Field Notes on Backwards Design
I am a convert. It did not take long and it took no work on the part of anyone other than me to see how much sense it makes for us to use a backwards design model for teaching and learning. I think it is important though, in this era of standardized testing, to make the clear distinction between backwards planning and teaching to the test. Backwards design, as Wiggins and McTighe describe it, asks teachers first to consider, "What is worthy and requiring of understanding"? This is not the same thing as, "What will be on the test?" They go on to help us see that the concepts, skills and information "worthy of understanding" are embedded in essential questions, enduring understandings and critical thinking skills. Each of those, when thoughtfully designed, spring from standards. Let's look at an example. Here's a grade 8 Reading Literature Standard lifted straight from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS):
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
An essential question I used as an 8th grade ELA teacher that easily would have anchored to this standard is, "What is just, right and good?" A corresponding enduring understanding was, "Students will understand that people should be valued for their merits and celebrated for their differences." One of the critical thinking skills I helped my students develop through exploration of this essential question was empathy. Looking at the CCSS, the literature our grade level had selected and my learning goals for the students, I was able to develop an assessment which helped students take Elie Wiesel's perspective upon reading Night and apply their understanding to modern day genocides.
When I considered Wiggins and McTighe's question, "What is evidence of understanding?" I was not thinking about teaching to a test but rather: "How will my students show what they know about being a compassionate and thoughtful human being in a world full of tensions born of difference and fear of those differences?" When I considered the question, "What learning experiences and teaching promote understanding, interest and excellence?" I planned for discussions and writing assignments about Night, reading about and researching the Holocaust, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur. We reached out to our own government and helped to raise awareness in our school and our community. We did this so the students could answer our essential question and develop empathy.
At first, in planning my Night unit, I used a backwards design model because that just made good sense to me. When all was said and done, though, the real reason to use this model is because it enables us to help students learn deeply. They learn to make connections, to think critically and creatively. How did they do on the test? Well, when our 8th grade graduation speaker chose to write a speech based on her experiences in my classroom and her classmates rose to a standing ovation at her finish, I felt confident they had passed the test.