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Backward Mapping Strategies for Social Studies Planning

Designing effective lessons by working backward from the goal.

Why backward-mapping?
Like engineers, architects, and artists, teachers are, first of all, designers. The textbook may or may not provide an adequate roadmap to meet increasingly significant national, state, and local standards. These standards set measurements for the end results or goals of learning.

Backward mapping can be a useful tool to accommodate outcome-based learning. Like the sculptor who chips away everything that is not the sculpture, the teacher using backward mapping has the end product in mind.

Steps to Backward Mapping
The planner (designer) starts with the goals and works toward assessing for understanding.

1. To identify the desired results, ask:
  • What knowledge is most important?
  • What understandings or skills will endure?
  • What are the big ideas that have value beyond the classroom?
  • Is what I am about to teach significant in the discipline?

2. To determine what students can and will learn, ask:
  • To what extent does the idea or process require an explanation of the abstract?
  • To what extent does the idea, topic, or process offer potential for engaging students?
  • What suitable simulations, debates, inquiries, or other activities can I use?
  • What materials and resources are best suited?

3. To think like an assessor; ask:
  • What assessment tools will measure this learning effectively?
  • What is the objective content that should be assessed?
  • What skills or understandings should be measured? How?

4. To implement the design in a lesson, ask:
  • What is the most important concept to be taught today?
  • What is the most effective method for learning this concept?
  • How is this concept connected to what was learned earlier?
  • How can I connect this concept to the next (or future) lesson?

Models for Backward Mapping in the Social Studies

1. State Standard: Geography
The student understands how people, places, and environments are connected and interdependent. The student is expected to:
    (B) compare ways that humans depend on, adapt to, and modify the physical environments using state, national, and international human activities in a variety of cultural and technological contexts.

Course: American History
Topic: The Textile Industry Begins in New England

Step 1: Identifying the desired results
  • Important knowledge:
    • geography of New England unsuitable for farming
    • value of good harbors in the region; importance of education in the region
    • how technology spreads
    • how technology changes the economy, the environment, the culture

Step 2: What students can and will learn
  • Abstract ideas:
    • what technology is; how it develops;
    • how incentive works in a capitalist system; industrial secrets;
    • what problems can result from technological change

  • How to engage students:
    • examine cloth
    • talk about how it is produced
    • estimate the time it would take to make a shirt by hand, starting from a basket of cotton or wool
    • look at models of early textile machines or visit a historic landmark where it is being done today
    • use overhead of map of New England and early textile industry
    • use of chart of rural and urban populations 1800-1900

Step 3: Thinking like an assessor
  • Assessment tools:
    • student firsthand account: My Job in the Lowell Mill
    • fill-in map of New England with important manufacturing towns

  • Quiz content:
    • people, places, things: Samuel Slater, Francis Cabot Lowell, Elias Howe, power loom, sewing machine, domestic system, factory system

  • Skills:
    • reading maps and graphs
    • creative historical writing

Step 4: Implementing the design
  • Discuss the impact of technology on the physical environment, the cultural environment, and the economic environment of New England.

  • Connect the textile economy to the earlier fishing, shipbuilding, and trading economy of New England.

  • Connect the textile economy to the development of interdependence between New England and the Southern plantations.

2. State Standard: Government
The student understands the American beliefs and principles reflected in the U.S. Constitution and other important historic documents. The student is expected to:

  1. identify the influence of ideas from historic documents including the Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, on the U.S. government system.
Step 1: Identifying the desired results
  • Important knowledge:
    • development of the principle of representation
    • understanding of the gradual process of expanding rights
    • significant principles included in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, including the Preamble

Step 2: What students can and will learn
  • Abstract ideas:
    • concepts of rights
    • sovereignty
    • limited government

  • How to engage students:
    • begin with the known by using examples of rights in situations students understand such as within the structure of a game like basketball;
    • explain the idea of natural rights;
    • read a story of abuse of power by English kings;
    • examine the Magna Carta

Step 3: Think like an assessor
  • Assessment tools: have students create a "constitution"

  • Test: both objective and essay

  • Content: people, places, ideas: King John I, William and Mary, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Runnymede, Philadelphia, Parliament, popular sovereignty, limited government, natural law, natural rights, representation, republicanism, Preamble, separation of powers

Step 4: Implement the design
  • Discuss the term "natural rights."

  • Discuss the rights of players in a game of basketball, ask:
    • Where did these rights originate?
    • Are they natural rights, or were they given by the organizer of the game?

  • Read a story about life under an absolute monarch.

  • Project part of the Magna Carta on overhead.

  • Have students read an excerpt from Locke on natural rights, ask:
    • How are our rights protected?

  • Introduce the Preamble and discuss popular sovereignty, limited government.

  • Have students write a "bill of rights" in their own words.

For More on Backward Mapping see:

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA, 1998

This article was contributed by David Glunt, social studies teacher at Tree of Life Christian High School, Columbus, Ohio. He also teaches American Civilization at Columbus State Community College.

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