Backwards by design program planning

Before you read any further ask yourself the following questions, as I have been thinking about these for a while now.

  • Just because an activity or task is engaging does it mean your students are learning?
  • Is your program filled with hands on or minds on activities?

I have been reading Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Kay McTighe recently and I cannot recommend it enough to all teachers who plan and implement programs, as so much of it makes sense and resonates with me. In case you are unaware, the book promotes a design model for a program or unit of work that is essentially backwards from the way so many teachers have been used to planning. Instead of choosing themes or activities first, the teacher starts with desired learning outcomes and works back from those outcomes through assessment and finally to actual lessons. As they plan they ask themselves

How do I make it more likely  - by my design – that more students really understand what they are asked to learn?’

I know I have been guilty in the past of reading about an amazing activity, one which is engaging and hands on. One which i know would be fun for my students and which I could manage. And then thinking of how I could incorporate it into my program. For a while now though, my school has been using a backwards by design framework in all our planning. It is amazing how starting at the end, with the actual indicators or learning outcomes I need my students to reach, has helped me to crystallize my planning.

These days it is not enough for an activity or task to be engaging to make it into my program. Instead I am constantly asking myself: ‘if I use this activity’…

  • What understandings will emerge and endure from this?
  • What are the big ideas and important skills I want to develop here?
  • Do my students understand what they need to understand and learn?
  • What is point of this activity?
  • Is this particular activity minds on or just hands on?
  • How will I know if they are understanding what I want them to learn?
  • What will serve as evidence of the enduring understandings I am after?

If you have never used this approach I recommend you try the following steps when next planning a unit of work.

Ask yourself: What are the desired learning results of this unit? Then consider, what are the essential questions that will link the students to learning? As well as, what skills will they need to achieve your desired results? Now comes the formative and summative assessment ideas, what evidence do you need to show your desired results? And finally, what is the sequence of activities or learning experiences you can use that will lead to the reaching of your learning outcomes?

Backwards by design my essential tool when programming.

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2 Comments

  1. Anthony W:

    Very interesting …. Especially when contrasted with what has been oft quoted to me I.e. “Board of Studies requires us to deliver (as in like a courier delivery) so many hours of this or that”.

    I suspect this approach get much more to the learners guiding “why” – why am I asked to do this, what is the point. Illustrated again this weekend when my daughter was dutifully complying with a geog homework task to plot the endangered coral in the world and she said to me “I don’t why I need to know this and can’t see the point” but she is considered a good student because she does all these tasks and only I get to hear the complaints.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. Understanding by Design is a highly effective model for developing rich learning environments. I have been using it for a number of years.
    You may find this post about essential questions useful. http://fluency21.com/blog/2013/11/12/understanding-by-design-essential-questions/

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