The Fundamentals of Backward Planning - ASCD
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September 1, 2019

The Fundamentals of Backward Planning

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Instructional Strategies

Given the multitude of daily challenges they face, it's easy for new teachers to fall into poor unit- or lesson-planning habits. These often include racing for maximum textbook coverage, setting up a series of haphazard activities, focusing on multiple-choice "test prep," or failing to help students apply or contextualize their learning. One prominent method to help educators avoid these traps is "backward design"—essentially curriculum planning that begins with establishing clear learning goals (with a focus on in-depth understanding) and then works backward to determine how to get students there. As outlined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in the education classic Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005), backward design—also known as "backward planning"—is made up of a three-stage planning sequence:

1. Identify Desired Learning Results

Establish learning goals for the unit, drawing from content standards and curriculum expectations. To prioritize the learning you'll want to cover (or target), consider:



Guiding Concept: A unit should be framed around "enduring understandings" and related essential questions.

2. Determine Acceptable Evidence

Prior to designing lessons and instruction, determine how you'll know if students have achieved your desired learning results. Consider a range of assessment approaches to document learning, including:

  • Basic assessments (quizzes, tests, and skill checks) to measure factual knowledge and discrete skills.

  • Open-ended academic prompts requiring critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis.

  • Performance tasks and projects designed to demonstrate understanding and application of knowledge/skills in authentic contexts.

Guiding Concept: While a unit should be anchored by a performance task or project, assessment evidence should be gathered over time rather than viewed as a one-time, culminating event.

3. Plan Learning Experiences and Instruction

Based on the desired learning results and evidence of learning you've identified, plan instructional activities and teaching strategies. In planning instruction, consider:

  • What instruction and learning activities (e.g., direct instruction, guided practice, discussion, cooperative learning) will help students acquire targeted knowledge and skills, make meaning of "big ideas," and be able to transfer their learning?

  • How will you use assessments to provide ongoing feedback to students?

  • What materials and resources (beyond the textbook) might best support the learning goals?

Guiding Concept: Ensure that the overall instructional design for the unit is coherent and oriented around the "enduring understandings" and transfer. As you plan, always keep the end in mind!

For more information, see Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design, expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Jay McTighe contributed updated material, based on more recent writings, to this piece.

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