Utilizing the Backward Design Model

In my last post, I discussed L. Dee Fink’s A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning, and the impact is has had on my teaching and learning strategies and beliefs.  What Fink’s research provides is an outline of desired course outcomes, keeping his six-part taxonomy in mind (Fink, 2003).  This week, I’ve had the opportunity to research another beneficial tool in the planning and designing phase of classroom units and modules, taken from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s work in Understanding by Design.  What I’ve essentially been doing is designing course units, modules and projects with the Backward Design Model at work.

If you remember from my last entry, I created a 3 column table of a storytelling project with my Betas, putting to work Fink’s beliefs of tying together foundational knowledge, application, integration, human dimension, caring and learning how to learn to create a significant learning environment.  I have used the same storytelling project and applied it to my UbD template discussed by Wiggins and McTighe.  Both of these tools are very similar in that the teacher, or designer, has first addressed what the desired outcomes for the learner are for the specified project or unit.  As opposed to thinking about what new tools might be used in the classroom, what projects might take place, the teacher must first rethink the purpose of the unit.

What do we want our students to understand in this unit?  What will they have learned and what will they be able to do?

three-stagesOften times, we get sidetracked from our initial lesson because of new gadgets, programs, crafts or activities, but it is important to keep our goals at the forefront of our lesson.  Wiggins and McTighe go into detail of “the twin sins of traditional design”, the activity-oriented approach and coverage-oriented approach.  As an Early Childhood teacher, I found myself fall into the error of activity-oriented design.  In any particular unit, I found myself multiple times engaging my class in these great hands on activities that I initially thought worked wonderfully with what was being taught, but I now find myself rethinking alot of our crafts and activities in our units, asking myself “how is this going to enhance learning for my Betas?” Once we have laid out our desired outcomes, only then, can we move on to acceptable forms of evidence of learning and class activities and instruction.  This approach to planning is referred to as “backward design” (Wiggins, McTighe 2005).

In both examples, I’ve started with my desired end goal to help keep me on track with the rest of the planning.  I found both tools to be highly useful and beneficial in the planning of course units, however, I found the UbD template to be incredibly detailed and a bit overwhelming.  Keep in mind, I come from a school that does not require lesson plans to be turned in for review.  There is, however, a lot of grade level planning that takes place, we are just not required to turn them in for review.  I really embraced the concept of the 3 column table because I felt it addressed all the aspects of significant learning, while giving me the opportunity to further the lesson beyond classroom application.  I really like how Fink’s work allows us to think beyond foundational skills, application and integration.  An important focus of the education we provide at our school is how our teachings help build the character of our students and not only their minds, and I believe the 3 column table allows me to tie in our core values with instruction through the human dimension, caring and learning how to learn categories.

I think both of these tools have given me a deeper understanding of the importance of effective planning.  Too many times, we fall victim of the “twin sins”.  Either we have these grand crafts and activities with no real learning taking place, or we are trying to cover all the required material, leaving out valuable learning goals.  I have already been applying both of these models to my innovation plan in middle school.  Now that I will be piloting the student ePortfolios in my class next year, I plan on sharing my UbD template for student portfolios with the rest of my middle school colleagues and administration.  Although I just commented on the super detailed and overwhelming aspect of the UbD template, I feel like this would be especially beneficial in getting the rest of my colleagues on board.  I already have my Director of Fine Arts excited about this implementation in my class, but since my goal is to have all middle school students utilizing the ePortfolio, I know some of the other middle school teachers might find this to be one extra thing they need to incorporate.

Backward design planning has proved to be very successful in the classroom and in life.  As with anything- sports, a job, a project or unit… we need to keep our eye on the prize and not get sidetracked by all the “extras” that are around us.



Fink, L. D. (2003). A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning. Retrieved June 23, 2016, from A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning

Hamilton, M. & Weiss, M. (2005). The Power of Storytelling in the Classroom. Children Tell Stories: Teaching and Using Storytelling in the Classroom.  Retrieved June 24, 2016 from https://www.rcowen.com/PDFs/CTS%20Ch%201%20for%20website.pdf 

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by design [2nd Edition].  Upper Saddle River, New Jersy: Pearson Education, Inc.


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