Planning a PBL: Design Thinking Backwards Planning for Teachers

Starting a unit or project with the end goal in mind helps teachers to authentically integrate all content and plan the steps to achieve the
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About This Strategy

Design thinking backwards planning is a way for teachers to plan a unit or project with the end in mind. Design thinking is an iterative process focused on a solution-based approach to learning, where the teacher is focused on recognizing student needs, supporting students as they challenge assumptions, and helping students prototype, test, and revise new solutions. Using backwards planning, teachers first decide what the end goal or product is and then work backwards to create a plan to move the students towards that end goal or product. By working backwards, teachers are able to define where they want their students to be and develop new and creative ways to get the students there. This strategy can be used in any grade or content level and is also great for interdisciplinary planning.

Implementation Steps

60-90 minutes
  1. Complete the Design Thinking Backwards Planning template included as a resource below.

  2. Follow the 7 steps on the template to backwards plan a unit or PBL. Each step has instructions, tips, and examples to reference.

  3. An alternative to a "main course" PBL project is a "dessert project". To learn more about dessert projects, consult the "The Main Course, Not Dessert" resource below.

Planning a PBL for Distance Learning

Kathleen Rockefeller
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

The steps for backwards planning a project-based learning activity in a synchronous distance learning setting are the same for a brick and mortar classroom setting.  However, the teacher must carefully consider, in the planning phase, how the students will complete their project-based learning activity within the distance learning setting.  

Implementation steps:

  1. Use the PBL Backwards Planning for Distance Learning Template, linked in the resources section below, to backwards plan for a project-based learning activity within the synchronous distance learning setting.

    • Some of the project-based learning activity may be completed asynchronously.  The project-based learning activity should be carefully taught and modeled for students within synchronous learning sessions.  This gives students a time to ask questions, and for the teacher to monitor student work and provide feedback as needed.  The teacher should also create a rubric for the project-based learning activity that is reviewed with students during synchronous learning time.  If possible, the teacher can use the rubric to grade an exemplar project-based learning activity with the students.  

    • The resource linked below, PBLWorks, contains resources, projects, and templates to use when planning project-based activities with students.  An article titled, School Closures? Using PBL in Remote Learning, provides additional resources from PBL Works on how to incorporate PBL into remote learning. 

  2. Incorporate daily individual student check-ins while students complete their project.  The PBL Midpoint Conference strategy which can be found in the BetterLesson Lab, provides implementation steps on how to use conferences to check on students' PBL progress. 

    • Voxer is a technology tool that can be used to communicate with students.  Group chat groups can also be set up within Voxer.  Students can communicate with written text, audio, or video.  They can share images and other content.  This tool would be a very effective way for students to frequently communicate with each other and/or the teacher to report progress on their PBL projects and presentations.  The resource linked below, Voxer To Communicate With Students Easily, provides a tutorial of how to set up and use Voxer.  

    •  Slack is another great resource to utilize as a classroom resource for communication.  Students can update the teacher on their PBL project through a group Slack channel.  The teacher can also create individual Slack channels for students or groups of students to communicate and collaborate within.  The resource linked below, Slack Basics: The Ultimate Slack Introduction, provides a tutorial about how to start using Slack.  

Questions to Consider

  1. What specific skills or content understanding will students need to achieve the outcome or complete the project?

  2. What will count as evidence to show that students have mastered the content?

  3. How much time do students need to complete the outcome, project, or goal?

Tech Tools

Google Docs

  1. Google Docs is an online word processor (part of Google Apps) that allows you create and edit documents collaboratively in a web browser.

  2. Google Docs allows teachers to create and share a backwards planning template for each unit or project. Teachers can work collaboratively with each other or with their coach on a backwards plan throughout the design process.

Research Base

  • To learn more about backwards design, read "The Logic of Backwards Design" by ASCD linked below.

  • To learn more about design thinking, read "Understanding by Design" published by Vanderbilt University linked below.

Related Lessons

Explore the Human Body 2.0 lesson by 7th grade Science BetterLesson Master Teacher Mariana Garcia Serrato to see how her students engage in a dessert project.