Backward Design


Curriculum: Design with the End in Mind

In 2010, the BC Ministry of Education began the process of bringing educators together with a goal of moving the BC K-12 curriculum towards a more flexible learning approach designed to build 21st century skills.  The new curriculum will allow students to personalize their learning to a much larger degree and will encourage educators to become guides and mentors to students’ personalized learning programs. The new curriculum will continue to uphold high standards for student learning while placing an emphasis on deeper learning and understanding. 

The new curriculum will be reorganized and will focus on identifying the key concepts in an area of learning (i.e. the big ideas) and will have less prescribed learning outcomes overall.  This will allow for a wider range of learning opportunities designed to support a deeper understanding of those ‘big ideas’.  This is the draft of the new Science Year 7 curriculum – you can see the ‘big ideas’ described in the top row.  The development of the curriculum using a backwards design framework will allow classroom teachers to develop learning activities that can be customized to their individual and class needs.  The corresponding Learning Standards will allow teachers to collaborate on how to support students in reaching those standards in each learning area.


Source: Ministry of Education – Transforming Curriculum

The new curriculum will also allow teachers more flexibility when teaching concepts and will remove the sense of urgency many teachers experienced in attempting to ‘cover’ the large number of learning outcomes listed in previous curricula.  This focus on the ‘big ideas’ in the various learning areas, helps shift the focus for teachers when planning lessons and units.

Traditional unit and lesson plans generally have the following headings:

  • Title
  • Purpose
  • Learning Outcomes
  • Materials
  • Outcomes
  • Activity
  • Assessment
  • Homework

Most experienced teachers are very familiar with this type of planning and are able to facilitate lessons without completing formal plans for each and every lesson.  When teachers begin to consider implementing UDL strategies and practice in their classrooms, they often look to the familiar way of lesson or unit planning and attempt to ‘retrofit’ their planning process.  This is one way of planning for UDL implementation.  Another option is to start with a completely fresh perspective and plan in a completely different way.  This is where Backwards Design can be utilized.

We’ll address both methods below.

Retrofit Design

When we’re retrofitting something existing, we are holding onto the value of something that we’ve already built. Much like when we look at existing buildings that were build prior to the ‘barrier free’ movement in architecture, retrofitting them takes extra effort and the modifications made may not be enough to accommodate the innovative changes we hope to realize. For example, installing an elevator in a building not originally designed for one is an expensive and time consuming endeavour which may necessitate placing the elevator in an inconvenient location.

Fresh Design

Understanding by Design (UbD) uses the backward design process for planning units of study with the end goal of true and deep learning for students. Deep learning is achieved when students are able to generalize what they’ve learned at school into meaningful practice in the real world.

Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins developed Understanding by Design because they felt the traditional methods of educational planning focused too much on covering prescribed curriculum and learning activities that did not have a clear purpose or did not move learning towards meaningful student transfer of knowledge and skill. McTighe and Wiggins found that, although well intentioned, teachers using traditional methods of unit and lesson planing led to classroom activities that did not have any long term underlying purpose and may have only contributed to superficial learning.

McTighe and Wiggins highlight the difference between knowledge and understanding. Knowledge is the knowing of facts. Understanding is the making meaning of those facts as it applies to our lives. As educators our goal should be to help our students use knowledge meaningfully, thus we need to focus on facilitating understanding. Knowing facts in order to recall them is superficial learning that can be quickly forgotten; being able to connect facts and create meaning is deeper learning or true understanding.

There are three main steps when using Backwards Design to develop curriculum.  These are: 

  1. Identifying desired results – What are the big ideas we want students to understand and use?
  2. Determine assessment evidence – How will we know students have understood the big ideas?
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction – What learning activities will facilitate understanding of the big ideas?

Backward Design starts with identifying the big idea and learning goals for the unit or lesson and prioritizing them. In the second step, we determine how students will demonstrate what they have learned not only for content recall but for understanding of concepts. These assessment measures then lead into the third step which is to design the learning experiences and instruction to convey and transfer that understanding to the students.

Planning in this way allows for you as an educator to incorporate all three principles of Universal Design for learning into your lessons and units: multiple ways for you to represent the learning content materials, multiple ways for your students to engage with the learning activity, and multiple ways for your students to show what they know.

For more information about Understanding by Design, read the white paper at the publisher’s website.

For a copy of the Backwards Design planning template, download the PDF. (Page 13 and 14)

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