Backward Design: The Right Kind of Work

Someone saw me outside of school, shortly after leading a dozen of our school faculty in developing a content-based unit of study. “You look exhausted.” I nodded in agreement, even though the most physically demanding thing I did that day was set up lunch.

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photo credit: Forward backward via photopin (license)

The concept of backward design was developed by the late Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their professional resource Understanding by Design (ASCD, 1998). If you are not familiar with their work, they propose that teachers plan units of study by first considering the end in mind.

  • Stage 1: Determine the big goal, essential questions, and enduring understandings for the unit of study.
  • Stage 2: The teacher crafts a performance task that reliably assesses whether or not each student truly understands the content and skills of focus.
  • Stage 3: The learning plan, which is too often the first step in lesson planning, comes last. It is the journey that will lead students on the path toward the ultimate destination, already determined.

Students can benefit from this type of instructional planning because it gives them better opportunities to develop mastery in a specific topic of study. In a follow up to Understanding by Design, or UbD, Jay McTighe and Carol Ann Tomlinson explain in their text the connection between backward design and differentiated instruction.

Far more students would be successful in school if we understood it to be our jobs to craft circumstances that lead to success rather than letting circumstances take its course. Even the best curriculum delivered in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion will be taken by a few and left by too many. (from Integrating Understanding by Design + Differentiated Instruction, pg. 18)

In other words, teachers are preparing instruction that will better ensure all students can experience success in school. While at first glance this may seem like light duty, planning with the end in mind is different and certainly more complex work for our faculty that attended. “I am so used to writing up my plans for the next day based on the previous lesson and how students responded to my teaching,” noted one teacher. Because UbD goes against the grain of what teachers might normally practice, it requires a higher cognitive load for educators to construct situations in which students develop deeper understanding of core content and skills.

Here are a few images from our time together earlier this week:

We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices.
We started by reviewing our shared beliefs about literacy, and aligning them with our current practices. This is an activity suggested in Regie Routman’s book Read, Write, Lead (ASCD, 2014).
Using the KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.reading.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.
Using the online KWL tool from Read, Write, Think (www.readwritethink.org), we explored what we already know about UbD and curriculum design.

(You can click here to read what we collaboratively shared and documented on our KWL.)

Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Using an example lesson unit that was not applied to the UbD framework, I demonstrated with the group how to develop a unit on plant life for 2nd grade using this framework.
Once we developed my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers, respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms.
Once we developed one stage of my unit as a team, teachers worked together to develop a unit of their own. Amy and Val, our music and art teachers respectively, discuss possible ideas for big goals in their classrooms (Stage 1). This process went back and forth to ensure success.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Renee, 1st and 5th grade teacher respectively, compare their essential questions to determine if they are open-ended and engaging.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realize they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They get together to ensure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.
Gabi and Michelle, 3rd grade teacher on the right, realized they are both designing a unit on geography and maps. They got together to make sure that they are addressing the correct social studies and writing standards, as well as calibrating the complexities of their instruction.

We avoided using technology right away, for the simple fact that getting our thoughts down on paper and pencil was the better way to develop a first draft. I believe there is a tendency to rush this work when bringing in computers right away. They become tasks to complete instead of work worth digging into with others. Computers also tend to increase isolation, as everyone is staring at a screen and not connecting face-to-face with colleagues. Not to say that the teachers didn’t use technology; several staff used the Common Core State Standards website as a reference while working. Also, once drafts were completed and peer reviewed, they wrote them up in a Google Doc to share out.

Unfortunately, I could only stay for the first day. I did bring in a local literacy consultant to guide the faculty the second day on developing Stage 3 of their units of study (the learning plan). I left everyone with an inspirational quote from McTighe’s and Danielson’s text in our work space:

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is a 17-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th grade teacher. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary principal in Wisconsin Rapids. Matt is now an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

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