Backward Design Model

By Sherilyn Richardson                                                                                                                                                           

Watch the video and read the information below to understand

 more about this very effective model of curriculum design.

YouTube Video

A good explanation of Backward Design in 9 minutes.


 Basic Design

  • Start with the end goals
  • Decide on assessments
  • Plan the activities

All parts are focused on the Big Ideas

Essential Questions guide students to Understanding

When designing curriculum based on Backward Design the teacher begins at the end, those skills and understandings that students are to learn by the end of the unit, and works backward to where most teachers start; engaging class activities.  Once the end goal is clear, the planning of the assessment piece begins.  Finally, the planning moves to the activities. Focus throughout is on student understanding of the big ideas, which is accomplished through essential questions and continuous feedback.  Although Backward Design may be difficult initially simply because it is very different, the effectiveness of this design justifies its being incorporated by all educators.

A reasonable place to start when setting the end goal, or big ideas, of the unit is the state standards.  Standards shape our work and guide much of our testing (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 13).  Big ideas should be specific long-term understandings upon which future lessons can build.  Once the big ideas have been established, the focus turns to the understandings. 

When a concept is truly understood it can be explained and is transferrable, or applied to problem solving.  Students who understand a concept  see the bigger picture and can empathize or allow another’s view.  They are also aware of their own knowledge limits.  In order to facilitate such understandings, teachers must formulate essential questions.  These questions foster inquiry and encourage students to think deeply and construct meaning as they develop their understanding of big ideas.  They challenge students to make sense of new ideas and reconsider their prior knowledge.  Students are also encouraged to form questions, which may or may not be answered. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p.105).  Teaching for understanding is time consuming and difficult.  Teachers must balance understandings and facts to prepare students for state testing.  There is not always enough time to allow students to construct their knowledge, so one must occasionally fall back on guided learning.  At times a choice must be made between large group efficiency and differentiation.

The next piece of the Backward Design model is to plan the assessments.  These will show whether understanding has been met.  Assessment should be ongoing and varied.  There should be a balance of different types of assessments.  Informal checks for understanding are not graded and can be as simple as hand signals, a one-minute essay, or a concept map.  Academic prompts, such as open-ended questions that require critical thinking, encourage students to question the material (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 248).  Quizzes and tests check for content knowledge, and performance assessments are authentic tasks that require students to apply content, skills, and judgement to solve problems.  These hint at how the information will be used in the student’s future. As with all planning, flexibility must be built in to allow for adjustment when warranted by student feedback.

Finally, the designer is ready to plan the activities.  One important pitfall to avoid is the expert blind spot.  This is when an understanding has become such a part of the teacher that  the foundation of the learning is forgotten.  It is important to have empathy for the novice.  Student activities must be varied, require minds-on as well as hands-on, and focus on the big ideas.  Too often activities are disconnected and while they’re fun for the students, they have no real purpose toward the learning goals.  Vocabulary is introduced when needed to clarify experiences and ideas rather than in a list of new terms to start the unit. In Backward Design, the textbook is seen as a resource, not a syllabus.  Rather than covering the text, teachers facilitate in uncovering information.  Uncoverage reveals ideas and makes them accessible and real through experiences.  In planning activities the acronym WHERETO is used . Students know Where the unit is going (the big ideas), teachers use a Hook to spark student curiosity, they Equip and Enable students through Experiences and Explorations, students Rethink, Reflect, and Revise their understandings throughout the learning, teachers Evaluate and give feedback, lessons are Tailored to the needs, talents, interests, and abilities of the students, and lessons and activities are Organized (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 207).

In the Backward Design the teacher is designer, evaluator, researcher of own effectiveness.  They move between creative brainstorming, trying ideas, and testing emerging designs against standards all while focusing on learning rather than on teaching.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (expanded second edition). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
Countykerrymary. Backward Design EDC. (September 11, 2009).