Backward Curriculum Design

Backward Design versus Traditional Curriculum Models

Backward Curriculum DesignCurriculum development is the “key element in the educational process” (Roberts, 2007, para. 1). It can compose of a specific course or a whole educational environment within a classroom, school or school district. It can take on a specified aspect or be all inclusive within the classroom. It focuses on the educational process of what and how the information will be taught but also on the results of learning. It can be one of the most difficult terms in education to define (Smith, 2000).

Curriculum development consists of several steps which are common to the different models. These steps start with the identification of the needs of the students followed by targeting to the specified needs of individual students. As the needs have been assessed, curriculum models compose learning objectives or goals for the students. Learning strategies and techniques stem from these objectives in addition to assessment options (University of California, San Diego, 2010).

VanCrowder (1997) divides curriculum development models into two main systems. The first type of system is the classical approach which addresses aims and objectives as they have been set up by educational professionals who determine a desired product. In this classical model, curriculum is developed from a predetermined set of objectives with a common educational goal for every learner. The second type is a subjectivist curriculum model as it is determined by those educators who are directly involved with the learners.

Curriculum Models

Traditional curriculum designs follow both a objectivist model and the subjectivist model.  One model which has received considerable notoriety is the thematic curriculum approach. Educators provide their students with a predominate theme as they weave the various educational domains throughout the topic. An example of this approach is shared by the International Organization on Arts and Disability (2010) which states “By selecting topics of high interest to children, the opportunities for active involvement in the process of learning are increased. Organizing curriculum around a theme allows for curriculum content and learning processes to be addressed within a meaningful context” (para. 1). They provide several options for creating learning opportunities within their patented product entitled “Start with Art.” This curriculum theme demonstrates to teachers how to incorporate science, history, math and language arts into an art theme.

Benson (2004) boasts the many benefits to this curriculum approach starting with an in-depth learning of factual information. The students also become involved in the learning process as they interact with the thematic unit. They learn how to process information as they notice learning can be accomplished in a holistic manner. This curriculum design can even address individual learning needs while continuing to promote group activities and cohesiveness. The greatest benefit is how a thematic curriculum can motivate both students and teachers.

The Tylerian Curriculum Model was derived from the foundational educational research of Ralph Tyler who noted substantial problems with the educational system post-World War One. He studied at the University of Chicago where he did his master’s thesis on the development of science testing for high school students. He spent his life researching and modifying curriculum designs which would be more beneficial to the learning of students (Anonymous, 2010).

Hogan (2007) details the steps of the Tylerian curriculum model. This system begins with the development of course objectives. Based on these course objectives, activities are developed and are subsequently organized into lesson activities. The final step in this model is the development of an assessment. Students are evaluated to determine how much they have learned. This model is continually being used in our current day classrooms as teachers derive course and lesson objectives. Following assessment, the student outcomes are judged against the objectives. Another name by which this model is known is the Behavioral Objectives Model (Gilligan, 1990).

Curriculum architects have developed another method to meet the needs of teachers and students entitled the backward design. This system simply focuses on the course objectives and assessment before approaching and organizing the activities. It forces all educators to note the big picture and focus on the end goal. By keeping the end in mind, educators are capable of developing a detailed map with a clear vision of where they’d like to bring their students (Childre, Sands & Pope, 2009).

Backward Design Steps:

The backwards design, built on a foundation of the constructivist approach, follows three basic steps. First, educators will identified the desired outcomes by addressing several questions. What should students learn which are essential concepts? What is worth learning? Second, the evidence that learning has occurred is determined or the assessment is planned. Teachers should ask how should their students demonstrate this evidence of learning? Lastly, the instructor will design their instruction, activities and learning experiences around these objectives and assessments (Pitner, 2009).

This constructivist approach focuses on how students are learning and moves away from the focus on what students should learn. It caters to the knowledge of how “students construct understanding. Students’ prior knowledge and experiences are organized into schema, patterns, and connections for understanding and remembering. Key to all applications of constructivism is that children need opportunities to connect their prior knowledge and experiences with new information through their own thought processes and through interactions with others and the environment” (Childre, Sands & Pope, 2009, p. 6).

Benefits of the Backward Design

Buehl (2000) emphasizes the advantages to the backward design approach. He states that students are more likely to understand the whole picture when learning. They will be less preoccupied with the small details or factual information. This instructional model also helps students to discover global understandings as they gain an appreciation for the overall course direction. Additionally, since educators design the assessments prior to the learning activities, they will ensure to cover all aspects of what they have learned.

Curriculum development is not a new idea. Throughout educational history, it has been manipulated and changed to meet the continuous morphing of our understanding of how individuals learn. It is essential for educators to remember that curriculum is not an end result, but it is a process whereby information is transmitted to learners who integrate it into their existing knowledge.

Anonymous. (2010). Ralph Tyler’s Little Book. Retrieved from The University of Southern Florida Website:

Benson, T. (2004). Integrating teaching units. Retrieved from the Public Broadcasting System for Teachers Website:

Buehl, D. (2000). Backward design: Forward thinking. Retrieved from the Wisconsin Education Associate Council Website:

Childre, A., Sands., J. & Pope, S. (2009). Backward design: Targeting depth of understanding for all learners. Teaching Exceptional Children, (42)5, 6-14.

Gilligan, C. (1990). A rationale for case study in curriculum development. Retrieved from the Issues in Educational Research Website:

Hogan, R. (2007). The historical development of program evaluation: Exploring the past and present. Journal of Workforce Education and Development, (2)4, 1-14.

International Organization of Arts and Disability. (2010). Using a thematic approach. Retrieved from The International Organization of Arts and Disability Website:

Pitner, S. (2009). Curriculum planning with backwards design. Retrieved from Suite101 Website:

Roberts, M. (2007). Curriculum development: An overview. Retrieved from Northern Arizona University Website:

Smith, M. (2000). Curriculum theory and practice. Retrieved from The Encyclopedia of Informal Education Website:

University of California, San Diego. (2010). Curriculum development process. Retrieved from University California, San Diego Website:

VanCrowder, L. (1997). A participatory approach to curriculum development. Retrieved from the Food and Agricultural Organization Education Website:

By Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, a master’s in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.


Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

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