Backwards Design: Moving from Theory to Metacognition

While observing classes today, I saw an interaction that made me reflect.  While the teacher was giving a mini-lesson, a student raised her hand and asked the one question that all teachers hate if they are not prepared.  The student asked, “Why are we learning this?”


“I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts to be in their proper context.” -Gordon B. Hinckley

It is often hard for us to convey our passions to the students in a way that encourages them to buy in. I was often the student who wondered why are we learning what we were. It is a difficult question to answer, yet it is our responsibility to set the context for the lesson for the students. In my classroom, it was often hard to explain to a child why learning how to find a theme would be important to their lives.  As a person who loves literature, I find the answer easy.  The themes of what we read are reflected in our world.  But what if a child doesn’t love to read?  What if they don’t care about the critical thinking skills that come with learning theme?  What if a child just does not care about school?

If teaching is an art and a science, these difficult questions are often addressed through the science of teaching.  Teachers, when taught the science of teaching, are instructed in a process called backwards design.  Teachers are taught to plan with the end in mind and then plan backwards to ensure that students learn all the prerequisite skills along the way.  The science of teaching is both procedural and psychological.  We are taught researched methodologies and processes.  These skills, when present, are a key indicator of an effective teacher.  That being said, is a student more likely to understand the why of learning because the teacher went through the backwards design process?  The jury is out on that one.

From an art lens, truly remarkable educators excel in their ability to make connections with each and every student.  If a student asks why she is learning something, artful teachers can often convince the student to press on, even if the teacher cannot actually answer why the student needs to learn the material.  I have seen it done time and time again; the teacher inflicts some kind of jedi mind trick where the student doesn’t get an answer as to why she is learning something, but she still feels compelled to continue to work.  Is this good enough?  If I don’t answer the student’s question but they continue to work, that can be a win.  But is it what is best for kids?  Again, the jury is out.

If the jury continues to be out, maybe teachers need to ask a question: What if we asked the students a question to help bridge the gap between our knowledge and their desires to understand our knowledge?  We will never be able to get every student to buy in, but what if we got them to see the roadmap?  What if we asked them the question, “Would you like me to show you where we are going?”  I recognize that this is not a new idea, but could it lift the instructional veil just enough so that students could see what their life holds in the future?

From Theory to Practice

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”  -Benjamin Franklin

As teachers, it is our responsibility to involve our students in their learning.  For them to have that chance at involvement, they need the veil to be lifted.  Teachers need to show them the map.  If teachers go through the arduous process of backwards design, why would they not show the kids the process so that they may be more involved?  If the kids knew the map, they could help plot their own course.  They could begin the process of metacognition.

Screenshot 2017-03-09 at 9.35.43 AM

When I plan, I start with the end in mind, but that is not new.  What I do, however, is separate my instructional points from my assessment points.  Then, I show the kids a map like one to the left.  Their version is often riddled with checkboxes for self-assessment and lines where students can answer metacognitive prompts that I have developed (and begged, borrowed, and stole).  I will often reference the document through my class so that kids know where they should be, where they are, and what they must do to be successful. And if I am asked and I cannot provide a real world reason, this map helps explain the educational path to the student.  I have had many students satisfied once they understood the map and was asked to apply the map in a variety of ways.  In other words, a student is not just being given our lessons from a thoughtful planning session, but rather they are given ownership of their progress to their destination.

How Will You Open the Veil?

“The good life is a process, not a state of being…” -Carl Rogers

All of this is to say, teaching is hard.  But if we are working harder than the students, we are doing it wrong.  To help lighten our load, consider putting as much as you can back on the students.  My small way of doing it is not my backwards design process, but rather how I use it with my students.  How will you make the roadmap clear for your kids?  What pitstops will you build in?  What tourist sites will you visit to enrich their understanding of their trip?  How will you ensure that your students remember your hard work for years to come?  Please add your ideas in the comments and feel free to reach out to me with how you do things!

2 Replies to “Backwards Design: Moving from Theory to Metacognition”

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I love the concept of including your students on the ‘roadmap to success’ when it comes to backwards design/assessment. Do you have any other examples than the diagram posted above that you would be willing to share? 🙂 I teach middle school ELA and I usually post an Essential Question & we usually have a discussion of the purpose of our unit before we begin. I rarely have questions of “why”… however, it’s still necessary to open the lines of communication further & better how purposes are conveyed.

    1. Thanks for reaching out! Unfortunately, I do not have another map as I left my materials at my old school when I became an instructional coach this year. I will try to get my hands on some of them for you.

      That said, I would love the opportunity to meet with you virtually to talk through the process. It is modeled after my PBL training that I went through. I plan like I am doing PBL even if I am not. Would this interest you?

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