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Backward Design; Forward Thinking

By Doug Buehl,
Madison East High School teacher
Member, Wisconsin State Reading Association

October 2000

Um . . . let's see . . . Roosevelt's New Deal. Uh . . . The National Recovery Administration (NRA) worked with industries to develop fair practices codes. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) did flood prevention. The Public Works Administration (PWA) built projects like power plants and dams. The CCC was the Civilian Conservation Corps and gave jobs to people to work in parks and other public works. The National Labor Relations Board helped labor unions. The Social Security Act . . .

A glimpse into the mind of a student, as she delves through the information in a history chapter, perhaps prepping for the unit test. A typical scene in our schools, enacted daily in classes from science to foreign language, math to English literature. But when the test is over, and the transition to the next unit of study has been undertaken, a lingering, nagging question invariably remains: did they get it? Did students, for example, really grasp the significance of the New Deal period of American history? Did they truly understand?

Often they don't, argue Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2000). Citing a body of evidence that verifies the persistence of misconceptions and misunderstandings, even after instruction to the contrary (see the September, 2000 Reading Room), Wiggins and McTighe conclude that students often only skim the surface of understanding as they cover the topics in the curriculum. They become conversant with some of the basic information and terminology of a topic, but may not be able to demonstrate that they truly have internalized the essence of the learning. And unfortunately, even their modest acquaintance with the topic is frequently soon forgotten.

The strategy
Wiggins and McTighe advocate the strategy of Backward Design as a means for teaching for deeper understanding of key curriculum concepts and ideas. Curriculum planning using Backward Design involves determining the unit assessments before deciding upon daily instructional activities.

Step 1: Start with a focus on the "big ideas" in a curricular unit. As you begin planning, consider what it is about this topic that makes it so important for your students to learn. What are the central and organizing ideas that you would want your students to still remember and understand years after they have left your classroom?

Big ideas are the glue of a unit; they provide the connections between and coherence for the wealth of information that often overwhelms students. A big idea could be a scientific principle (law of gravity) or theory (evolution), a concept (industrial revolution), a point of view (libertarianism), or a theme (conflict over resources as a cause of war).

In our history example above, big ideas related to a unit on the New Deal might be the concepts of "the role of government" and "a government's responsibility to its citizens" and the conflicting points of view on this role and responsibility.

Step 2: Once the central focus of the unit has been clearly articulated, formulate perhaps one or two clearly worded statements that represent what exactly you want students to understand about these big ideas. Wiggins and McTighe caution that this is a challenging but essential aspect of backward designing; as teachers we may not have clearly articulated to ourselves what we want students to realize about a topic.

These understandings are usually important concepts, generalizations, or conclusions about the material that students will be studying, and sometimes they are counter-intuitive or may directly conflict with a student's current thinking about the topic.

These big idea statements should represent what Wiggins and McTighe term "enduring understandings," ideas that students should retain over time and which have lasting value beyond the classroom. The following are examples of the enduring understandings that might form the gist of a unit of study: . Plants are sophisticated factories that produce their own food through the process of photosynthesis.

  • The physical geography and climate of a region influence the culture, economy, and lifestyle of its inhabitants.
  • Satire uses irony, exaggeration, and sarcasm to expose and ridicule practices with which the author is in disagreement.
  • People disagree over the appropriate role of a government as it carries out its responsibilities in supporting its citizens.

Step 3: The next element of a backward design is to determine how you will assess whether the students truly understood the big ideas of the unit. How can the students demonstrate or apply their understanding so that it is evident that they internalized the key ideas and have relinquished misconceptions or misunderstandings they may have brought to their learning?

Projects, debates, role playing, and other performance activities could be integrated into an end-of-unit assessment to provide meaningful feedback both to students and teacher about the depth of understanding attained during the unit.

Wiggins and McTighe caution that enduring understandings are not intended to be taught to students as facts. Instead, they represent the insight that students must all individually develop about the material as they process the information and engage in learning during the unit.

Backward Design is a strategy that turns most unit planning on its head, and emphasizes key ideas that affect the way students view their world. Advantages include:

  • Students are less likely to become so immersed in the factual detail of a unit that they miss the whole point for studying the topic.
  • Instruction focuses on global understandings and not on daily activities; daily lessons are constructed with a clear vision of what the overall "gain" from the unit is to be.
  • Assessment is designed before lesson planning, so that instruction drives students toward the essence of what they need to know.

Further Resources:
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2000)
Understanding By Design.
Alexandra, Va: ASCD.

Posted April 16, 2001

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