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Backwards planning in course design: Connecting lessons to key concepts within a discipline is a key goal

Dr Frazer Cairns, Former Head of Dover Campus
11 November 2015

UWCSEA Dover Middle School students in their math group project. 

Hooke’s law has long been a staple of physics teaching. Generations of children have applied weights to a steel spring, watched it stretch (longing for the spring to snap, sending the weights crashing to the floor) and then used the data to calculate the spring constant, ‘k.’ These children have then, automaton-like, gone on to attack examination questions of the form, ‘A 5 kg mass is placed on a spring of constant k = 0.37 N/cm …’ However, as a physics teacher, I have often wondered what exactly my students have learned that is transferable, particularly given that current research suggests that students learn best when learning focuses on tasks that require problem solving, creativity and critical thinking. How do spring constants connect with a deeper understanding of science?

The solution lies in our approach to curriculum planning. One can find many examples of where a textbook or a list of interesting activities and essential/canonical material is being ‘covered.’ This style of planning means we may remember playing with springs in a lesson but have no idea of the conceptual understanding this lesson was intended to develop. An alternative, and more effective, form of curriculum development reflects a three-stage design process called ‘backward design.’ This reverses the order, delaying the planning of classroom activities until learning goals have been clarified and assessments designed. Structured this way, the planning process helps avoid the twin problems of ‘textbook coverage’ and ‘activity-oriented’ teaching, in which there are no clear priorities and little in the way of underlying purpose.

As Stephen Covey wrote in 1994, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”

Grade 11 students in their science group project. 

Through the complex process of developing a unit of learning, connecting each lesson to a larger understanding of a key concept within a discipline, teachers hope to engage and challenge students long after the course itself is over.​​​​​

The three-stage design process— identify desired results, determine acceptable evidence, plan learning experience—looks deceptively simple, self-evident even. It quickly becomes clear that all three stages require deep reflection. For example, in thinking about what you want your students to learn, you need to prioritise the desired results into three categories, which can be imagined as a set of concentric circles. The outer circle represents knowledge ‘worth being familiar with.’ The middle circle encapsulates knowledge and skills ‘important to know and do.’ Finally, the inner circle represents what Wiggins and McTighe call “enduring understanding”—the fundamental ideas that you want students to remember days and months and years later, even after they’ve forgotten the details of the course.

While this word ‘understanding’ lies at the heart of the backward design model, its meaning is complex. Understanding (which is not the same as knowing) involves sophisticated insights and abilities, which can be reflected in varied performances and contexts. Looking again at my stretched springs, one has to ask what is the big idea that I am trying to convey, what should be enduring for my students—that springs stretch? That a particular spring has a particular spring constant? Or perhaps something more fundamental linked to an understanding that matter is made of atoms and that this gives a structure specific properties.

If we are teaching for understanding then this needs to be assessed. Whereas common practice is that assessment is generally thought of at the end of the unit, once the teaching is completed, the backward approach requires that teachers determine what they would accept as evidence that students have attained the desired understanding as they begin to plan. Again, understanding is complex and evidence gained from traditional testing alone is insufficient. Assessments need, then, to allow students to reveal their understanding, and this is done most effectively when they are provided with complex, ‘authentic’ opportunities to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathise and self-assess. When applied to complex tasks, these ‘six facets’ of understanding provide conceptual lenses through which teachers can better assess student understanding.

The process a teacher goes through as they develop a unit of learning, asking themselves how lessons connect to a larger understanding of a key concept within a discipline, is much more complex than a list of 10 activities to be completed in 10 lessons. However, through it one hopes to engage and challenge students long after the course itself is over.