Thinking Like a Strategist: Backwards Curriculum Design: Blog #1

“I don’t get why you wanted this job,” D. said to me, pointing to an assignment on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. During each of our tutoring sessions, he had made some comment about the pointlessness of school. “Like, why waste our time on this?” he looked at me for an answer.

I coughed, trying to buy myself a minute to think. I had nothing.

He smiled, realizing he had stumped me, and shrugged, “don’t worry, I knew you wouldn’t know.”

As a new educator of middle-school students, I have often made the mistake of forgetting that, though the law requires them to come to class, it does not mean that I inherently have a right to their ears, eyes, and minds. In moments like the one I had with D., I had failed to view teaching as a client-centered design practice (McTighe and Wiggins, 2005), in which it is my job to earn the students’ attention and engagement with the content I am presenting by making it meaningful to their lives, needs, and desires. This lapse in awareness is problematic not only because it puts the job of becoming engaged solely on the student, but prevents them from entering into the flow states that prompt them to “read and enjoy and learn from almost any kind of text” (Smith and Wilhelm, 2006, p. 55). In other words, my inability to make the work meaningful for D. was negatively affecting his access to the knowledge and understanding it could help him generate.

Smith and Wilhelm (2006) suggest that teachers can make lessons matter to their students by organizing the unit around an essential question that “invites engagement, real audiences, and social action” (p 59). In actively generating a variety of responses to the question, students will discover that the concepts and procedures they learn are transferable and “important in life, communities of disciplinary practice, or the world” (Smith and Wilhelm, 2006, p. 57). While I knew D.’s teacher felt that the The Tell-Tale Heart was beneficial to read because it demonstrated that a person’s paranoia and guilt influenced what they perceived as reality, my failure to express this blocked D. from seeing past the “dumb story” in a way that motivated him to devote his time and attention to it. McTighe and Wiggins (2005) note that teachers should generate their essential questions by re-framing “what they want students to understand” from the lesson into an inquiry (p. 23). If I had told D. we were using the text, among other activities, to question how fear and guilt alter our perceived realities, he wouldn’t have had to ask me why we were wasting our time on the lesson; the answer would have been guiding our reading. I had trouble motivating D. to read the text because I had not done the work to consider how it could be relevant to his interests and life. I had attempted to convince him to walk down a difficult path without telling him the benefit he would find at the end. It’s no wonder that he chose to preserve his energy.

In considering how I could have used an outcomes-based, essential question to guide my tutoring session with D.,  I realized that some of the activities I was asking him to complete were irrelevant to helping him generate the kind of understanding I hoped he would leave our meeting holding. It reminded me of a quote that hung in my office back when I worked as an advertising strategist, which said: “you will never design for an objective you don’t first define.”  McTighe and Wiggins (2005) argue that teachers must “identify desired results” of their teaching and “determine acceptable evidence” for measuring if those results are achieved before “planning learning experiences and instruction” to fill the unit (p. 18). They note that “in the best designs, form follows function” (McTighe and Wiggins, 2015, p. 14). By starting with function, the teacher can evaluate if their presentation tactics produce the type of engagement that results in a measurable, desired outcome. Similarly, they know to revise those tactics if they are not working as expected. The plot chart I was asking D. to fill out neither aided him uncovering the objective of helping him understand that emotions will alter our realities or measured if he was meeting that goal. The format of teaching I selected was defective for generating the desired result. Of course, I did not see that because I failed to make my objective explicit.

Importantly, Ladson-Billings (1995) notes that creating a learning objective is not, in and of itself, enough to motivate learning. The aim must be culturally relevant in the sense that it helps students “experience academic success,” generate “and/or maintain [their] cultural competence,” and “develop a critical consciousness” of the current social order (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 159). One of the reasons why I think that organizing a unit around the inquiry of how paranoia and guilt influence a persons’ reality would have motivated D. is that it was relevant his life. One of the few Students of Color in his school, D. had once expressed to me that he thought it was fear and not actual logic causing one of his white friends to “feel like he couldn’t say anything without getting in trouble.” He even used the phrase “living in his own reality” to describe this phenomenon. Ladson-Billings (1995) writes that teachers can “get students to “choose” academic excellence” by “ensuring what they lear[n] is most meaningful to them” (p. 160). In advertising, we called this process showcasing a product’s ‘value proposition,’ or framing a product in a way that helps an audience discover it can solve their problems, fulfill their needs, or improve their lives. To create a relevant value proposition, advertisers start with researching what matters to their targeted audience. Similarly, McTigue and Wiggins (2015) note that the goal of backward design is to keep “designers in education mindful of their audiences” (p. 13). I detracted from D.’s learning when I failed to center my instruction around providing him with knowledge that would be relevant to his life. As a tutor, I could have made the purpose of the assignment more apparent to D. by asking a guiding question and providing supplemental material which centered around the same inquiry. In the future, I am going to think more like a strategist. I am going to find where my students want to go and then design a plan to get them there.  I plan to use resources like the learning plan builder on the Teaching Tolerance website, which asks designers to start with an essential question and follows a backward design process,  to help center my content and pedagogy around essential questions. To further aid in this planning process, Teaching Tolerance has a list of community inquiry teaching strategies meant to engage students in active listening and speaking activities grounded in guiding questions.


Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching!: The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159-165.

McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2005). Understanding by design, second expanded edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Smith, M. W. & Wilhelm, J. D. (2006). Teaching so it matters: Where should we be going and how can we get there? In Going with the flow: How to engage boys [and girls] in their literacy learning (pp.54-79). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Image Sources:

Patil, R. B. (2018). The Tell-Tale Heart [Image]. Retrieved from

Teaching Tolerance (2019). Learning Plan Builder [Image]. Retrieved from McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2005).

UbD: Stages of backward design [Image]. Retrieved from

(1) Comment

  1. Maya Auguston says:

    Hi Ashley,
    I really enjoyed reading your post! I appreciate how deeply your reflected on this experience with D. and your exploration of how you (and I’d add his primary teacher) could have framed the lesson in a way that made the goals of the lesson more transparent and accessible to him. Reading your post, I was reminded of many similar experiences I’ve had with students in which they seem exhausted by, and disengaged from, the texts they’re asked to read. Just today, I was working with a student who enthusiastically told me how much she loves to read (and loves books about 18th and 19th century Europe, at that) and in the same breath expressed her distaste for the books she’s assigned in school. When even a student with interests that are well in line with the canon that’s usually taught isn’t engaged by the way a lesson is framed, clearly something is not right.

    You hit upon something important when you made the connection between the teacher’s reasons for teaching The Tell-Tale Heart and what you knew about D.’s own experiences. As Wiggins and McTighe (2005), as well as Ladson-Billings (1995), note this understanding of who your students are and the experiences they bring is essential for designing learning experiences that are meaningful and effective. Even if you didn’t make this connection in the moment, it’s important that you were able to identify this point of connection (this is why reflection is valuable). Furthermore, I think your story illustrates the importance of being transparent about our goals and reasons for choosing a text or texts.

    Finally, thanks for these two great resources from teaching tolerance! Reading the chapter on backwards design (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005), I found myself feeling a bit overwhelmed by what seems like a time intensive and complex process (and one that results in learning experiences that are quite different from what I often experienced as a K-12 student). It’s good to know that there are resources out there to support us as we develop this new way of thinking about design. I’m looking forward to exploring these more and using them in the future.

    – Maya Auguston

    Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching!: The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159-165.
    McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2005). Understanding by design, second expanded edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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