Design / by Tyler Wood

Grant Wiggins goes on to explain further what is different about backward design.

There is a lot to go through in the planning, design, process. I will focus on an example of how I came up with some essential questions and why I would not use the UbD method on a smaller scale by planning lessons. The backward design plan described by Wiggins and McTighe was meant for units not single lessons. 

Essential Questions

My class has been reading a pair of stories on the theme of ants. One was nonfiction and the other a folktale. There are many possibilities for generating moral essential questions here, especially cross genre.

1. Why does stepping on an ant hurt you? 

This first question follows the basics set up by Simon, the question "addresses an essential element of the subject matter or subject matters, is immediately provocative to a particular group of students, and cannot be fully addressed immediately, but will be illuminated over time, explored anew in the light of new learning" (Simon, 2002). The subject matter is addressed by focusing our attention on ants specifically (though the conversation could be expanded to insects generally). It is provocative, in my opinion, because it challanges the student to consider something so small as important which many children do not do. It tries to get the student to consider the role an ant plays in a bigger picture, one that we are a part of. The question is not easily answered right away and forces children to consider all the information laid out in the lessons and connect it to this question for analysis later. Children will have to reflect on when and why they might step on an ant and what meaning that has to a larger picture. They will consider the effects on the ants and how that can effect humans as well. They will also need to understand what ants do in order to address that concern.

2. If you were an ant, would you want to be queen?

This question is begging the question of a better life and what that means. It forces students to consider life as something else, in relation to us (which is our default comparison), and the relationship within the community of ants. This means they will have to understand the jobs ants have and what life in those jobs would entail. They would also have to consider what the queen's job is and how that life might be. They will also be struggling, I believe, with the idea that life as a human queen is generally considered a good life, but is it good to be an ant queen in the same way? This last question can be a follow up, or mid-point, question to further discussion and inquiry. This question sets up "instant immersion in questions, challenges, situations, or stories that require the student's wits, not just school knowledge" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 206). The question raises more questions instead of eliciting an easy response and those new questions are aligned directly with the content being covered in the lesson (e.g. ant jobs). This question also gets at the essential existential question of 'what is a better life?'. It might also challenge students on gender differences because there is no king ant.

3. If our society were run by ants, what would be different? What would be better? What would be worse?

This is a series of questions that relate and extend the idea. Perhaps it is too much of a mouthful, but it might get those creative juices flowing for students. They might visualize giant alien ants, but the core of the questions is working in groups. Students will need to consider how we live in groups and how ants live in groups, which is the target content to be learned. They will need to compare and contrast them, then apply that knowledge to altering our world to match what they learned about ants' society. With some guided questions along the way, this might develop into an interesting discussion about society in general and how it helps or hurts a species, like ants or us. The morality comes in by way of social changes being good or bad and why. Students should consider how the ants' changes effect people and, by way of reason, how we can also effect each other with socio-political changes, but in fourth grade terminology, of course. This is framed in the philosophical tradition of a thought experiment that challenges common held beliefs and is "poised at the boundary of the known and the unknown" (Clifford & Friesen, 2014). 

4. Ants don't say 'no' they just do what needs to be done. Why do you say 'no'?

This is a direct challenge to students and how they (we) live in a society. This will elicit an interesting discussion about roles and freedom. Ants represent absolute obedience and efficiency. The follow up question here is, how much do we care about efficiency? Are we willing to live more like ants for it? If not, then what does that mean about our values compared to ants'? What is more important to us than obedience and efficiency? This would be a question students would reconsider and analyze for a lifetime, which fits in with Simon's explanation of a moral/existential question. 

Lesson Planning in Backward Design

Wiggins and McTighe's idea in Understanding by Design is that we should not create a lesson plan based on backward design because it should be used for larger themes rooted in essential questions. "by their very nature, essential questions focus on big ideas that are typically not unit-specific. They can be properly addressed only across many units and, in some cases, years of study" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 276). This works because we have an overarching view of the curriculum and in this way would have trouble being reduced to a single lesson because of the "constant and frequent movement between element of perfomance (learning and using discrete knowledge and skill) and the whole complex task that prioritizes and justifies the learning" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2006, p. 291). In other words, the scope of the UbD idea is too large to compact into a single lesson, according to the authors. If there is to be a spiral-style curriculum where there is frequent restating and adjusting to the learning, then there is not enough time in a single lesson to accomplish that effectively. This is a long-term method. It might seem logical to take the reasoning of backward design and shrink it down to each lesson - if it works for units, it should work for lessons - but there are two time constraints on the practicality of that. 1) Each lesson is too short, generally, for time to accomplish a learning goal based on essential questions because essential questions are, by nature, unable to be easily answered (like in a single lesson). 2) In order to reexamine the learning and use student feedback to scaffold the learning, the teacher would need a class between one lesson to the next to adjust. It would be nearly impossible to expect teachers to assess, gather feedback, and scaffold the learning all in one lesson. 

My UbD Lesson Plan

However, upon designing a unit plan based on backward design principles we still need to design lesson plans, so why not use the same method of starting at the goals and working backward? "This learning target, considered along with lesson based assessments of student performance, enables teachers to carefully sequence every learning experience within a lesson to reach a desired end" (Jones, Vermette & Jones, 2009). We have designed a lesson plan based on the UbD idea and it has been very difficult to shoehorn into a lesson. I think certain principles of UbD are quite useful, like starting with a learning objective and designing to it, however the overall method proposed by Wiggins and McTighe, as mentioned previously, would not work in such a small space. Does the Two-step method work? I would say, maybe. Perhaps it will work, but to me it does not seem efficient. For example, Jones, Vermette, and Jones offer an example of how it might look to design this style of lesson by having the reader order tasks from a mathematics lesson plan. One the one hand, they show that even a lesson plan can be categorized and termed in the backward design method and they make a good point that "individual lessons can become more objective based, thereby allowing sequencing of the lesson to be designed with a specific end in mind and resulting in greater competency of lesson" (Jones, Vermette & Jones, 2009) but it is not very different from lesson planning without using UbD. The strongest point they make is how the lessons fits into the bigger picture, but that is already the focus of Wiggins & McTighe's ideas, only they are focusing on the lesson level and, by default, defeating the purpose of backward design. The difference in the "two-step" method and backward design is the focus on the lessons, the micro-planning, which can hinder the macro-planning of the units because of the lack of time to adequately build to the essential question-based scope of backward design unit planning. 

If you would like to use the template I used, click below for a blank template you can print.

Blank UbD Template

Below is a table of standards I would use in my class, essential questions for those standards, and how they are relevant to learning. Click below. 

Standards, Essential Questions, and Relevance


Clifford, P. & Friesen, S. (2014). Creating essential questions. Galileo Educational Network. Retreived from

Jones, K., Vermette, P., & Jones, J. (2009, October). An integration of "backward planning" unit design with the "two-step" lesson planning framework. Education, 130, 357-360. Retrieved from

Simon, K. (2002, September). Blue blood is bad, right? Educational Leadership, 60(1), 24. Retrieved from

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by design. (2nd ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

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