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Backwards design

Teaching strategies

Backwards design and designing down

A teacher’s guide to planning programs, lessons and units of work

Backwards design and designing down – 2 planning methods that are often combined. Both require end goals to be set. Backwards design is planning from the goal back to the start point. Designing down requires chunking the learning program into segments from an outline down to specific lessons.

Mentor holding a tablet.

Backwards design and designing down are 2 terms that refer to the process of designing and developing a learning program of some kind. Both are simple, logical and practical strategies that have been used since the dawn of the teaching profession. For all intents and purposes, you can use these terms interchangeably even though they are 2 separate strategies; teachers often use both at the same time as if they were a single strategy.

Backwards design requires the teacher to design the learning sequence by first considering the end point – the teacher then works backwards to plan the learning program.

Backwards design requires the teacher to design the learning sequence by first considering the end point – the teacher then works backwards to plan the learning program. Designing down is slightly different: the available learning time is segmented into logical segments of learning. These segments are sometimes called ‘chunks’. Each segment is allocated a set amount of time such as a week. Usually the amount of time allocated is the same for each segment.

Chart demonstrating backwards design.

Backward design requires working backwards from the end goal and toward the starting point.

A pure backwards design process requires teachers to first determine what they want students to achieve – they ask, ‘what does success look like?’. They can then specify SMART learning goals. Next, teachers need to estimate what students can (and can’t) do at the start of the program. Then, the teacher works backwards to plan out a learning sequence that most effectively meets the program’s goals (the end point), starting with what students already know (the starting point).

Designing down on the other hand requires the teacher to divide the program into equal segments or chunks. Each segment is allocated a focus such as a topic, a problem or a chapter. Each of these is further broken down into smaller (often weekly) segments. Segments can be unrelated, or they can build on each other with ever-increasing complexity and detail (see elaboration theory outlined elsewhere).

Designing down on the other hand requires the teacher to divide the program into equal segments or chunks. Each segment is allocated a focus such as a topic, a problem or a chapter.

Not all programs require detailed planning however – some in fact require very little or none whatsoever. The strategy of most reading programs is to expose students to as many reading opportunities as possible within the program’s allocated time; students practise reading over and over. Some amount of explicit teaching is added to boost reading skills, spelling, phonics and so forth. The goal is to improve reading skills as much as is possible within the time limits of the program so no detailed planning is necessary. Students and teachers may set specific goals (such as to read at level 4), however the program continues for the set time even if the original goal was achieved. As each lesson (whether it’s the first or the last) is predominantly reading, planning documents would quickly become outdated as the rate of student improvement cannot be known beforehand.

When determining which strategies to use in any program, thought should be given to determining which strategies provide the most effective route to achieving the stated learning goals. Strategies should be chosen for their ability to most effectively move students toward their learning goals and for no other reason – whether strategies are student-centred or teacher-centred is largely irrelevant. The strategies used by your colleagues are also largely irrelevant – some strategies come in and out of fashion and many are pushed because of a what the strategy represents politically, not what they can do for the student. There is no doubt that poorly chosen teaching strategies negatively affect student achievement.

Hint: backwards design is about allocating specific amounts of time to each focus area. Time can be divided by resources: for example, chapters, genre, text type or theme. Time can also be divided by problems: for example, volume, area or multiplication. It may also be divided by activity: for example, gross or fine motor skill.

Learning goals can be both academic and social in nature. If social goals are set, more student-centred cooperative learning strategies can be employed. However, as with all goals, teachers need a way to measure student progress and achievement in order to prove that limited and precious learning time was appropriately allocated. If academic goals are the focus, a combination of explicit teaching, worked examples, questioning, feedback, scaffolding and guided practise are accepted pillars of all high-quality programs – some cooperative learning can also be added for consolidation, revision and practice.

However, as with all goals, teachers need a way to measure student progress and achievement in order to prove that limited and precious learning time was appropriately allocated.

In all cases, teachers should be transparent by clearly stating every goal and transmitting that information to students, parents and managers. Care should be taken to ensure that there are no hidden political, religious, activist or social agendas embedded in their goals. Where such goals are a focus (such as in religious schools or programs), they should be clearly articulated and transmitted in a similar manner to academic goals. Teachers cannot adequately plan to meet goals if they are not clearly stated. Secret, subliminal and hidden goals hinder the achievement of the stated goals by affecting the decisions that teachers make (such as what resources to use and how much time to devote to certain topics).

Teachers can however state secondary goals or priorities (often called cross-curriculum goals). Once the teacher has planned their learning sequence, these secondary priorities can be recorded beneath the main learning goals. Metacognitive skills and coping strategies are 2 essential secondary goals. Teachers often have secondary goals that match their skillset. For example, a teacher who is confident with computers may have a secondary goal that students improve their IT skills in some way. In this instance, a SMART goal may be for students to be able to create a Word document with images and to know basic functions such as font and text size. The teacher may list what skills students will ideally acquire – this provides an explicit teaching focus for small portions of the learning program.

