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Backward into the Future

Thames Valley explores backward design curriculm

by Leanne Miller

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Brookmede Public School and École catholique St. Antoine
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by Jennifer Barnett

Backward into the Future

Teachers and students in the Thames Valley district are seeing the benefits of the backward-design curriculum model: increased professionalism; more focused assessment, teaching and learning activities; deeper student understanding.

by Leanne Miller

The past several years have presented many challenges for high school teachers, including new curriculum and assessment expectations, downsizing of the program from five to four years and EQAO testing.

For students, the going has been rough as well. As education minister Gerard Kennedy said to secondary school students in Toronto earlier this year, "High school isn't easy at the best of times, and the last few years have been particularly tough."

Over the next few years, as teachers look critically at what's happening in their classrooms, many may ask questions like these:

  • Are we appropriately assessing what we are teaching?
  • Are we sufficiently covering the key elements of our curricula?
  • Are students acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their postsecondary destinations?

One strategy that has helped teachers who are asking such questions is Understanding by Design (UBD) or the backward-design model.

UBD was developed by American education gurus Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. The authors synthesized educational research from the 1990s that encouraged teachers to align teaching and learning activities and assessments to the knowledge and skills they want students to acquire.

Wiggins and McTighe note that many teachers begin with favoured lessons and textbooks and time-honoured activities rather than deriving their tools from targeted goals or standards. They advocate the reverse - "starting at the end and deriving curriculum from the evidence of learning (per-formances) called for by the standard and the teaching needed to equip students to perform."

This backward approach to curricular design departs from another common practice: thinking about assessment as something that is done when teaching is complete.

"Rather than creating assessments near the conclusion of a unit, backward design calls for us to . consider assessment evidence as we begin to plan a unit or course. It reminds us to begin with a question - What would we accept as evidence that students have attained the desired understandings and proficiencies? - before planning teaching and learning experiences."

Students are better able to connect the knowledge and skills they are learning.

Nancy Wilder on UBD

Christine Shain, an educational consultant who has worked extensively in Canada and the US, has used UBD to help teachers align curriculum: "Ontario's teachers have been busy the past few years implementing the new curriculum and assessment expectations within their own classrooms and subject areas. It's time to step back, reflect and look at the big picture."

She notes that UBD encourages teachers to reflect and to identify the important concepts and big ideas. They articulate essential questions - ones that will grab students' attention, challenging and inspiring them to get involved in learning new material.

Such questions must be embedded in the curriculum and will guide and synthesize student understanding. The questions must have many answers in order to engage a variety of learning styles and abilities. Students must encounter ways to answer them every day a particular unit is being taught.

Shain provides an example of an essential question for Grade 11 physics: How can understanding various physical properties about motion be useful in understanding everyday occurrences?

She summarizes, "When we align our teaching and learning activities and our assessments to the important knowledge and skills we have identified, we reduce the number of assessments that students have to complete and we have to mark. More importantly, we move closer to deep understanding by better articulating the strengths and weaknesses in students' learning processes."

Mike Sereda is a superintendent in the Thames Valley district. "In the past, teachers have excelled at meeting specific curriculum expectations," he says. "Because provincial and board-level curriculum now also uses a backward-design approach, we encourage teachers to use the UBD approach for their daily curricular activities."

Sereda explains that the backward-design approach has allowed teachers and students to focus on the intercon-nectivity of skills throughout all curricula, especially from Grades 7 through 10. Those teachers are doing a better job of teaching students that writing and math skills cut across many subjects and are not discrete, which leads to deeper student understanding and better EQAO test scores.

At Norwich District High School (NDHS) in the Thames Valley district, principal Laurie Lewis and her staff of 31 teachers have used UBD since 2001 to link the demands of the new curriculum to their goal of teaching for deeper student understanding. Staff at NDHS have worked with the high school's three feeder schools (Norwich, Otterville and North Norwich Public Schools) to develop units in English, math and science using UBD.

Together, they articulated four broad, enduring understandings and cor-responding essential questions that encompass the teaching and learning activities undertaken in all classrooms. These have been aligned to the four categories in provincial achievement charts.

Nancy Wilder, who teaches at North Norwich Public School, explains benefits of this approach for her students: "The curriculum was overwhelming, but with UBD and by clustering the expectations, it has become manageable. Students are better able to connect the knowledge and skills they are learning across all subject areas, and when they see that what they are learning applies to real life, they are more engaged."

"Staff and students are speaking the same language and there's a strong sense of consistency to our teaching and learning activities," says Lewis. She also stresses that this is no flavour of the week or just the latest trend but something more fundamental. "It's who we are and where we're going."

For the first time in my career I'm not frantic about how to cover the content. It all flows and makes such sense.

Yvonne Yarker

At NDHS, veteran English teacher Cheryl Lupton explains the context for when this work began. "There had been limited support and professional development time, yet the curriculum changes were far-reaching and overwhelming - too much to handle, really."

She credits superintendent Sereda, who authorized extra planning time (some early release days for NDHS teachers) and the in-service workshops given by board co-ordinators as the source of subsequent success.

