Education Opinion

Life... in Backward Design

By Jessica Shyu — October 09, 2007 4 min read
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I used to think I was pretty normal. Now I’m beginning to wonder if I, too, am an eduholic.

I guess the first tip-off was earlier this summer when I started talking about backward design. I mean really talking about backward design.

Like most teacher prep programs around the country, Teach For America’s teachers are taught to use backward design in their planning. I had first learned about backward design, aka UbD in reference to “Understanding by Design” by Wiggins and McTighe, back when I was a first year teacher. I used it to design my unit plans, but it wasn’t until earlier this summer when I was preparing to train our first-year teachers that I really sat down and understood the truth behind backward design. It wasn’t until then that I saw the light.

For those unfamiliar with the magic of backward design, it is actually not magic at all. It is the principle that Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe articulated and popularized in their book that effective planning starts with the end in mind. (For fellow BD aficionados, the following four paragraphs are on the how-to of backward design.)

How to backwards design
What does backward design look like when planning at a course, unit or lesson level? Before even starting to brainstorm those really fun lessons on longitude and latitude, teachers need to first truly understand the learning goals and enduring understandings they’re striving toward. What does standard 9.2A really mean, after all? What enduring understandings should the students be really understanding by learning about longitude and latitude? What’s the point of learning this?

After that, they need to determine what it will look like when students demonstrate mastery of those learning goals. Will they be able to locate places on a map using coordinates and lines of longitude and latitude? Will they be able to explain the purpose of the imaginary lines? Will they take a paper-pencil test? Will they design their own maps?

Only after two first two steps do backward designers begin planning. What will you need to teach to get your kids to be able to find locations on a map using lines of longitude and latitude? Do they need to first define the terms and identify the lines on a map? How will you teach it?

When working with our new teachers, we kept these three steps of BD on the board:

Step 1) Identify Desired Results: Where are we going? What must students know and be able to do at the end of the year/unit/lesson?
Step 2) Determine Acceptable Evidence: How will we know that we have gotten there?
What assessments will show us that students have achieved our goals?
Step 3) Plan for Instruction: How will we get there? Exactly what must I teach and when, in order to lead my students to achieve our goals?

Pitfalls of not BD’ing
At first blush, this may seem backward (ha ha.) If you’re trying to plan your unit, doesn’t it make sense to think about how you’re gong to teach it and what activities you’ll use, and make the assessment last? Well, yes. It does make sense. We’ve all done it. But by making the assessment last or by not starting with your standards and enduring understandings, teachers run the dire (and all-too-common) risk of misaligning lessons to the standards, designing tests at a lower level than the standards call for, or not having an assessment that gives you clear evidence of whether your students actually mastered the content.

So that takes me back to where I started. My eduholism. As I work with my teachers on improving their course goals, assessments and plans, my work life revolves around backward design. In a naturally eduholic way, my personal life has taken a turn for BD as well.

Recently, I found myself telling a Friend to use backward design when finding a boyfriend: First, you need to really understand what you want and what your priorities are. Next, if your priority is “nice” and “cute”, you need to imagine what “nice” and “cute” would look like when you meet someone. What are some examples of what Potential Boyfriend may do to demonstrate his “niceness” and “cuteness”? Third, start planning for it. If one way Potential Boyfriend could demonstrate “niceness” is by volunteering, then you should start spending your Saturdays around the local animal shelter.

I don’t buy $100 shoes, but I’m not particularly budget-savvy either. A month ago, I found myself planning backward to save for the upcoming year. I decided on my goal ($5,000). I figured out how I would “assess” it (I would have $5,000 more in my savings account)). Then I worked backwards from September 2008 to September 2007 to scratch together a long term plan for how much I would need to save monthly in order to reach my goal. (It was a good plan. And then I bought a computer. Maybe I’ll write another entry on adjusting our long-term plans to deal with unforeseen changes.)

Public Policy
Back in August, I was on a plane reading The Economist when I got so giddy by an article on a California city that I yelped a little, marked the page and pulled out a Post-It to jot down a note: “Cerritos, CA uses BACKWARD DESIGN!!!”

The piece highlights Cerritos’ “superb management and geographical good fortune” and described how the the small suburb built beautiful libraries, performing arts centers and parks all while maintaining fiscal success. What I read was that the city managers knew what they wanted from the start (financial stability), they knew what it would look like to get there (lure businesses and investors to set up shop in the city) and had a long term plan on how to get there, which was directly aligned to their goals (first establish pipelines and roads, then business parks, policing and schools.)

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.