"Sentence first -- verdict afterwards."

-The Queen of Hearts


Backward design begins with the end in mind: What enduring understandings do I want my students to develop? How will my students demonstrate their understanding when the unit is completed? How will I ensure that students have the skills and understand the concepts required on the summative assessment?

These are the kinds of questions that teachers pose at the earliest stages of the backward design planning process.  By beginning with the end in mind, teachers are able to avoid the common pitfall of planning forward from activity to activity, only to find that some students are prepared for the final assessment while others are not.  Using backward design, teaching for understanding, and requiring students to apply and demonstrate their learning are not new concepts.  Many of the best teachers have been using this approach, even if they didn't have a name for it.  The resources on these linked web pages attempt to explain the backward design planning process and show how it can be used to design thematic, multi-genre units that promote enduring understanding.

Some Frequently Asked Questions &
Answers About Backward Design

Question:  Why is it called Backward Planning?
Answer:  In theory and practice, the unit begins at the end.  Sound like a paradox?  Not really.  It is based on the concept that both the students and teacher will have a much firmer and clearer grasp of where the learning is going if the goal or summative assessment is clearly articulated right from the beginning. By starting with a focus on the enduring understandings that you want your students to learn and apply, then developing how you will know how and when they have reached that understanding, the steps between will be carefully scaffolded to reach that objective. Teachers are designers; we need to ask and answer the following questions before we move to the actual day-to-day lessons:

What is essential to know and be able to do?
What is important to know and do?
What is nice to know?  What is worth being familiar with?

In other words, what knowledge is worth understanding?

Question:  What are the basic steps to the backward design planning process?
Answer:  The steps to this process are listed below and explained in detail on the linked pages (see the menu to the left):

Question:  How can I design an assessment before I teach a unit?
Answer:  Yes, this is a major paradigm shift for many of us. To be able to do this, you need to decide on what is essential for students to know; what is at the core or "heart" of your discipline and then decide how you will know when students have reached that goal.  So, designing your assessment is a necessary piece that must occur in the beginning to give both you and your students a clear destination for the unit.  Once the destination is clear, the teacher is able to create the best roadmap to get there.

Backward designing is a very efficient method in planning a lesson. This is done by enunciating and elucidating end of lesson goals at the start and then letting events find their natural niche



Understanding by Design

Stage 1—Desired Results

Food Chain Lesson for Fourth Graders

Established Goals:

Students will understand the interdependence of organisms in a food chain.
Students will understand (in food chains) the role of: the Sun, producers, consumers, decomposers, first, second and third level consumers, food webs , food pyramids, and energy transfer.
Students will be able to accurately respond to a number of lower and higher level questions.
Students will practice Twenty-First Century skills by participating in an interactive computer exercise, posting blogs and successfully interacting in cooperative groupings.

New York State Science Learning Standards addressed:

Standard 1 Scientific Inquiry

The central purpose of scientific inquiry is to develop explanations of natural phenomena
in a continuing, creative process.
S1.1 Ask "why" questions in attempts to seek greater understanding concerning objects
and events they have observed and heard about.
S1.1a Observe and discuss objects and events.
S1.1b Articulate appropriate questions based on observations
S1.2a Identify similarities and differences between explanations received from
S1.3 Develop relationships among observations to construct descriptions of objects and
events and to form their own tentative explanations of what they have observed.
S1.3a Clearly express a tentative explanation or description which can be tested.




Students will understand that:
All energy comes from the Sun.
All members of a food chain are dependent on each other.
Plants and animals can be categorized as either producers or consumers.
The food chain is not linear; animals eat all kinds of different things.
Each ascending level of the pyramid
has less organisms absorbing less energy.



Essential Question(s):

Before the video:
What did you eat for dinner last night?
Which of these foods come from plants?
Which of these foods don't come from plants?
What are some of the ingredients in your meal?
Are these producers or consumers?

After the video:
Of the consumers, which are animals that eat plants?
Which are animals that eat other animals?
Which eat both?
What are herbivores, carnivores and omnivores?
Can you give me an example of a herbivore, carnivore and omnivore?
What are first, second or third level consumers/ Can you name some?
What characteristics do third level consumers exhibit?
How are these different from second and first level consumers?
Why does the food pyramid narrow towards the top?
Why must there be more organisms at the lower levels?
What would happen if there were less?
What happens to the amount of energy as we go up the food pyramid? Why is that so?
What is the role of decomposers? Can you name some?

After the role playing activity:
What role did your organism play? Why?
What are some of the things we learned today?
Which examples of food chains might we find around the school grounds?

Students will know:    

What roles the Sun, the producers, consumers and decomposers have in a food chain.
How all organisms in a biome are dependent on each other.
Why the upper levels of the food pyramid have less organisms.
Why these levels transmit less energy.





Students will be able to:

Define and understand the terms: producers, consumers, food webs, food pyramids, decomposers, omnivores, herbivores, carnivores and first, second and third level consumers.
Render computer driven written responses to questions concerning the food chain.
Simulate a food chain, while correctly adopting and coordinating the roles of the Sun, the producers, the decomposers and the consumers.



Stage 2—Assessment Evidence


Performance Task(s)

Students will discuss their individual relationships to the food chain.
Students will view interactive video on individual computers on the food chain and answer fill-in questions. Immediate feedback will be given.
Students will practice group skills as each team physically forms a food chain on the basis of randomly selected cards. All students will then explain their individual role.


Other Evidence:

Formal assessment of written responses to video questions.
Formal assessment of blog entries.
Informal assessment of participation responses.
Informal assessment of follow up questions after teacher feedback has been given.
Evaluation of kinesthetic role playing.




Stage 3—Learning Plan


Learning Activities:

Children will activate prior knowledge of food chains in anticipatory discussion (what they had for dinner). Content vocabulary will be incrementally introduced during this segment.
Essential questions will be asked and responses monitored by the instructor.
Students will then watch, on individual computer screens, a seven minute video on the food chain. They will later respond to ten fill-in questions. The video provides feedback on their answers. More essential questions will follow.
Lastly, the students will participate in a kinesthetic game. The teacher hands each child a card that is face down. On each card is the name of a producer, a consumer, a decomposer or a star. At a signal, students will turn over their cards and try to make a food chain. The teacher informs them of how many food chains they will be making using the cards.  When they have finished, each student explains to the class what was on his/her card and identifies it as a producer, consumer, or decomposer.
The children are then asked to volunteer something they learned in the lesson and an introductory question is posed concerning the extended activity
As a follow up activity, students can identify and record examples of food chains outdoors.


Elizondo, M. (2010). Food chain fun. Retrieved on November 25, 2010 from the website:
: http://www.brighthub.com/education/k- 

Food chain video. (No date). Retrieved on November 26, 2010 from the website: 

Kalman, B. (1998). What are food chains and webs? (The science of living things).
New York NY: Crabtree Publishing.

Laureate Education, Inc. (2010). Understanding by design template. Baltimore Md.








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