Introduction / by Tyler Wood

What is backward design?

It turns out that I have been thinking in the backward design way from the start. I was unaware there was a specific name for it, but I have always wanted to know where we were going with each lesson. Having said that, there are a lot of planning ideas I was missing or I have not developed that I am still working on implementing in my classroom. The benefits of using the backward design method will forever change the way I teach. Here are a few of the strengths and challenges of backward design as described by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in the book Understanding by Design (UbD).

Understanding - This may seem like an obvious idea that I should have known about as a teacher, but it was something I don't think I was really flushing out well enough. We all have an idea about understanding as a goal for students, but what really stood out as a benefit is how it relates to the UbD idea as a whole. We have standards and tests and other things we tend to use as a goal for showing student achievement or understanding, but "understanding is about transfer, in other words. To be truly able requires the ability to transfer what we learned to new and sometimes confusing settings" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 40). This concept is true no matter how you design a lesson or unit, that is true, but to base the goals on that, not a test or book, is the real change and key for this method. So often we are chained to a book or test as our end goal that even though we want to teach the students how to use the knowledge, it forever remains just out of reach for our lessons. UbD throws out that idea and puts transfer at the forefront of the planning process. Which leads into and lays the foundation for the next benefit.

Assessment - We know that transfer of knowledge and the ability to use the skills on foreign tasks is the goal for student learning, but how do we know when we have accomplished that? "As the logic of backward design reminds us, we are obligated to consider the assessment evidence implied by the outcomes sought, rather than thinking about assessment primarily as a means for generating grades" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 150). In other words, we need to figure out what understanding looks like and develop the evidence we need to show the students have understood, then design the assessments before the actual lessons. This seems to be the basis of the design methods name - backward. So often the summative assessments are written based on what was taught in class after designing the lessons for that first, or the tests were designed by an outside firm and is not in alignment with the learning outcomes of the students, teacher, or school. It is not just the way the assessments are thought about, but the design itself. "Understanding is revealed as transferability of core ideas, knowledge, and skill, on challenging tasks in a variety of contexts" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 153). The assessment itself must adapt to fit the evidence needed to show transfer. That means, in the case of Wiggins and McTighe, performance based assessments, rather than a traditional, ubiquitous fill-in-the-bubble test. This is something I am trying to adapt to an even larger scale mixing it with a flipped classroom by having the performance assessment be the bubble in which all the learning is done. The class can be climbing up Bloom's Taxonomy, from knowledge to evaluation (Armstrong, 2014) in many standards at once while at the same time be utilizing the knowledge in an authentic task.

Essential Questions - The first two strengths can still be overwhelming to some, but the glue that holds it all together and shapes the learning day to day is the notion that we should frame our units with essential questions. Good essential questions, that are open-ended and thought-provoking, "serve as doorways through which learners explore the key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems that reside within the content" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 106). Each piece of knowledge is important in some way, otherwise we wouldn't need it at all. Framing units around essential questions puts the information into context and makes it relevant for students. The words and phrases I know in Korean the best are the words and phrases I use often. Why? Because they are the words and phrases that have had the most relevance to my life. I have studied hundreds of vocabulary words I couldn't remember for the life of me. Why? Because I learned them without context off of a sheet of paper and never used them in my life. The words weren't framed in a problem or thought-provoking question where I needed to know these words for another task. Since studying this, I have been using essential questions as often as I can to frame my lessons and create more motivation for the kids to internalize the content with great results.

If these results are so great, why doesn't everyone use this method for designing lessons? There are always catches. Even though I plan to use this method, or at least an adapted version, I do see certain problems with implementing it on a larger scale. 

Collaboration - One thing that Wiggins and McTighe, and others, promote is educator collaboration. I agree with this idea "because a large body of research shows that mandatory teacher collaboration, sometimes called “professional learning communities," gets results" (Burns, 2011), but it can be a tricky task. Some veteran teachers prefer to stick with what they know and want to be lone teachers. Perhaps they want to be the hero of their own personal "Stand and Deliver" movie. However, we need to "think about what is needed for learning, not just what is comfortable for teaching" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 242).  One of those things that is good for learning is essential questions that "jump curricular bounderies" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 281), which implies collaboration with other teachers. Still some teachers remind me of a history class I took in college, the history of science, where we discussed the importance and relevance of "secret knowledge" to the scientific movement. Craftsmen, tradesmen, and artisans (before scientists were a thing) would keep their skills, recipes, tools, etc... secret in order to create job-security, essentially. Before books were common, they would write things down only to be passed on to their apprentices or off-spring. This hindered development for the whole society. This time in Europe was known as the Dark Ages, when knowledge was for the elite and controlled heavily by the governing bodies. This may seem like an extreme example, but it highlights the major downfalls in keeping your good ideas to yourself. It may seem harmless to help yourself look better than your co-workers, like only throwing a little trash in the ocean, but it contributes to an overall depletion in effective learning possibilities that help the students - the goal of teaching in the first place. It's ironic that teachers who try collaboration as a method for their students to learn are seemingly against it in practice in their own work. This is a challenge the UbD method must overcome to better plan these units. Which brings us to the next challenge.

Workload - The planning can be daunting. Thinking about doing this for every unit in every subject (I teach multiple subjects to multiple levels) seems impossible. Wiggins and McTighe want to solve this problem with collaboration (2006), but as I pointed out, that in and of itself is a challenge. How can we actually implement this planning model without collaboration? It seems like a dead end without help.

Testing Requirements - Another challenge is the very fact that many districts, schools, or even countries (in my case), rely heavily on pre-determined tests. Those high-stakes tests are the focal point for money, pride, and future success (in college or career). How can we work around the testing when the testing should be designed with the goal in mind? In a utopian world, the tests would align perfectly with the standards and be based on authentic tasks showing transfer, but we all know that is a dream model. This is a Korean focused argument, but in Korea, parents that pay for school (my school is private), don't want to waste money buying a book we don't finish. It is a common complaint that the teacher didn't finish the book, so as much as I agree with Wiggins & McTighe that we should "use the textbook as a resource, not a syllabus" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 309), in practice it is hard to follow. 

Challenges or no challenges, however, this method is useful for me. I have been working on implementing it as best as I can in my class and it has really helped me orient myself in the larger picture, rather than stumbling through a unit trying to figure out what the main points are the students need to know. This orientation, using essential questions, helps me focus discussion towards the learning goals for the class because I have the end in mind before I started. 

Click below to see standards relevant to my class unpacked to help figure out what skills and understandings the students need for achieving the classroom goals.

Unpacking the Standards


Armstrong, P. (2014). Bloom's taxonomy. Center for Teaching. Vanderbilt University. Retrieved from

Burns, M. (2011, August). Teacher Collaboration Gives Schools Better Results. Pacific Standard. Retrieved from

Wiggins, G., McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

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