Planning lessons backwards

Wiggins and McTighe propose that lesson and curricular planning should follow a ‘backwards’ methodology. In doing so, they predict we will have “results in more clearly defined and wisely blended short-term and long-term goals, more appropriate assessments, and more purposeful teaching than typical planning”.

They describe their framework as ‘backwards’ because it opposes “conventional habits”, where teachers choose to start with textbooks or other materials to formulate their tasks.

Instead, they suggest we derive our tasks from “targeted goals or standards” (i.e. curriculum objectives), as the reason such objectives are initially formed is to guide the design of instruction and task.

This backward design process entails three steps:

  1. Identify desired results
  2. Determine acceptable evidence
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction

1. Identify desired results: considering the end goal of our instruction and doing so with the expectations of the curriculum in mind. In the simplest terms, what is it you want pupils to know or do?

Questions to ask ourselves during stage 1:

  • “What long-term transfer goals are targeted?
  • What meanings should students make to arrive at important understandings?
  • What essential questions will students keep considering?
  • What knowledge and skill will students acquire?
  • What established goals/standards are targeted?”

2. Determine acceptable evidence: we must consider how we will know pupils have achieved the ‘desired results’. This stage encourages us to think as an ‘assessor’ and places assessment at the heart of planning, prompting us to consider “the collected assessment evidence needed to document and validate that the desired learning has been achieved”.

Questions to ask ourselves during stage 2:

  • “What performances and products will reveal evidence of meaning-making and transfer?
  • By what criteria will performance be assessed, in light of Stage 1 desired results?
  • What additional evidence will be collected for all Stage 1 desired results?
  • Are the assessments aligned to all Stage 1 elements?”

3. Plan learning experiences and instruction: with both the results and acceptable evidence now established, we can now consider the instruction we will use to guide pupils towards them. It is in this stage things like lesson sequencing would be considered.

Questions to ask ourselves during stage 3:

  • “What activities, experiences, and lessons will lead to achievement of the desired results and success at the assessments?
  • How will the learning plan help students achieve transfer, and meaning and acquisition, with increasing independence?
  • How will progress be monitored?
  • How will the unit be sequenced and differentiated to optimize achievement for all learners?
  • Are the learning events in Stage 3 aligned with Stage 1 goals and Stage 2 assessments?”

Wiggins and McTighe also posit that this framework should be used with the intention of avoiding the ‘twin sins’ of learning design.

The first sin refers to activity-based lessons. In such lessons, the activity is usually fun or interesting but does not present meaningful learning opportunities.

The second sin refers to content coverage lessons. In these lessons, we aimlessly cover the curriculum within a timeframe just to make sure it is taught without careful consideration of our overarching aims.


The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units by Wiggins and McTighe.

The Understanding by Design Handbook by Wiggins and McTighe.

Published by mrmorgsthoughts

Curriculum Advisor. Interested in curriculum and task design.

2 thoughts on “Planning lessons backwards

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