Backward Design

Backward Design

Backward design is a simple way of organizing a unit, a course, or an entire year. It creates focus, cutting the repetition and fat that happens as teachers grope forward in the school year. So obvious is it, that most people cannot believe they groped through the dark forest for so long. It will save you a lot of time and sorrow.

In short, your design your unit from the end. Once you know what they should leave the unit knowing or being able to do, you simply determine what lessons lead to that end. It is like planning a trip: once you know where you are going, you will know what to pack, how much money you will need, and what tickets to buy. As you, the teacher, have already been to the destination, you are in the position to share with students that information. These are your lessons in the unit.

Basic steps:

1. Identifity the skills you want students to have at the end of a unit or course. This is your destination. So, for example, writing a paragraph with a lead, evidence, analysis and final might be your goal.

2. Determine how you will know students have arrived. Using our example, students might write a paragraph independently. You must have a clear, concrete example in mind of what the finished product looks like. Before you start your journey, a good rubric and touchstone piece will serve as a good marker. When they finally arrive at the end of the unit, your grade is like stamping their passport.

3. List those skills students will need to learn in order to get to that destination. Writing a lead sentence is a skill many students struggle with. What else (i.e., evidence, analysis and final sentences)? Ask yourself if everything on that list really needs to be there (do not overwhelm yourself by trying to do too much). For example, packing a warm sweater and buying plane tickets are important; what brand of toothpaste is less so. These are your directions (turn left, go five miles…).

4. That list is what you teach (follow the map). So, a lesson how to write a lead sentence, a lesson on evidence, a lesson on analysis, and a lesson on a final sentence is your unit. Four classes. Of course, your lesson on evidence might be several lessons: what constitutes evidence, what is good evidence, how to cite evidence, etc. Your class determines the roadmap and how long the trip is.

Really, that list is the sum of all of your lessons for that unit. If you are teaching anything that is not on that list, ask yourself why; that’s just sightseeing, and while fun it is a waste of time and gas and can distract the class from what they need to be doing. By having a concrete final product, and creating a rubric and sample, your list should be fairly tight.

Anyone who has studied backward design or read a book knows there is a bit more to it than this, but that is the gist. If you want to know more (suggested!) look at this Wikipedia entry (it has more emphasis on the beginning of the process, which I do not deny) and buy Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.

So, why is this not how many teachers plan their units? First, we all go into teaching believing we know what to do. From the seats, it seems so obvious. We also teach as we were taught, so we can rattle off plenty of lessons in our chosen field. But, let’s face facts: Teaching is tough. After a few disruptions, a fire drill, a few kids missing for lessons, an administrator dumping many more action items and skills on your lap that clear month to teach paragraphs is suddenly a minefield of distractions. Once you are overwhelmed, it becomes difficult to regroup. Instead, you play catch-up. And every year you think this is the year you’ll be on top of everything.

You need your road map.

Here are some examples of why things go ary:

* The question: why do we need to know this? If you cannot tell a student in a very concrete way why, in five years, they will need that skill than you need to wonder why is it being taught? That reason–the enduring understanding–is the focus on the lesson. In five years, that student should still be able to write a paragraph because clear communication supported by solid evidence is important regardless of what they do in life. Poetry teaches analysis skills while writing about it demonstrates logic.

* Lessons should not be islands. In thinking about what they are going to teach tomorrow we often forget about the overall goal of a course. So, students might learn to write a lead sentence, but there is not context and the next lesson might not even be related to a paragraph.

* Teachers have a hard time imaging the end product in a concrete way. Determining, with a rubric, exactly what “success looks like” should be a natural, but its really hard. As the targets set by schools change, what was once clear is now fuzzy. Once you do it, though, your entire unit falls seamlessly into place.

* Often, we try and do too much. So, while grammar is really important in teaching writing, is this the time for it? If, in the middle of struggling with evidence and analysis, you start talking about verb tenses you are veering way off course. Valuable? Yes. After they can write a paragraph, the next unit might be grammar and you can clean that solid paragraph up and make it sing.

In the end, backward design is about being efficient. You have only so many days, and so much to teach. You should not be taking on more than your share, and you should not be be wasting your students’ time. Once you determine the destination and make it concrete, weeks of lessons will fall into place. Your students will respond in kind.


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