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Understanding Backward Design for More Effective Lesson Planning

    understanding backward design

    Do you ever get to the end of a unit and, despite endless hours planning lessons and activities, you’re left wondering if your students truly learned what you wanted them to? Or you feel a wave of defeat when grading student assessments at the end of a unit. Where did I go wrong? We ask ourselves. (Don’t feel bad—we’ve all been there.)

    Want to know the secret to planning more effective lessons? Starting at the end.

    Thinking about your lessons backward can actually help move student learning forward. It’s called backward design, and it’s guiding educators everywhere toward creating more effective lesson plans, and students achieve higher success.

    Read on to learn what backward design is and how to use this backward approach to plan more effective lessons in your classroom.

    Traditional Lesson Planning Vs. Backward Design

    Traditional lesson planning starts with choosing a topic (and often a book title) to teach. From there, the teacher plans out a series of lessons and activities to teach student content that falls under the umbrella of the chosen topic. Lastly, the teacher creates an assessment to measure student learning throughout the unit.

    In this traditional approach, teachers create assessments at the end of the unit. Often these assessments are rooted in the knowledge and skills we hoped our students gathered over the lessons. There has to be some way to hold students accountable, right? What if I told you there was a better way? (Spoiler alert: there is!)

    What if lesson planning was rooted in specific learning goals and skills rather than general topics? And what if assessments were designed before the daily lessons and activities? That, my friend, is what backward design is all about.

    What is Backward Design?

    Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe first introduced the backward design approach to lesson planning in their book Understanding by Design, first published in 1998. While you could spend endless hours digging into their pedagogy and rationale, you don’t need to read the entire book to reap the benefits of this approach.

    Instead, you need to understand that the key to effective lesson planning is starting with the end goal in mind. Then, you work backward to plan each lesson and activity. The result? Goal-oriented lessons that set students up for success on a skill-based assessment.

    Why Use Backward Design for Lesson Planning?

    The backward design approach puts a stop to guess-and-go lesson planning. Instead, you think of the end goals and assessments first. Then, you plan every lesson and activity to build up to that goal. Instead of *hoping* it all comes together for your students, in the end, you strategically design the unit to ensure it does.

    Regardless, the key to teaching valuable and effective lessons that actually teach your students is moving beyond planning one lesson at a time, piecemealing a unit together as you go. With backward design, every lesson and activity is part of a bigger learning journey. Students are inching closer to their overall learning goals for said unit each day.

    In the end, backward design benefits teachers and students.

    Understanding the Benefits for Teachers

    • Leads to more effective and intentional planning: Backward design innately leads teachers toward more intentional lesson planning since they already have the end goal in mind. Therefore, there is no need to waste time on “random” lessons and activities. Sure, there’s always a new activity we could try or a way to revamp an old lesson. However, those additions don’t necessarily correlate to student success. With backward design, teachers choose the most effective material to meet the unit’s learning goals.
    • Keeps teachers focused: The backward design approach to lesson planning keeps teachers focused on student learning and outcomes. With the goal-oriented nature of backward design, teachers can stay focused on the aspects of instruction that truly matter in helping move the needle forward for student success. Having clear goals from the beginning of a unit gives teachers a clear sense of structure, direction, and purpose as they plan each lesson and activity.
    • Allows for differentiation: Differentiating lessons can feel like quite the challenge. How do you ensure fairness and equity across a wide range of student needs? Backward design helps alleviate the headache usually caused by the difficulty of differentiation. Since this approach is rooted in student-centered learning goals, you can more easily differentiate the activities and, ultimately, assessments to meet students’ needs. However, by keeping the learning goal in mind, you can ensure students are working toward similar goals, regardless of the journey they take to get there.

    Understanding the Benefits for Students

    • Inspires purpose-driven learning and clear outcomes: Since each lesson is tied to a previously established goal, students are better able to stay focused and on track toward success. Students know what they are being held accountable for learning from the beginning. Therefore, they can develop, practice, and improve their skills with each lesson. Additionally, they will better recognize the interconnectedness of new and existing knowledge. By the time they get to the assessment, there should be few surprises, only a chance to show their level of mastery.
    • Promotes success all around: thanks to backward design’s goal-oriented approach, students are better set up for success when it comes to performing on an assessment. After all, each lesson is designed with the specified learning goals and ending assessment in mind. Because of this, teachers are more likely to feel a sense of success and effectiveness as well.

    Understanding How to Use Backward Design in Your Lesson Planning

    Now that you know all about the benefits of backward design, I’m sure you’re eager to start implementing it in your classroom, right? Don’t worry! I’ll teach you all you need to know to get started.

    Backward design consists of three main stages:

    1. Start by identifying a clear and measurable learning goal.
    2. Next, determine the appropriate assessment to showcase evidence of learning.
    3. Finally, develop a sequence of lessons and activities.

    Remember, the backward design approach emphasizes planning for student learning over the more traditional teaching-centered approach. If you’re used to the more traditional approach, this shift can feel a bit… backward—at least at first. Let’s dive into each stage in a bit more detail to help you get comfortable!

    Backward Design Step 1.  Start by Identifying Student Learning Goals

     The first step of backward design is all about identifying the desired results. (Remember, these results should be student-centered!) Start by setting clear, measurable learning goals. When doing so, it helps to ask yourself the following questions:

    • What are the “big ideas” and essential questions of this unit?
    • What required standards or competencies can you cover in this unit?
    • What do you want students to know by the end of this unit?
    • What do you want students to be able to do by the end of this unit?
    • How long do my students have to achieve these goals?

    As you work on clarifying the student-centered learning goals, remember they should be specific and measurable:

    • What is it that your students will be able to do?
    • How will you measure their success?
    • What will constitute mastery of accomplishing this goal?

    This first step is crucial to developing the rest of your unit plan. Once you establish the student-focused learning goals, you’ll be better able to create an assessment and coordinating lessons. The result? A solid foundation for a purpose-driven unit and, ultimately, student success.

    Backward Design Step 2. Design the Assessment(s)

    The next step is all about the evidence of student learning. Determine how you want to assess  the student’s learning goals. Instead of assigning another essay simply because “that’s what we do in ELA,” ask yourself, how will you determine if students have met the learning goal? What is the most effective way to measure authentic student learning? Your answers to those questions will become the backbone of your summative assessment.

    In Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe identify various indicators of understanding that you can use as the basis of your assessments:

    • Explaining
    • Interpreting
    • Applying
    • Shifting perspective
    • Empathizing
    • Self-assessing

    These indicators can help guide you toward planning both formative and end-of-unit summative assessments.

    Backward Design Step 3.  Plan a Sequence of Lessons

    Last but not least, it’s lesson planning time! Develop a sequence of lessons and activities that help students develop and practice the skills needed to achieve the learning goal. This step is all about setting students up for success on the end-of-unit assessment. So, if a lesson or assignment doesn’t fit the mold, chances are it’s not needed.

    Now, before you go crazy planning all new lessons, I suggest taking inventory of the activities and lessons you already have mapped out. Chances are, you can find a place for many of them in your new instructional plan. However, now you’ll feel more confident in a clear connection between the lesson and the overall learning objective. Some lessons might need a slight tweak here or there and others might be best to leave out altogether. Remember, just let your learning goal and pre-planned assessment be your guide.

    There you have it! The secret to effective lesson planning and purpose-driven learning. I hope this post helped answer your questions about the backward design approach and inspires you to give it a go in your classroom.

    If you have any additional questions or want to share your experiences with this approach, leave a comment below! I’d love to hear from you.

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