Backwards Design

Article by Chris Anderson and Christy Vacchio

The goal of education is to prepare students for their adult lives. Getting there takes many years of building skills, learning how to apply those skills in real-world situations, learning how to work in teams, and building social networks. However developing those skills in the students in your classroom is challenging. Master teachers must plan with the end goal in mind. So how do we get there?

Evidence of Mastery

In order to plan a lesson or unit of study, a teacher first has to think like an assessor. Determining what mastery looks like for each standard will naturally lead to developing assessments that allow for students to show what they can do. What does mastery look like? Is it the same for each student? Is it the same for each skill? Your assessments have to fit the skill. Your evidence of mastery doesn’t necessarily have to be a state test. It could be a culminating project or writing activity.

Multiple choice items don’t have to be just based on rote memorization. Using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and question stems can lead to very rigorous questions that will not only show which students have mastered certain skills, but can even help a teacher determine which skills or concepts with which students are struggling.

Planning Aligned Activities

Once the properly aligned assessments have been developed, the activities that will lead to student understanding can be planned. Unpack the standard to determine the skills the students need to have to show mastery, then develop activities that build student mastery of those skills. For example, 5th grade science students must be able to determine which season a given location is experiencing. In order to be able to do that, they must understand that the Earth revolves around the Sun, the tilt of the Earth’s axis, and the properties of light and thermal energy. A master teacher will not only have labs and activities that build deep understanding of each of those concepts, but also order the activities in a logical progression. You may have 4-8 labs that lead up to being able to answer that one question on the test.

Finally, you want to plan for students to explain their thinking. In math, this may look like explaining how they solve a real-world problem in a certain way. In language arts, they may write about the strengths of a character based on evidence from the text. Planning to have students write out their thinking must be intentional in order for them to be able to transfer that skill to an unfamiliar scenario.

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