The design-down process generally involves the following steps:

  1. Set SMART goals:
    1. Specify the overarching vision of the program (2-3 sentences).
    2. Specify in detail what students already know and what they can do (where students begin).
    3. Specify the specific goals to be achieved (where students end).
    4. Specify the standard, benchmark or level to be achieved at the end.
    5. Specify how the achievement against each goal will be measured (assessments).
    6. Specify the resources available.
    7. Specify the total time as well as the start and end time (for example, 120 hours over 10 weeks commencing on …. and ending on….).
  2. Divide the available time into logical segments (for example, a unit of study, weeks and lessons or by hours, such as ‘Topic 1 = 20 hours’).
  3. Plan the program by using any of the following approaches:
    1. Backwards design – start at the end and work backwards (best for skills that build on each other).
    2. Designing down – start at the top (units of work), then drill into weeks, followed by individual lessons.
    3. Use a combination of backwards design and top-down design – this is what most teaches use naturally (with a lean towards one or the other as personal preference).
Designing-down method – breaking down a goal into smaller pieces.

Designing down begins with the end goal and then breaks down the time available into ever-smaller pieces.

Below is a basic design-down example that shows how a 10-week term is divided to ensure that all the required topics are covered. There are 2 units of work and each unit has 4 topics. There are 8 clearly defined goals and 2 secondary goals.

Weeks 1-5 = Unit of work 1:

  • Week 1 = Intro/revision
  • Week 2 = Topic 1
  • Week 3 = Topic 2
  • Week 4 = Topic 3
  • Week 5 = Topic 4.

Weeks 6-10 = Unit of work 2

  • Week 6 = Topic 1
  • Week 7 = Topic 2
  • Week 8 = Topic 3
  • Week 9 = Topic 4
  • Week 10 = Revision/assessment.

The teacher can now write a purpose statement or ‘learning focus’ for each lesson (5-10 words). Each lesson is directly linked to the overarching program goals. The teacher can show how each lesson contributes to the overall program. Going one step further, each activity within a given lesson is directly linked and traceable to the lesson, topic, unit of work and program goals. If an activity does not link or contribute to achieving the overarching learning goals it should be scrapped.

At this point, teachers are faced with several options to determine the best routine for each lesson (as well as daily and/or week routines). Broadly speaking, the easiest method is to structure each lesson and week using a template. Most teachers have daily and weekly routines that they follow. These routines are flexible, and a range of engaging activities can be planned for each section. How teachers go about this process is usually a personal choice that is highly influenced by the topic or subject.

Regardless of the approach, a common characteristic of all high-performing teachers is structure and routine. The more routine the program, the less resource and planning-intensive the program becomes.

Regardless of the approach, a common characteristic of all high-performing teachers is structure and routine. The more routine the program, the less resource and planning-intensive the program becomes. Beginning teachers often fall into the trap of not applying similar routines to multiple lessons. This is not poor practice per se, but it does create 10-20 hours of planning and resource development each week. Obviously, this is unsustainable and not recommended as it can lead to burnout. Here is a simple but effective example of a more traditional routine that can be used in almost any classroom with minimal (if any) planning during a 60-minute lesson:

  • 00-05: revision/intro
  • 05-15: worked examples, modelling
  • 15-30: shared or guided learning
  • 30-40: silent practice
  • 40-50: pair, group or whole-of-class activity
  • 50-60: review, summary.

This example is typical of a maths or numeracy class in middle school. English, language, science, history and most other subjects can be effectively delivered via a structured routine such as this. This routine is not set in stone and teachers should allow for interruptions, adjustments and new ideas. For example, if students find a topic to be difficult, the teacher should spend most of the lesson doing a combination of worked examples and shared learning. In the following lesson, students might spend most of the time practising on their own or in pairs. The routine should be used as a general guide only. Teachers may also incorporate one-off strategies to keep students motivated and engaged, such as by using technology and other student-centred activities.

As teachers gain experience, they commonly need to spend less time planning. It is standard practice to write out an annual and term/semester outline at the beginning of the year. Planning each week or month is done a short period in advance. Resources can be developed at the start of the year as needed and collected for future use. Planning documents can also be used repeatedly. Most teachers do not plan each lesson in any detail – certainly not in the detail found in lesson plans online or in textbooks. A weekly outline is more than sufficient.

Many experienced teachers (depending on the subject) simply record a few dot points in their diary as a reminder for what they will do in the following lesson(s). When teaching routines are used, teachers free up time and energy for other activities such as one-to-one tutoring. More importantly, their work-life balance improves – extending their career and boosting job satisfaction.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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