The Power of Backward Design for teachers

May 24, 2011 at 9:28 am 2 comments

by Alec Patton

I’ve just been reading an extract from Understanding by Design,by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, which is about what they call ‘teaching for understanding’.

One of the key compononents of this is ‘backward design’, the essence of which is that

Our lessons, units, and courses should be logically inferred from the results sought, not derived from the methods, books, and activities with which we are most comfortable.

They contrast this with what they call ‘content-focused design’, a typical example of which would look like this:

The teacher might base a lesson on a particular topic (e.g., racial prejudice), select a resource (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird), choose specific instructional methods based on the resource and topic (e.g., Socratic seminar to discuss the book and cooperative groups to analyze stereotypical images in films and on television), and hope thereby to cause learning (and meet a few English/language arts standards). Finally, the teacher might think up a few essay questions and quizzes for assessing student understanding of the book.

The problem here, they point out, is that the design starts from what the students should do ( read To Kill A Mockingbird) rather than what the students should learn from having done it. Wiggins and McTighe describe this approach, in a wonderfully tactile image, as ‘Throw some content and activities against the wall and hope some of it sticks.’

Backward design, by contrast, has three stages:

  1. Identify desired results
  2. Determine acceptable evidence
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction

This really appeals to me – and I think it applies beyond education (though I haven’t entirely thought this through). For whatever reason, it’s very easy to start planning with ‘what we want to do’ rather than with ‘what we want to have achieved at the end of it’.

Backward design is one of those ideas that’s so simple it seems inconceivable that it isn’t the norm – but the familiarity of the ‘Mockingbird’ example is a clear indication that it is not.

Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dave Appleby  |  June 7, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    I’m trying to understand the difference between the two methods of teaching about racial prejudice. Both start with that as a learning aim. Both end with designing learning experiences. The difference seems to be that the first ‘identifies acceptable evidence’ as being the text and focuses on that and designs the assessment around that. I am guessing here but presumably your argument is that the backwards design method would have the assessment as the ‘identifies acceptable evidence’ bit and the text later.

    Are you advocating designing learning experiences around assessment?

  • 2. alecpatton  |  June 8, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Dave, I think we’re working from rather different definitions of ‘learning aim’. I wouldn’t describe ‘teaching about racial prejudice’ as a learning aim, I’d describe it as a content area.

    Learning aims, in the sense that I mean, might be things like ‘students are able to discuss the interplay between racial prejudice and social class’, or ‘students can describe the tension between differing approaches to tackling segregation in the American south in the 1940s and 1950s.’

    The point is that backward design focuses on the question ‘what should students take away from this?’ I don’t think ‘teaching about racial prejudice’ answers this question.

    Incidentally, I made up those ‘learning aims’ on the fly, so while I’m presenting them as examples, I’m not necessarily presenting them as good examples!

    Thanks for your question – you’ve forced me to think this through more thoroughly than I had thus far.


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