How to Plan Using Backward Design, A Comprehensive Guide


It’s Tuesday night, almost dinnertime. Here is a common planning process:

Next Saturday a few couples are coming over for dinner. Let’s listen in on the preparation:

This is a simple example of the difference between forward and backward planning. Forward planning is short-term and fixes the immediate issue, whereas backwards design starts with the end goals in mind.

What is it?

Backwards design is a specific process of creating units and lesson plans. The methodology entails starting with the overall learning objectives. This is followed by formulating a final assessment that encompasses all of the learning objectives. Finally, each lesson in the unit is planned to address at least one of the culminating objectives.

Another term often used for this process is Understanding By Design, a book written by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. They lay out the justification and framework for backward planning.

In the normal course of lesson planning most teachers plan “forward” by choosing specific content, learning standard or activity they want to accomplish and craft their lesson to fulfill that criteria.

Materials Needed

My dad, a carpenter, always used to say that any job was easy if you had the right tools. When sitting down to chart out your unit plan and a map of your lessons it’s useful to have a few tools of the trade handy.

  • Common Core and/or state standards
  • Curriculum map of the course you’re teaching
  • A Depth of Knowledge (DOK) Chart
  • Paper
  • Pens (I like more than one color)
  • A space to spread out

You don’t HAVE to have these supplies, but it makes the job go smoother. There are three steps to achieving a successful backward design.

Step 1 – Identify the Desired Results

Brainstorm the overall objectives that you as a teacher want to achieve during the unit. This will include both content and skills. Objectives are specific goals you aim to reach with the students. Here are the questions to ask yourself:

What overriding takeaways do you want the kids to remember ten years from now?

Which skills do you aim to develop and improve upon throughout the unit?

What should students understand and be able to do?

I’m a social studies teacher, so my examples reflect that content — sorry math and science teachers! The process is exactly the same, just the skills and content change.

Jot down very informally what content the kids really need to absorb. Next consider what skills they need improvement on that might work with the content.

For the sake of this article I will use two examples as exemplars for each stage of the planning, the Scientific Revolution & Enlightenment and U.S. Foreign Policy in the 21st Century.

Here is the “plain speak” for what I want kids to take away from the Scientific Revolution/Enlightenment Unit: New ideas and discoveries took place that changed the world during the time period, the big “names” of the time period, increased analytical skills when studying documents and improved essay-writing, specifically when using documents as evidence. That translates into the following desired results:

This is what the objectives will look like in a unit plan

The foreign policy unit is shorter and is part of an elective course, so my goals differ. I want them to have a concrete understanding of what foreign policy is and the motivations thereof. I also want to flex their organizational muscles, because their notebooks and ability to hang on to handouts without losing them is awful! Finally, I’d like them to take a stab at writing a formal speech.

This is a shorter unit with fewer desired results

There is no prescribed minimum or maximum desired results for any unit. Just be aware that you will need to infuse each and every one of them into various lessons throughout the unit. So if you only have a week to run through World War I don’t attempt to include too many skills; you’re setting yourself and the students up for failure.

Step 2 – Create an Assessment

Now that you’ve given deep consideration to exactly what it is that you want students to get from your unit it’s time to formulate an assessment that utilizes, hopefully all, of the desired results. This can be tough the first couple of times.

Thinking about the assessments for a unit is key to backward design. It is from here that your lessons and activities will be born. Traditional assessments were often an exam that included multiple-choice questions and matching (read easy to grade!). It could be an essay or short response questions.

Do these assessments measure your students skills and content knowledge or just recall and reading comprehension? Multiple choice and short response questions are good formative assessments, but something bigger is called for as the main summative assessment if you want to measure your targeted goals.

In my school we call them performance tasks. And we are grilled on where in the task each and every targeted skill is located. Hopefully you’re not under the gun like that, but the basic concept is a good one.

Let’s go back to the two units. For the Scientific Revolution unit students needed to analyze documents and figure out the point of view. They also are supposed to improve their essay writing skills, and form conclusions based on research. Hmmm, that’s a lot.

So students ARE going to write an essay for their performance task, but they are going to first research and choose the documents that the essay is based upon. See how this takes a basic essay and embeds a plethora of extended competencies to accomplish? Here is what it looks like:

The performance task for the U.S. foreign policy unit is quite different. Again, this is an elective, so I wanted to have some fun with it while still challenging the students. The gist of it is: The White House is throwing an international party. The class was in charge of planning the party, deciding who to invite and why, what food to serve and why, what music to play, etc. They also had to write a welcome speech that the president would give at the beginning of the festivities.

Your mission for Part 2 is to look over your notes about the targeted content and skills and craft an assessment that encompasses each goal.

Part 3 – Plan the Instruction

Once you have the assessment task created planning lessons is easy. You need to scaffold, step-by-step the skills and content knowledge needed to complete the final assessment. There will be many mini-assessments, aka formative assessments, along the way to measure student readiness for the final task. Do-now tasks, exit tickets, quick multiple-choice quizzes along the way will tell you how the kids are doing.

Here is a hack I use to plan my lessons based on the desired results and final assessment. I fill in a simple chart when planning out the unit and use that to drive my lessons.

If you notice what’s on this chart it’s the skills and content brainstormed earlier in Step 1. Organized with the three columns it’s super easy to plan out your lessons:

Day 1 : 5, A, II — Students will read 2 documents, one about humanism and another from the Catholic church (that’s 5 in first column). They will determine a cause (A in second column) of the Scientific Revolution based on the documents in their exit (II in the third column).

Day 2: 4, B and C, I and VII – Students will study unlabeled charts (4 in first column) of heliocentric and geocentric worlds (B in second column), identify the differences and create a conclusion as the how our understanding of the world changed as a do-now (I in third column). They will read about various scientists (C in second column) and complete a graphic organizer (VI in third column) .

Does this make any sense to you? In my head this is clear and easy. Everybody’s brain works so differently this may be AWFUL for you. By creating 3 columns of goals I simply choose at least one from each for any given lesson. I put a check mark next to each as I use them. That way I can see at a glance if everything is checked off in the first two columns. If so all of the targets have been covered throughout the unit.

If you want to download a blank version of the chart to try it click here.

The last part of your backward unit design entails planning your lessons and activities, being sure to include all the content and skills needed to successfully complete the formal assessment you created.

Let’s Be Real

Do I ever find myself under the gun for any myriad of reasons, behind on my lessons for the week and simply do my best with what’s available? Of course. We’re teachers, trying to hit curve balls on a daily basis. Being able to improvise is part of the job.

That said, backward planning is something I have been doing before I ever heard about Understanding By Design. It creates a concrete, clear picture of what road to take when you have a destination in mind.

You don’t have to sit down for hours and do all three steps at the same time. But you should do them in the order dictated. And it is easier to create the final assessment as soon as the goals are made. It’s fresh in your head and the task will probably flow more easily.

If you haven’t tried backward design give it a whirl. I can’t imagine you will not find the process useful and increase the cohesiveness of your lesson plans. If you hate it, at least you’ll be able to say you tried, like sardines.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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