3 uses of Backwards Planning in Education

In a broad sense, backwards planning (or backwards design) is about starting with the end goal in mind. Until you have a clearly identified objective it is impossible to effectively and efficiently assess what your priorities are, and where your resources would most wisely be invested. The notion of a backwards plan can be applied at varying scales in education. In this post, I briefly outline three scenarios in which you might see the implementation of a backwards plan within an educational context.

Backwards Design in Planning Lessons

At a small scale, a backwards plan can be used to effectively scaffold a lesson to ensure that activities and tools used to facilitate student learning are the most efficient way to reach the desired outcomes. Before planning a lesson, if the teacher asks themselves, “If the lesson is successful, what will the students be able to understand by the end of the session?” they bring a higher degree of consciousness to  their involvement in facilitatingthe learning of the students and,  with the end point clearly defined, they can then consider the best ways to move the students from where they currently are to where they would like them to be.

Backwards Design in Planning Units of Work

At a slightly larger scale, the same principle could be applied to planning a unit of study. At my current school, we call these conceptual end goals standards and the students access them through essential understandings; that is to say, “what are the key abstractions that we want our students to have gained insight into during this unit of study?” With these end goals in mind, we can then define essential questions which teachers can explore with students in hope of moving them closer towards the essential understandings. Once further step backwards might then be to consider what Knowledge, skills and/or understandings the pupils we need to access these essential questions. One example of this progression from our Algebra 2 unit is outlined below.

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Some educators may choose to start by sharing the essential question with the class, whereas some may choose to start with the benchmarks and build on from there. By sharing the essential question first and posing to the students  “what might be some of the knowledge, skills and understandings you need to access this question?” Some teachers feel that they get a greater buy-in from students who feel like they have more ownership over their learning. The key here is that even though the teacher has not shared the benchmarks with students, they have spent time in the planning of the unit considerings this question themselves, and as such, are well equipped to facilitate student learning towards this end goal.

Backwards Design in School missions 

On an even larger scale, the backwards planning approach can be seen in how a number of schools utilise their mission statements as the key driver in decision-making processes. Most, if not all schools, will have a vision or mission statement which outlines their educational goals and philosophy. The goals can include but are not limited to, ideas surrounding academics, holistic education, religion, equality, peace etc.

The extent to which these statements influence the day to day running of the school and the bigger decision making pieces varies greatly. Controversially, for many schools, the mission statement acts as an enticing hook for potential stakeholders but is not something which is front and centre in the day-to-day running of the establishment. For others, the mission statement is the key piece that they hold themselves accountable to, and that drives decision-making processes at all levels in the institution. For these schools, they are embracing the backwards planning model to its full extent.

As my interests lie in education which seeks to develop an individual’s capacity to lead a happy and fulfilled life as a contributor towards a functioning society, in the next two posts I plan to explore the work of two visionaries whose ultimate goal has a very palpable effect on the experiences of all community members within their schools today.

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