Backwards Design seems to be everywhere now. But what does it mean? It’s becoming clear it is not a philosophy of teaching nor an approach to teaching – it is a planning framework. Read on to find out more and what it means for us as teachers, and our teaching.
I can’t believe that it’s the end of 2021 and we are still living and talking about Covid-19! It does seem, however, that we might be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. Education in general and ELT specifically have been talking about the future post-pandemic and a potential reinvention of how we do (language) education. (I listen to everything but must confess I’m a bit sceptical!) One of the topics of such conversations is around course and school (re)development and I have been hearing a lot about Backwards Design. So, I decided it was the time to blog about it to help you reflect on what you want to do in the year ahead, and in case you join one of these conversations.
Understanding Backwards Design
In its origins, Backwards Design is a framework for planning curriculum, instruction, and assessment with two key ideas:
- a focus on teaching and assessing for understanding and transfer
- a design curriculum 'backward' from those ends.
Those who follow the Backwards Design model claim that its use is likely to result in more clearly defined goals, more appropriate assessments, and more tightly aligned lessons, and more purposeful teaching.
The origins of Backwards Design
Back in the late 1930s, a professor of education in the US, Ralph Tyler, became prominent through his work around progressive education. Tyler’s reputation as an education expert grew with the publication of Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction in 1949, which had a huge impact on education, and could be considered an early description of the Backward Design approach, though it was called Curriculum Development back then. Within his publication, Tyler placed a lot of value in linking objectives to experience (instruction) and evaluation (behavioural objectives) and presented the concept that curriculum should be dynamic, a program under constant evaluation and revision. He argued that the following four questions must be answered in developing any curriculum plan of instruction:
- What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?
- What educational experiences can be provided that will likely attain these purposes?
- How can these educational experiences be effectively organised?
- How can we determine whether the purposes are being attained?
which ultimately got reformulated into a four-step process: stating objectives, selecting learning experiences, organising learning experiences, and evaluating the curriculum. This was a departure from how curriculum had been viewed – as being a static, set program, preoccupied with student testing – and offered the innovative idea that teachers and administrators should spend as much time evaluating their plans as they do assessing their students.
As a result, Tyler is often thought to be the grandfather of curriculum design. He was heavily influenced by Edward Thorndike, John Dewey, and the Progressive Education movement of the 1920s. But unlike Thorndike, who turned curriculum inquiry away from the relative values of different subjects to empirical studies of contemporary life, and Dewey, who promoted the idea of incorporating student interests when designing learning objectives and activities, Tyler targeted the student’s emotions, feelings and beliefs as well as their intellect.
More recently, researchers who advocate for education based on results, such as William Spady (1994), recommended that ‘design curriculum back from where you want your students to end up’. This in turn proved a springboard for Wiggins and McTighe in 2001 who were aiming to find a model that ensures that students learned more effectively. After drawing on the findings of Bloom’s taxonomy, they proposed a model called Backwards Design in their book, Understanding by Design (1st edition, Pearson Education (US)). The model is also known by others as Backward Planning or Backward Mapping, and describes a process that educators use to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to achieve specific learning goals.
The three stages of Backward Design – a practical view
According to the authors, the planning of school curricula needs to have three fundamental stages:
- Identify the desired results – the search for priorities and Enduring Understandings (concatenated systems of knowledge that we want students to acquire, understand, know how to use and take with them in their lives, in addition to formulating questions, the Essential Questions, triggering the students' reflective process towards the acquisition of Understandings.
- Determine acceptable evidence – data that will be collected over a given course of time to inform whether students acquired understandings.
- Plan learning and instructional experiences – based on the two previous steps, the planning of practices and dynamics to be used will seek to create the conditions for students to be able to produce the evidence, demonstrating that they have achieved the main desired results.
Another important point in Backward Design is the need to formulate an Essential Question about the theme to be discussed (Wiggins & McTighe, 2001). In other words, when you plan in reverse, you need to start with your end goal (or Essential Question), then work your way backwards from there to develop a plan. For instance, if you have a weekly teaching plan to write, rather than focusing on the initial steps in the plan, you would start by looking at the when you need to have the plan ready for and identifying the main thing(s) you want your students to learn or be able to do at the end of the week, then look at the last action you would need to take to achieve this, then the second to last and so on. Putting it another way, the Essential Questions set the tone, guide the work and, as a result in the search for answers, learners discover a classroom atmosphere that is much more centred on students and based on inquiry.
Backwards design and leadership
Inspired by the success of Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe changed the focus from the classroom to the school and leaders and wrote Schooling by Design: Mission, Action, and Achievement (ASCD, 2007). The book recycles some of the same concepts from Understanding by Design such as its three stages: identify desired results; determined acceptable evidence; and planned learning. It also proposes that those concepts can be used by school leaders. For them, change (or school reform as they put it) requires three basic principles:
- ‘Plan backward from mission and programme goals by carefully analysing what mission demands.
- Come front and close the gaps between the vision and reality.
