Backward Design: Overview

As an adjunct professor for Buena Vista University, I was invited to take a one-unit course on Understanding by Design. The School of Education at BVU has a new program for undergrad teacher candidates that is heavily influenced by backward design.

The first unit in this course is an Overview of Backward Design by Wiggins and McTighe. I’m excited to finally really learn Understanding by Design.


Over ten years ago, I was part of the Intel Teach to the Future program. It was an amazing professional development opportunity where I was first introduced to the idea of Essential Questions. I remember spending hours poring over the proper wording of the essential question I was to write about the rocks and minerals unit I was creating. My question was something like “What good are rocks?” I remember at the time wondering if the topic was even “essential question” worthy. It was hard to find people to talk to who “got” the essential question concept. Now, all these years later I’m ashamed to say, it’s still a fuzzy concept for me. I never fought through the then-new Understanding by Design process.

During the past two years my junior high classes have become much more student-centered. As a result, I love teaching more than ever, and it makes more sense to me! However, lately I have come to see that I swung to an extreme and need to bring back a bit more structure, perhaps more rigor and clarity in my objectives. When Barb Kruthoff invited me to take this course to help me be a better adjunct professor, I jumped at the chance. Here is the journal of my learning from the first unit of study.

Journal of Learning

I believe traditional planning does start with the why. When I became a teacher in the 1980s, the oldest version of a lesson plan I’ve ever used started with Objectives. Theoretically, we should always ask why we are teaching something. After objectives, then it went on to include anticipatory set, materials, procedure, modeling, checking for understanding, guided practice, independent practice, closure, evaluation. Any lesson planning template is pretty much some combination of these parts, and always starting with the objectives.

Now, I realize that many of the lesson plans I’ve created, written, stolen, observed do not start with the why. Oftentimes, the cool or favorite activity is chosen and the standard that fits is written in later.

However, Wiggins and McTighe have changed this. The Understanding by Design process is heavy on Stage 1, the desired results. What do we want the learners to know and be able to do? What are the big ideas, the ideas worthy of connecting with other subjects, the major themes, and so forth that we truly want them to understand? What I’m realizing is this stage has to be hammered out before the activities are chosen.

Stage 2 is about how to assess understanding. What will we do to gather evidence of learning? Finally, the learning plan is developed.

CC image by Ben Sutherland

I have been guilty of the twin sins of “aimless activity” and “superficial coverage.” According to Understanding by Design, the long term goal of education is not content mastery, but the ability to use and extend content effectively, which is another way to describe understanding.

Extremely helpful in this lesson was the example of a before and after third grade pioneer unit. The before unit was full of “fun” activities that helped students experience a few activities that pioneers experienced, like churning butter and writing with a quill pen. The objectives were not clarified, and, though fun, the unit did not hold up when put to the Understanding by Design test.

In the after pioneer unit, there were big questions asked like, “Why do people move?” and “What is pioneer spirit?”

Both my junior high and my college undergraduate courses can benefit from what I learn about true understanding and how to design units with the end of understanding in sight.

As I said, I’m guilty of the twin sins. I am also guilty of doing activities without properly doing the hard work of WHY and how will I assess  to know if students really understand. I’m looking forward to learning more.



ASSIGNMENT: Analyze the difference between traditional planning and ‘backward design’ by comparing and contrasting the two. Also include in your written response how the key features of ‘backward design’ can be implemented in your own classroom or that of those you supervise (university supervisors).

Joining the Conversation at Iowa Reading Conference

Last week I attended the Iowa Reading Association’s annual conference. It had been several years since I was able to go, so I enjoyed every minute of it.

I was able to share the time and the drive with three fun teachers from a neighboring district.

The sessions I had looked forward to—Richard Peck, Newbery award winning children’s author; Dr. Jerry Johns, expert on reading assessment and strategies for effective learning; and Dr. Richard Allington, author of What Really Matters for Struggling Readers—exceeded my expectations. In addition, I attended five breakout sessions, bought several professional and many children’s literature books, and networked with many Iowa educators! It was a worthwhile conference and over the next weeks I will continue to reflect here on the learnings from the sessions I attended and on the professional books I’ve been reading this summer. However, the rest of this post is about the great experience I had presenting at the Iowa Reading Conference.

Before the conference, because it was related to my session, I suggested the planners advertise a hashtag for the conference, and they did. #IowaReads, which I liked. Here is the #IowaReads Archive for part of the conference.

The session I presented at the conference was called “Joining the Conversation.” This was a great time to connect with other educators who have joined the online conversation in education and to encourage a few others to begin the process of joining.

I am new to presenting, so I was blessed beyond measure to have so many from my PLN helping me before and during the presentation. Many of them wrote on this Linoit the benefits they have found in joining the conversation. I told them about the #IowaReads hashtag and a Today’s Meet I opened, so they could help me illustrate how the conversation worked. They did not disappoint! When I opened the Today’s Meet window to show the participants how to use it, Theresa (@tdallen5), from Illinois, and Sheri (@grammasheri), from Washington, had already commented on it!

