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Common Core Big Idea 4: Map Backward From Intended Results

Jay McTighe

education author and consultant
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Editor's note: This is the fourth post in a five-part series which takes a look at five big ideas for implementation of the Common Core State Standards, authored by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

The key to avoiding an overly discrete and fragmented curriculum is to design backward from complex performances that require content. A return to the linguistic roots of “curriculum” reveals the wisdom in this outcome-focused view. The Latin meaning of the term is a “course to be run.” This original connotation helpfully suggests that we should think of a curriculum as the pathway toward a destination. As mentioned above, our conception is that curriculum should be framed and developed in terms of worthy outputs; i.e., desired performances by the learner, not simply as a listing of content inputs.

This is not a new idea. Ralph Tyler made this very point more than 60 years ago (Tyler, 1949). He proposed a curriculum development method involving a matrix of content and process components that would guide teachers in meshing these two elements into effective performance-based learning. As Tyler points out, the “purpose of a statement of objectives is to indicate the kinds of changes in the student to be brought about… Hence it is clear that a statement of objectives in terms of content headings… is not a satisfactory basis for guiding the further development of the curriculum.” pp. 45-6. Indeed, the Mathematics Standards recommend just such an approach:

“The Standards for Mathematical Practice describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle and high school years. Designers of curricula, assessments, and professional development should all attend to the need to connect the mathematical practices to mathematical content in mathematics instruction.” (p. 8)

Thus, the first question for curriculum writers is not: What will we teach and when should we teach it? Rather the initial question for curriculum development must be goal focused: Having learned key content, what will students be able to do with it?

Our long-standing contention applies unequivocally to the Common Core Standards as well as to other standards: The ultimate aim of a curriculum is independent transfer; i.e., for students to be able to employ their learning, autonomously and thoughtfully, to varied complex situations, inside and outside of school. Lacking the capacity to independently apply their learning, a student will be neither college nor workplace ready.

The ELA Standards make this point plainly in their characterization of the capacities of the literate individual:

“They demonstrate independence. Students can, without significant scaffolding, comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information… Students adapt their communication in relation to audience, task, purpose, and discipline. Likewise, students are able independently to discern a speaker’s key points, request clarification, and ask relevant questions... Without prompting, they demonstrate command of standard English and acquire and use a wide-ranging vocabulary. More broadly, they become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.”

-- Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts

These points underscore a potential misunderstanding resulting from a superficial reading of the Standards documents (especially in Mathematics). One could simply parcel out lists of discrete grade-level standards and topics along a calendar while completely ignoring the long-term goal of transfer. A curriculum envisioned and enacted as a set of maps of content and skill coverage will simply not, by itself, develop a student’s increasingly autonomous capacity to use learned content effectively to address complex tasks and problems. Such traditional scope-and-sequencing of curriculum reinforces a “coverage” mentality and reveals a misconception; i.e., that teaching bits of content in a logical and specified order will somehow add up to the desired achievements called for in the Standards.

A related misconception is evident when teachers assume that the CCSS prescribe the instructional sequence and pacing. Not so! To assume that the layout of the documents imply an instructional chronology is as flawed as thinking that since a dictionary is helpfully organized from A to Z, that vocabulary should therefore be taught in alphabetical order. While the grade-level standards are certainly not arbitrary and reflect natural long-term “learning progressions,” a rigid sequence within each grade level was never intended. The authors of the Common Core Standards explicitly call attention to this misconception and warn against it:

“For example, just because topic A appears before topic B in the standards for a given grade, it does not necessarily mean that topic A must be taught before topic B. A teacher might prefer to teach topic B before topic A, or might choose to highlight connections by teaching topic A and topic B at the same time. Or, a teacher might prefer to teach a topic of his or her own choosing that leads, as a byproduct, to students reaching the standards for topics A and B.” (p. 10)

The implications of these points are critical not only for curriculum mapping but for the very nature of instructional practice. Consider this advice from a non-academic source -- the United States Soccer Coaches Federation. In Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in The U.S., the Federation recommends a change in the soccer “curriculum” of practice:

“When conducting training sessions, there needs to be a greater reliance on game oriented training that is player centered and enables players to explore and arrive at solutions while they play. This is in contrast to the ‘coach centered’ training that has been the mainstay of coaching methodology over the years. ‘Game centered training’ implies that the primary training environment is the game as opposed to training players in ‘drill’ type environments. This is not to say that there is not a time for a more ‘direct’ approach to coaching. At times, players need more guidance and direction as they are developing. However, if the goal is to develop creative players who have the abilities to solve problems, and interpret game situations by themselves, a ‘guided discovery’ approach needs to be employed.”

Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in The U.S. -- Appendix C pp. 62-64

We propose that this recommendation applies equally to teachers of academics as to coaches of soccer. In other words, if we want students to be able to apply their learning via autonomous performance, we need to design our curriculum backward from that goal. Metaphorically speaking, then, educators need to ask, what is the “game” we expect students to be able to play with skill and flexibility? In other words, we need clarity and consensus about the point of content learning -- independent transfer. Then, we can build the curriculum pathway backward with those worthy performances in mind.

To design a 12-K curriculum backward from the goal of autonomous transfer requires a deliberate and transparent plan for helping the student rely less and less on teacher hand-holding and scaffolds. After all, transfer is about independent performance in context. You can only be said to have fully understood and applied your learning if you can do it without someone telling you what to do. In the real world, no teacher is there to direct and remind you about which lesson to plug in here or what strategy fits there; transfer is about intelligently and effectively drawing from your repertoire, independently, to handle new situations on your own. Accordingly, we should see an increase, by design, in problem- and project-based learning, small-group inquiries, Socratic Seminars, and independent studies as learners progress through the curriculum across the grades.

Our point here is straightforward: if a curriculum simply marches through lists of content knowledge and skills without attending to the concomitant goal of cultivating independent performance, high-schoolers will remain as dependent on teacher directions and step-by-step guidance as fourth graders currently are. The resulting graduates will be unprepared for the demands of college and the workplace.

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From Common Core Standards to Curriculum Series: Five Big Ideas
In this series, authors Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins explore five big ideas about the Common Core State Standards and their translation into a curriculum. The goal of this series is to clear up misunderstandings and offer recommendations for designing a coherent curriculum and assessment system for realizing the standards' promise.

Jay McTighe

education author and consultant
In This Series
In this series, authors Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins explore five big ideas about the Common Core State Standards and their translation into a curriculum. The goal of this series is to clear up misunderstandings and offer recommendations for designing a coherent curriculum and assessment system for realizing the standards' promise.

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Matthew Gudenius's picture
Matthew Gudenius
Teacher, Computer Programmer / Engineer, and Educational Technologist

Some of us have been doing this all along. I think this is just plain good advice, Common Core or not.

(Then again, I just noticed this post was by Jay McTighe, who provided guidance, assistance, and advice as I was working as a curriculum developer for middle school computer classes at MCPS about 7-8 years ago. So no surprises here! Jay, are some people STILL not backwards-mapping??!)

Consuelo's picture
Project Manager and Instructional Coach for Personalized Learning

Yes, many are not backwards mapping and relying heavily on pacing guides. I understand the independent transfer, project based learning and inquiry, but what would be a first step for grade levels/single subjects to begin? Especially, those who rely heavily on pacing guides and multiple choice tests?


Bruce's picture
elementary tech teacher

Hey, When will teachers actually question the great wisdom of the government workers that create this "CORE"? Its amazing how smart, educated teachers with advanced degrees go lock step with anything that the experts dictate, question NOTHING and then blindly teach to the test, that we create as a benchmark. WE HAVE LOST OUR WAY !! LOL!!

Randy Barron's picture
Randy Barron
Teaching Artist, Choreographer, and Dancer

[quote]Hey, When will teachers actually question the great wisdom of the government workers that create this "CORE"? Its amazing how smart, educated teachers with advanced degrees go lock step with anything that the experts dictate, question NOTHING and then blindly teach to the test, that we create as a benchmark. WE HAVE LOST OUR WAY !! LOL!![/quote]

These standards truly are fundamentally different from any that have come before. Many of the differences are, I think, positive. If you look more closely, you will see what Jay McTighe is getting at.

Another reader has already pointed out your error about "government" involvement in the process. But the question we all should be asking is whether we want business to continue to drive educational outcomes.

In the past, we had the factory system of education thrust on us by factory owners who wanted workers trained on the public dime to come labor in industry after graduation. That led to the "one size fits no one" system that we use to this day, in which we try to make sure that each child meets the "standard" for education.

Now what we should saying is that the best outcomes for our children are not driven by what kind of job they will have, but rather by what it takes to be a citizen of the 21st Century world. We don't specify which facts they know, but we clarify the kind of thinking they need to be able to do with the facts they do have. We show, by example and guidance, how to learn and --- even more importantly --- how to remain in learning mode all our lives.

This will definitely help everyone be better, more productive workers. But the purpose of public education should not be to feed business the raw materials for their profit-making, but to prepare children to be the best people they can be.

Marshall Barnes's picture
Marshall Barnes
Founder, Director of SuperScience for High School Physics

I have heard nothing good about Common Core. I question its validity, its true purpose, and its need. I know BS when I see it, but have not acquired the time to look at Common Core in depth. However, the smell is certainly there...

