The design model

Teachers are coaches of understanding, not mere purveyors of content or activity. They focus on ensuring learning, not just teaching (and assuming that what was taught was learned); they always aim—and check for—successful meaning making and transfer by the learner. McTighe.

The backward design approach to curriculum planning provides a framework for designing a sequence of lessons that will lead students to deep understanding of the content taught. A sequence of lessons can refer to a curriculum unit or a sequence of learning experiences aimed at producing a particular learning objective, goal or intention.

The approach suggests a planning sequence based on three stages, each of which is explored below.

Traditionally some teachers have started curriculum planning with activities, resources and textbooks rather than identifying classroom learning goals and planning towards those goals. When using the backward design approach, the teacher starts with classroom outcomes and then plans the curriculum, choosing activities and materials that foster student learning.

Ultimately, teaching should equip learners to be able to use or transfer their learning.

diagram of three stage backward design model

The three stage 'backward design' planning process (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, 2005).

(backward design model-text version)

hyperlinked PDF icon: Backward design model of curriculum planning
Backward design model of curriculum planning (.pdf 147kB)

Identify the desired results

Classroom work needs to be focused on big ideas and essential curriculum understandings, as opposed to a series of activities. To shift the focus to learning, begin by identifying the learning that will occur as a result of the lesson sequence/unit – Stage 1 of the process.

Essential Questions for Stage 1 ‘Identifying the desired results’ of the backward design planning process:

Learning intentions/goals can be ‘transfer’ goals/learning intentions, ‘meaning’ goals/learning intentions and ‘acquisition’ goals/learning intentions.

  • What should students know and be able to do? (‘Transfer’ goals)?

  • What should students be able to do, on their own (‘Transfer’ goals)?

  • What understandings about key ideas should they leave with (‘Meaning’ goals)?

  • What big ideas should anchor and organise the content (‘Meaning’ goals)?

  • What knowledge and skills are essential for achievement of the learning intentions/goals (‘Acquisition’ goals)?

Hyperlinked pdf icon: Stage 1 Desired results
Read how to determine Stage 1 Desired results (.pdf 149kB)

hyperlinked Word icon: Stage 1 Planning template
Stage 1 Identify desired results - Planning template (.docx 50kB)

Determine acceptable evidence

Considering in advance the assessment evidence needed to document and validate that the targeted learning has been achieved invariably sharpens and focuses teaching.

To further consolidate the shift to a focus on learning it is essential to decide how achievement of the learning intentions/goals will be demonstrated (Assessment of learning) – Stage 2 of the backward design planning process.

Essential Questions for Stage 2 ‘Determine acceptable evidence’ of the backward design planning process:

  • What evidence needs to be collected and assessed, given the desired results identified in Stage 1?

  • What is evidence of understanding (as opposed to recall)?

  • What important transfer tasks should anchor the assessment since transfer is the essence of understanding?

  • What criteria should be used to assess work related to the desired results, not just the particulars of the task?

Hyperlinked pdf icon: Stage 2 Acceptable evidence
Read how to determine Stage 2 Acceptable evidence (.pdf 184kB)

Hyperlinked Word icon: Stage 2 planning template
Stage 2 Determine acceptable evidence - Planning template (.docx 56kB)

Plan learning experiences and instruction

Lastly, the shift to a focus on learning requires careful consideration of the teaching and learning events that need to be planned in order for students to achieve the transfer, meaning and acquisition learning intentions/goals – Stage 3 of the backward design planning process.

The identification of specific learning intentions/goals and the sequence of learning experiences that students will undertake to develop understanding are integral to Stage 3.

Essential Questions for Stage 3 ‘Plan learning experiences and instruction’ of the backward design planning process:

  • What can I do to make the work maximally engaging and effective?

  • What content should be covered? What content needs to be “uncovered”?

  • When should the “basics” come first? When should they be on a “need to know” basis?

  • When should I teach, when should I coach, and when should I facilitate student “discovery”?

  • What should I do if students already know/can do? What is being planned?

  • In order to truly meet the syllabus standard, what should students be able to do independently (transfer)? What should I be doing to make them more independent and able to transfer?

Hyperlinked pdf icon: Plan learning experiences and instruction
Stage 3 Plan learning experiences and instruction (.pdf 143kB)

Hyperlinked Word icon: Stage 3 Planning template
Stage 3 Plan learning experiences and instruction - Planning template (.docx 51kB)

To access a registered course focused on planning a sequence of lessons see ‘Planning lesson sequences’ in the Courses section of the Teaching Standards in Action website.