I’m Not Sure What To Think About Backward Design

What To Think About Backward Design?

by Terry Heick

Grant Wiggins’ influence on my thinking in education is considerable.

I discovered his work with Jay McTighe on Understanding by Design my second year of teaching–and it wasn’t just ‘useful’ but a complete shift in how I taught. Had I found UbD my first year, I’m not sure it would’ve had the same effect. Not only was it borderline overwhelming to use but the need hadn’t been clarified for me.

I didn’t yet understand how evasive authentic understanding was.

By my second year, I did. I could cover content and create complex assessments and differentiate all I wanted. The end result was that some students ‘got it’ and some did not and it was almost entirely predictable who those students on both sides would be. It seemed like basic literacy skills separated students more than every other ‘factor’ for ‘school success’ combined.

While that’s a worthwhile topic to explore for another time (though I did explore it some in 6 Factors of Academic Performance). The gist of this post is to think out loud a little bit about backward design as a concept and process. This won’t be a deep dive if for no other reason than I’m not sure what I think and so don’t have a firm mind about it either way.

But something about it is bothering me.

A quick preface: This isn’t about UbD’s sequence and framework for backward-design specifically. Obviously, Grant and Jay didn’t invent the concept but rather refined and framed it for the context of education. The concept of ‘beginning with the end in mind’ makes sense and is, depending on your goals, entirely practical and even very basic logic.

It basically means to ‘know where you’re going’ and encourages you to plan for that destination not by anticipating but visualizing the end and moving backward in sequence. It’s a subtle shift that can make a big difference.

If you want students to improve the sentence structure, you might plan an activity for a lesson, then a quiz after to measure how they did. In a backward planning model, you’d begin with exactly what you want students to be able to do at the end of the lesson so that you:

1. Are clear in your terms for ‘success’ (for the student–i.e., mastery, etc.)

2. Must clarify exactly what the student will have to understand (knowledge) and be able to do (skills/competency) to achieve that end

3. Create an assessment from these two above items and plan lessons ‘backward’ (often in gradually increasing complexity or some other method of hierarchy)

This is all difficult to fault. And as a planning sequence in outcomes-based education, I have no issues with it. In fact, I’d consider this process at least some kind of standard for planning and pedagogy. That it is also very simple and straightforward makes it even more useful in teaching and learning where so many programs and initiatives become hopelessly convoluted and complex.

The issue I have has to do with its effect.

In large part, my ‘criticism’ here rests on the concept of personalization. While backward-planning allows for differentiation and personalization of content, process, pace, etc., based on data, it’s not really designed for that. It doesn’t do it especially well.

For example, if I’m working on a literacy unit about writing structure, by deciding at the beginning what my learning objectives are, I’m clarifying my teaching for me and the learning for students. That’s good. My colleagues will know what I’m teaching, which is good for collaboration. Parents will know, as will district officials and college boards and so on.

But unless I create differentiated learning objectives, then differentiate and personalize instruction, I’ve decided ahead of time what students will understand.

Exactly what they will understand. This is ambitious.

In the context of outcomes-based learning, the average response to this will be, ‘Yes, of course. That’s how this all works. That’s how curriculum mapping and unit design and lesson planning work. We decide on an objective and create an assessment that will assess the mastery of the objective and make sure that objective is horizontally aligned with our colleagues’ objectives and vertically aligned with last year’s and next year’s objectives, and so on.

And within this framework, planning backward from that goal—planning with the end in mind—is more or less faultless. That is, if we insist on everyone achieving the same goals and demonstrating that achievement the same way, then planning backward isn’t just a ‘good idea,’ but maybe the only rational approach.

But by dictating so precisely what a student will come to know, we are narrowing the accepted boundaries of their learning so aggressively that all that’s left is the form of education itself.

It seems, then, that my ‘concern’ with backward planning isn’t the practice in general (it’s wonderful) and certainly has nothing to do with UbD (I love it). Rather, it’s just another long-winded bemoaning of the problems of outcomes-based learning being the dominant form of learning for almost every child educated in the United States today.

If each student had their own curriculum and their own assessments and their own lessons and activities that simply sync’d with the requirements of the curriculum or the school or some other standard—in this case, planning backward from these personalized goals and materials and so on is fine.

But make no mistake, planning backward in and of itself (as opposed to UbD) doesn’t ‘center’ understanding. The priorities here are sequence and alignment, not wisdom and thought. UbD goes on to add big ideas and a focus on transfer and dozens of other tweaks to put the focus back on understanding (though in doing so, they make its own implementation far more complex and difficult to ‘align’ with others, much less others not using UbD) but backward-planning is only part of UbD.

I guess what I’m saying is that backward design is fine as long as, in its integration, it doesn’t crowd out the teacher-supported humanization and data-supported personalization of learning necessary to design learning experiences that transcend classrooms.

Can it do that? That is, can backward-planning consistently support teachers in refining curriculum and instruction based on meaningful assessment data? Can it be used to truly personalize learning? Or more specifically, is backward-planning the best way to personalize learning for students?

If so, great.

If not, what role should backward-planning play in the design of modern and deeply personal learning experiences for students?

If you’ve got experience here, I’d love to hear your thoughts below.