- Set in place from the start a plan to adjust the plan.’
The WHERETO model
Another important concept form Wiggins and McTighe is the WHERETO model. Although it was originally designed with students and assessment in mind, it can also be used with staff and teacher training whether you are implementing a new programme or curricula for the school, as is important for both the learners and your staff to know where they are heading, why they are going there, what it is that they already know, where they may go wrong and what the project requires from them.
- W – Where and why
- H – Hook and hold
- E – Explore, experience, enable and equip
- R – Reflect, rethink, revise
- E – Evaluate work and progress
- T – Tailor and personalise the work
- O – Organise for optimal effectiveness.
The idea behind the WHERETO model is to ground the lesson with effective teaching and learning practices. In short, learning activities for each lesson. For instance, when planning a lesson (or training session) first consider the ‘W’ stage of the model from the learners’ perspective – Are they clear about the goals and expectations of the session: Where are we going? Why? What is expected? What is worth them being familiar with, what is important for them to know and what needs enduring understanding? You can do this by presenting the learning outcomes/goals early on in the session and include clear rubrics, exemplars, mentor text and models, etc. Try posting and discussing essential questions; inviting learners to generate their own questions and asking them to identify personal goals. Give diagnostic skills tests or pre-tests. Consider using the KWL Method (Know; Want-to-know; and Learned) as pre-assessment, and don’t forget to check for misconceptions.
Then move on to the ‘H’ stage – How will can you draw students in and motivate them? Use odd facts or examples and/or provocative entry or ‘hook’ questions. Create a role-play or simulation to challenge your learners. Consider incorporating some form of technology to form connections to 21st century ideas or present your learners with a mystery, problem or challenge, ideally one that can’t be solved until (nearly) the end of the session.
After that consider the first ‘E’ stage – How will we equip students for expected performances? This stage is all about instructional strategies so consider strategies that work well with a variety of learners, that are inclusive and diverse and tie in with their preferred ways of learning. Use literacy strategies where you can as they can become powerful ways to equip students for learning, and use research-based instructional best practices (e.g., identifying similarities and differences; summarising and note taking, using comparison matrix, etc) to drive data-based teaching (your understanding and experience of your students’ learning).
Then in the ‘R’ stage – How will we rethink or revise? Reflection and revision are key elements to building understanding. When students are taught to revise (literally, re-envision their work), they develop flexibility and critical thinking. There are three elements to consider: Rethinking (in relation to big ideas or important concepts), Revising or Refining (skills, products, and performances); and Reflecting (building metacognitive skills for students).
Following that, move on to the second ‘E’ stage – How will students self-evaluate and reflect their learning? There are many ways to build in opportunities for ongoing evaluation, particularly self-evaluation – you could incorporate learner self-assessment using a set of instructions or checklists, use controlled practice or guided activities and/or ones that practice the taught language or concept in context, and so on.
Then in the ‘T’ stage – How will we tailor learning to varied needs, interests, and preferred ways of learning? Differentiation is extremely important as I know you know already, so this stage serves the purpose of reminding us of that. Just remember that you can differentiate how learning happens (processes), with what you use to teach (visual/written/oral products, etc.) and the content itself (e.g. resources specific to your learners’ CEFR level, or at their different reading levels, based upon pre-assessment data).
And finally in the ‘O’ stage – How will we organise the sequence of learning? Think about what material and activities you are going to use when, for how long and how (e.g. group work, pair work, etc) during the session.
Creating a rough write-up for each problem-based lesson/teacher training session/school meeting before developing it will serve as a great blueprint, though note that the acronym does not necessarily represent the order the stages need to be followed – it’s just advisory. The point is any format that allows articulation of these elements is a 'good' one. ‘To use an analogy with storytelling, a story needs a plot, characters, and a setting. Those are story elements, just as WHERETO summarises the design elements. But how should those elements be fashioned into the most engaging and effective whole? There are many possible beginnings, middles, and ends. Just as a storyteller might begin with fragments of dialogue or a description of a character and work toward a plot (or vice versa), design work, too, can emerge over time, following many different paths and sequences’ (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005:198). Put simply, if you use this set of questions as a basis when planning a lesson or a course, or even school curricula you can ensure the lesson, course or curricula is effective and is received well by whoever is at the receiving end.
What do you think about Backwards Design for classes, for curriculum planning and even for leadership? Do you already use it? Do you think it is something you would like to try in your school next year? We would love to know your answers so please share your thought in the comments below.
Spady, W.G. (1994). ‘Choosing outcomes of significance’. Educational Leadership, 51, 6:18–22.
Tyler, R.W. (1949). ‘Trends in professional education’. The American Journal of Nursing, 50–56.
Tyler, R.W. (1949, revised 2013). Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, 9th Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd Edition). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2001). Understanding by Design (1st Edition). New York: Pearson Education (US).
Wiggins, G.P., & McTighe, J. (2007). Schooling by Design: Mission, action, and achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).