As teachers thought about how to manage the myriad learning expectations, they realized that clustering was the answer. "At the same time, some of us were reading about UBD, and this was our eureka. It allowed us to take a managed approach to what was important in the curriculum and to focus on improving student understanding."

NDHS teachers realized that by clustering expectations using categories in the achievement charts, teachers could work across departments and grades - through the whole school - to identify the most important knowledge and skills they wanted to emphasize in their courses.

"We're no longer content driven," Lupton says. Content becomes a tool to help students develop life skills - such as critical thinking or discourse. Teachers select and cluster the expectations that they feel their students should acquire.

Lupton goes on to say that UBD is not just another education bandwagon. "We don't have to eliminate teaching activities we love. Instead, it enables us to use our favourite lessons and resources within a new framework that shows us how and where they fit into the curriculum."

Kids can't help but thrive in our learning community. And isn't that what this is all about?

Jeff Overeem

Teachers can teach to their own strengths and encourage their students to learn in the same way.

"We are all teaching towards the same enduring understandings, but how we get there is up to us as professionals." Students also see that they can solve problems and be successful in a variety of ways - which, Lupton points out, "is more realistic than teaching that there is one correct answer or approach."

The final exam in Lupton's Grade 12 applied English course draws on skills and knowledge that students have acquired during the semester. Students are asked to develop a portfolio of their best work, headed by a report explaining why they should earn their credit. Here is what student R wrote about his work.

R has been working very hard all year to prove to his teacher that he deserves his English credit. The following report sums up everything that he has completed in order to achieve this goal.

At the beginning of the semester, some of R's skills were assessed through a series of assignments. When the assignments were returned, R was able to determine what his strengths and weaknesses were. There were five categories that Ms Lupton based her teachings on. They were teamwork, independent working, organization, work habits and taking initiative. By studying and building these skills, R felt that he had applied himself thoroughly enough to gain his credit.

UBD has also had a big impact in the math department at NDHS. As department head Yvonne Yarker explains, "For the first time in my career I'm not frantic about how I'm going to cover the content and get my students ready for the exam. It all flows and makes such sense."

Principal Lewis cites some tangible evidence of the benefits to students, including lower failure and absentee rates, higher scores on EQAO math and literacy tests (with the most significant improvements from students working at the applied level).

Tech teacher Jeff Overeem adds, "When you have great curriculum, you don't have many discipline problems."

Of course, backward planning approaches like UBD require a solid investment of time. As Sereda notes, "This is hard work. UBD-designed curriculum asks teachers to step outside of what they have always done and ask different questions. 'What do we want students to know and do?' and 'How will we know that they are doing it?' But clearly, the results are worth it."

Administrators and teachers have real work to do if they want to align curriculum throughout their school - whether using UBD or any other approach. But as Christine Shain points out, "UBD is a synthesis of what sound educational research has taught us." And those who have been able to do the work seem convinced that the results have easily repaid their investment.

Overeem sums it up best: "Kids can't help but thrive in our learning community." And isn't that what this is all about?

NDHS Enduring Understandings

Knowledge and Understanding

People use patterns and/or models to make sense of their world.


People use evaluative reflection and inquiry processes.


People use appropriate symbols - numbers, visuals, colours or words - to convey and interpret purpose and meaning to and from specific audiences.


People use and apply tools to explore and communicate across many contexts: technology, reference books, processes.

Concept notes provided courtesy of Laurie Lewis, Norwich District High School

Understanding by Design (UBD) advocates a three-stage process of analysis and curriculum development.

Stage 1

  • Identify the desired results, big ideas or most important skills and knowledge - as defined in the expectations and achievement charts of policy documents.
  • What should students know, understand and be able to do at the end of a unit and a course? These are called enduring understandings.

Stage 2

  • Determine the evidence of understanding. Articulate what it sounds and looks like when students have acquired the important skills and knowledge. Then determine how best to measure this achievement.
  • Units and courses should be anchored by authentic, open-ended and complex performance tasks or projects that allow students to use their knowledge in context. Understanding is the focus. Teachers can use more traditional assessments such as tests to round out the picture - assessing essential knowledge and skills that contribute to the culminating performances.

Stage 3

  • Plan teaching and learning activities that allow students to demonstrate that they have gained the required knowledge and skills. Activities should address specifics of instructional planning - growing out of the desired results or enduring understandings (in Stage 1) and appropriate assessments (Stage 2).
Criteria for enduring understandings
  • 'uncoverage' rather than traditional coverage
  • enduring value beyond school
  • potential for engaging people
  • central to the discipline
Design assessments and assignments to answer essential questions

Essential questions

  • provide direction and focus for inquiry
  • are asked over and over throughout the strand
  • provide a base for building curriculum
  • should be provocative and multi-layered
  • serve as criteria for determining how well students are understanding
Suggested readings

Lynn H. Erickson, Stirring the Head, Heart, and Soul: Redefining Curriculum and Instruction, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2000

Robin Hunter, Madeline Hunter's Mastery Teaching: Increasing Instructional Effectiveness in Elementary and Secondary Schools, updated edition, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2004

Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Mapping the Big Picture: Integrating Curriculum and Assessment K-12, Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1997

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, New York: Pearson Education, 2000