting with your standards and enduring understandings, teachers run the dire (and all-too-common) risk of misaligning lessons to the standards, designing tests at a lower level than the standards call for, or not having an assessment that gives you clear evidence of whether your students actually mastered the content.

So that takes me back to where I started. My eduholism. As I work with my teachers on improving their course goals, assessments and plans, my work life revolves around backward design. In a naturally eduholic way, my personal life has taken a turn for BD as well.

Recently, I found myself telling a Friend to use backward design when finding a boyfriend: First, you need to really understand what you want and what your priorities are. Next, if your priority is "nice" and "cute", you need to imagine what "nice" and "cute" would look like when you meet someone. What are some examples of what Potential Boyfriend may do to demonstrate his "niceness" and "cuteness"? Third, start planning for it. If one way Potential Boyfriend could demonstrate "niceness" is by volunteering, then you should start spending your Saturdays around the local animal shelter.

I don't buy $100 shoes, but I'm not particularly budget-savvy either. A month ago, I found myself planning backward to save for the upcoming year. I decided on my goal ($5,000). I figured out how I would "assess" it (I would have $5,000 more in my savings account)). Then I worked backwards from September 2008 to September 2007 to scratch together a long term plan for how much I would need to save monthly in order to reach my goal. (It was a good plan. And then I bought a computer. Maybe I'll write another entry on adjusting our long-term plans to deal with unforeseen changes.)

Public Policy
Back in August, I was on a plane reading The Economist when I got so giddy by an article on a California city that I yelped a little, marked the page and pulled out a Post-It to jot down a note: "Cerritos, CA uses BACKWARD DESIGN!!!"

The piece highlights Cerritos' "superb management and geographical good fortune" and described how the the small suburb built beautiful libraries, performing arts centers and parks all while maintaining fiscal success. What I read was that the city managers knew what they wanted from the start (financial stability), they knew what it would look like to get there (lure businesses and investors to set up shop in the city) and had a long term plan on how to get there, which was directly aligned to their goals (first establish pipelines and roads, then business parks, policing and schools.)


Welcome, Jessica. And thanks for the shout out.

So-- not sure how it works with boyfriends or budgets, but with kids, while BD seems to make sense in terms of covering objectives, are there times when it's okay to not know exactly what our students will learn? In some cases, are we not limiting them to the results we can imagine instead of allowing them to construct and own their knowledge?

I'm working SO HARD to try to get my other two teammates to get with the backwards design when we plan our weeks. Initially, I said, well hey guys, let's meet on a Sunday when we have nothing else going on and we'll start from May and work backward to plan what we'll teach/when. Yeah. They are absolutely intent on going FORWARD in our instructional calendar in the the hope that what we're doing will yield the results we are striving for. And to get them to help build a common assessment is like pulling TEETH. I built it, thinking how I would help my kids learn what they'd need to do well and hoping that they'll be teaching the same things in essentially the same way I am. What's weird is that we're all first year teachers...logic would dictate that we'd all be on the same wavelength being just out of school and all... I hope I can still convince them now that 2nd quarter is starting next week that we need to do this RIGHT for the sake of our kids.

Jessica, I absolutely know what this feels like, including often wondering if I too am an "eduholic!" I also fully understand Teresa's frustration.

I currently work at a amazing school that emphasizes UbD and the importance of scaffolding all four years of instruction with a long-term view of our students success. Most the teachers are incredibly on board with all of it. However, I was drafted into a peculiar arrangement (she teaches 2 sections of a newly created course, and I and another colleague each teach another section, while she theoretically creates all the curriculum) with a new, part-time last-minute hire who doesn't really buy into the school's culture and who despite having taught before is awful at planning, seems to mistake activities and topics for lessons. I hadn't ever realized how frustrating it would be to work under a teacher so blatantly eschews what is to me by now almost second nature - even though I put in extra hours of planning and adjusting to try and tailor the materials she does haphazardly provide, I still feel that I'm doing a disservice to my students and the school.

Emmet, I would go a step further (and I think you do in your teaching from what I read/hear)and say effective BD allows for the unknown in what students will learn. Hopefully in planning we are providing for differentiation and have enough knowledge about the content and our kids we can facilitate when the ideas, discussion, lesson, or product go beyond the objectives or beyond what we anticipate. Again...not sure how that fits with other relationships:)

I think that backward design is absolutely critical in order to differentiate the curriculum appropriately as well, and when it includes pre-assessments, it can be readily apparent that some students have already mastered said standard and some need significant scaffolding to get there.

What a great confirmation of the work my colleagues and I have been doing over the past few years! I just wanted to add to what Charlene said in response to Emmet. There are so many opportunities in the UbD method for students to discover beyond the plan. That is one of the best things about it. The other thing I enjoy about it is that it provides occasion for the students themselves to participate in some of their own curriculum design. Every once in a while I have found myself saying, "Ok, if out goal to answer this question, how do you think we should go about it?" Taking their input into account gives them that extra sense of ownership which is a big motivator. (Of course, I still have to keep the standards in mind, but you'd be so surprised how close they get!)

Hi, Jessica. Your "backward design" is also called "outcome based education", and before that, "plan your work and work your plan":-). I've been teaching for thirty years and realized the first year of teaching in a regular classroom that knowing what you want the kids to know is crucial in planning.

Unfortunately, people are still fussing that it's "teaching to the test". I believe that if an educated group of professionals decide what a student should know (i.e. the National Councils of Teachers of Whatever), then more often than not, it's best to take their word for it, and move on from there. Don't get me wrong. I LOVE to do innovative, creative activities with the kids. But I've also worked with teachers who are the epitome of anarchy in the classroom--they teach their pet subject all year long, and the kids don't learn a thing of any use to them.

I think we need to do what's best for the kids--to know where they need to go, and to make it a hell of a ride in getting there!

Your blog is lovely. Lucky, lucky students!


umm, "heck" of a ride, that is...


Can you recommend a school district, school, website, etc. that has specific examples of different content area plans that use backward planning? I am trying to get it going at our school and am hearing that it "won't work" for certain content areas. I disagree, but I need some proof and examples. Thanks, Jennifer

BDing is contagious, once you see the benefits for current student and district needs, it is blinding. As an education consultant, I instruct on 21st century teaching methods. Once you incorporate Response system into the classroom, teachers are able to do quick assessment of students inference of content standards, and make real time interventions! And Districts can gather the information for a true real time alignment.
Great article, keep the passion:-)

Your article is interesting and exciting, however, I have no notion of what it means to work backward in terms of designing lessons or curriculum.

As a teacher, I wished I could ditto Sara's word, "... what is to me by now almost second nature."

brooklyn web design Great post, you have pointed out some good details , I besides think this s a very great website.

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