Others commented on Today’s Meet or Twitter, too. Besides, Sheri and Theresa, thanks also to Shelly Carter (@CarterSh), Darin Johnston (@AnIowaTeacher), and Michelle TeGrootenhuis (@mrstg). Joy Kirr (@joykirr) even joined in late after her trip to downtown Chicago.

I was thankful for three reasons for my PLN’s participation.

  1. Their involvement so perfectly illustrated the online conversation teachers are involved in.
  2. They added more information to the session, making it better than I could on my own. Members of my PLN in other parts of the world were involved in conversation with some of the people who were present in the room. It was a great example of backchanneling, which I had never participated in as the presenter before. It was fun to read the comments and dialogue later.
  3. Finally, their presence there gave me great moral support and confidence!

Michelle, was amazing! She was there in person–before, during, and after–as well as one of my special PLN sisters. She has so many wonderful experiences joining the conversation. I was really happy she was there. She came early and helped me hang posters and set up, reminded me to breathe, was an excellent back channeler and active participant during the session, and even helped me clean up afterwards.

Another participant who offered encouragement was Judy Brunner (@judybrunner), a keynote speaker from Missouri State University, whom I was already following on Twitter.

Here are some new members of my PLN as a result of the reading conference: Ed Starkenburg, Nancy White and Cathy Stakey.

Some of the participants took a further step on their journey after attending this session. Some of them were still not ready to take the leap, but they explored possibilities with us.

I even met Shelley Krause, who tweeted about my session from New Jersey.

My first group presentation. They graciously posed for a photo!

All in all, it was a wonderful experience. The fact that I even had the confidence to sign up to lead this session is just another of the many benefits that I have received from joining the conversation. I have become a more engaged, more confident, and more passionate teacher! Who knows what’s coming next!

Thanks to Buena Vista University’s Faculty Development Committee for the Adjunct Faculty Grant I received to be able to attend the conference.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

I just returned from a conference for adjunct faculty at Buena Vista University. The keynote speaker was Troyce Fisher, a great educational leader in Iowa. She helped us unpack the college’s vision statement:

BVU’s Vision
We aspire to be a remarkable educational community, focused on learning, challenging every student, faculty and staff member to set and meet the highest standards of academic achievement, character, conscience and compassion.

My greatest takeaway came from the Dan Pink RSA Animate “Drive” video (below). When people are engaged in meaningful work, the motivation for them to do better is not for pay; they are motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy – When people are self-directed and engaged, they do wonderful things. Management needs to get out of their way.

Mastery – People have an urge to get better at stuff. We do it not to get wealthy, but because it’s satisfying. Technically-sophisticated highly skilled people all over the world are working for free. (e.g., Linux, Apache, Wikipedia). Challenge and mastery are great motivators.

Purpose – When profit becomes unhitched from purpose, the results are uninspired workplaces and people don’t do great things. Flourishing companies are animated by purpose.

I like that I am part of an organization that aspires for every student, faculty, and staff member to “meet the highest standards of academic achievement, character, conscience and compassion.” It seems they know something about what I have learned over the past year about motivation, being a lifelong learner, and 21st century learning for all students.

Now, my question is, can I apply the motivating qualities of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to my full-time teaching job with 7th and 8th graders?

Autonomy – Can I get out of their way and let them make decisions on how and what to learn? Hmm…I’m not sure. We have the Iowa Core/Common Core hanging over our classrooms, feeling stifled at times. However, I believe there is freedom built into the standards. I know my 7th and 8th graders cannot be as autonomous as adults who have already found their way into engaging and meaningful careers. I still have to offer some structure. As Steve Hargadon recently said at #ITEC11, “When we balance structure and freedom, we unleash individual energy and potential.” I am working on what that balance of structure and freedom looks like in my classroom.

Mastery – If I manage to give them some autonomy in choosing their way, then the projects they are working on should be things they are motivated to do well and get good at.

Purpose – Education can be purposeful. It has to be for more than the grades they earn on their report cards. What a lame excuse for a motivator! I tell my students, if it’s only about grades for them, then let’s just all pack up and go home now.

We just finished a wonderful “unit” in 8th grade exploratory, where students planned and accomplished a Relay Recess for all the students in K-8 in our school system. Talk about purposeful! They were motivated! They were given lots of autonomy in the planning (along with the ready support of four of their teachers), they were given time to pull it off with excellence (mastery), and the purpose was obvious when we saw the wonderful time that was had by the K-8 students, survivors and other guests. (More posting on our American Cancer Society fundraisers and the Relay Recess later.)

What do you think?

Can we give students meaningful work all the time so that these intrinsic motivators guide them? Rather than the “payment” of the grades on their report card?

Here is the Dan Pink video. It’s really enlightening!