Planning Backwards to Jump Students Forward (Part 1)

By leveraging Backward Lesson Design, teachers focus on student learning through a process of determining desired outcomes first.  Then, teachers create the assessment strategies and, finally, the instructional or learning activities.  

During the summer, teachers are already thinking about next school year.  Those thought often center on lesson and unit planning to engage students to maximize outcomes while minimizing distractions.  Typical questions that teachers ask include: how do we create meaningful lessons?  How can we tie them in to an overall understanding of content core concepts? How does instruction and student learning connect to assessment?  Where do I start?  To answer those questions, this blog will introduce you to a planning protocol.

This lesson planning protocol is a process that focuses on student learning and successfully integrates curriculum, instruction, and assessment within a lesson or unit of study.​ The main distinction with it is, of course, planning backwards: final outcomes are first determined, then assessment strategies, and finally instruction and learning activities.

Planning backwards enhances meaningful understanding and transfer of learning, engages students, and creates connections between big ideas​. This in turn allows students to be more engaged with content and creates the opportunity for deeper understanding of lesson ideas.​Backward Lesson Design consists of three stages which we will discuss across two different blog posts:
1.  Identifying Desired Results
2.  Setting an Assessment Plan
3.  Designing Learning Activities

Identifying Desired Results
Before any instruction can be planned, we first need to identify the desired results of instruction. This is where the bulk of the heavy lifting is going to be, and it involves answering three questions:

  • What are your subject’s core concepts?
  • What are the big ideas for the lessons?
  • How can we make this relevant to students?

Core Concepts:
 this is the heart of your content and serves a bigger and higher purpose. They are transferable to other topics, connect facts and skills, and encompass ideas such as justice, patterns, cycles, conflict, culture, environment, and communication. These anchoring concepts often require a lot of unpacking, but they are the ideas that we want students to remember in 5, 10, and 15 years. They are most often the answer to the question: when am I ever going to use this in my everyday life? Some examples of core concepts in different subjects:

  • Math: creating order​, recognizing patterns and relationships, systems and subsystems
  • English: identities, experiences, communication
  • History: responsible citizenship​, justice, society, change
  • Science: scientific process, structure and function, cause and effect, organization 

Big Ideas
: in essence, this component answers the question “how do we transfer the core concepts to a standard and a lesson?” We find the big idea. Big ideas are the environment in a lesson that captures the essence of a core concept. Standards will often have action verbs that guide us to what the students should be doing and how to create situations for students to explore these big ideas and concepts.

Part of a big idea is capturing the knowledge and skills that students should master at the appropriate rigor (DOK level).

  • Knowledge: I want students to understand that…. .
  • Skills: I want students to be able to…

:  now comes the fun part. How can we make knowledge and skills relevant to students?

Tell a story!

Starting off with an engaging hook or idea in the class, or a real-world scenario that students have to answer is the best way to accomplish this. A hook can be a real-world application, question, or problem that addresses the standard. These ideas will grab students’ attention, engage their curiosity, and make them think, motivating them to come back to this idea because it’s a real-life problem. 

The best part is that they’ll have to work to ask, explore, and answer this one big guiding question, with the entire lesson or unit set up to support that. This paves the way to a more cohesive understanding of the subject as a whole.

We will pause here and return next week to finalize the Backward Lesson Design protocol by considering the assessment strategies and instructional activities.

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