Randy Barron's picture
Randy Barron
Teaching Artist, Choreographer, and Dancer

How do you "acquire" time, exactly? Don't you just allocate it? Why allocate the time to comment on something you haven't put in the time to read and evaluate? And who are you listening to?

Here's the thing: I'm not an advocate of the Common Core. But, since it is in process in 45 states, I have to acknowledge the very real impact this initiative is having on teaching and learning across the nation. Simply calling it BS doesn't serve anyone.

I have major concerns, such as textbook / testing companies using this as a way to "re-tool" education yet again, at their vast profit. Such as expecting a "standardized product," i.e. the student, as a result of having "standards." Such as politicians continuing to insist on high-stakes, computer-graded tests to evaluate the effectiveness of a complex, creative process such as teaching & learning.

Those concerns are not rooted in the content, but in its potential use/misuse. As a guiding document, the Common Core standards are no worse than anything educators have proposed in the past, and they are far better than most due to their emphasis on thinking rather than encyclopedic knowledge.

Oh, and Bruce, I just haven't had time to do it, but I'm sure I can get Shoe Tying into a meaningful place in teaching through the CC!

Marshall Barnes's picture
Marshall Barnes
Founder, Director of SuperScience for High School Physics


If you don't understand the meaning of "acquiring time", perhaps you should use a dictionary. Seeing as you haven't 'taken' the time to fill out a profile, or even up load a picture, leads me to question the validity of what you're doing here in the first place.

Even from what I've read of Common Core here, it smacks of a sham if it is supposed to improve education for kids. There are far better ways. This article , would seem to bear me out on this and is just the tip of the iceberg of the odor I indicated that I was catching a whiff of. Common Core, at its worst, is a social engineering tool and nothing more, but I wouldn't expect a faceless, bio-less, apologist avatar, without a dictionary, to know what that means, either...

Randy Barron's picture
Randy Barron
Teaching Artist, Choreographer, and Dancer

Hey, Marshall,

Jeez, when you go all ad hominem on a person, it makes others wonder if their words might have stung a bit. Your entire argument seems to be based on "a whiff" of "BS" and what the structure "smacks of." The rule of thumb is, if you have a better idea, propose it. It would definitely help if you "acquired" the time to become familiar with what you are critiquing.

Many of us have to operate in a world where the Common Core is a current reality, and we have to find the good in it. There is a great deal of movement in these standards toward higher-order thinking, and toward helping learners develop the habits of mind that will serve them all their lives.

Now, it is absolutely true that the big textbook manufacturers who are also the big test designers and sellers are always sniffing around avidly when any new national "reform" movement comes along, because they see a whole new wave of things to sell to schools. But nothing in the Common Core mandates testing, and nothing specifies curriculum that must be taught in a certain order.

If you tell teachers, "Just go teach," you don't do them any favors. A set of limits, rules, or in this case standards, is just a way to help organize your thinking about a creative task. As a composer, you should know that.

Finally, rather than being a tool for "social engineering," this set of standards is much more a tool for encouraging, fostering, and developing independent thinking in our young learners. I suppose that could effect social change, but I have to believe it would only be positive. The outcome of the current factory system is clear to everyone who can still read a newspaper.

BTW, you could have Googled my name and found out all you wanted to know in 30 seconds, but I hope you enjoy my fresh new profile on this site. :-)

Marshall Barnes's picture
Marshall Barnes
Founder, Director of SuperScience for High School Physics

Randy, you got personal first. As some of the kids still say, "don't start nothing, there won't be nothing..."

As for having a better idea, I do and I'm already involved in developing it. This, however, isn't the place, nor do I have the time, but I have already proven a major concept ( and won recognitions for it ) that deals with the latent potential of students being ignored by the educational system. Furthermore, the problems that plague the American public school continuum are systematically ignored by the higher ups running things, as well as the text book manufactures. I might add that I see nothing in Common Core that would address these issues.

Frankly, I'm tired of seeing one failed approach after another, because there is a real cost in human lives and suffering. Maybe you have to work within the system, but I don't. And I'm working on changing it.

As for your contention that Common Core doesn't mandate testing, I submit the article that I easily Yahooed looking for Common Core and "testing requirements". . I might mention that I never said the word "mandate" so your argument is moot. I Suggest readers look at the comments below it.

As for the social engineering intent of Common Core, I submit as just one example. Social engineering is one of my areas of research, particularly utilizing technology, to such an extent that I coined a term for the effect that devices can be made to have on the human conscious - technocogninetics, to separate it from the feedback based term - cognitive technology, but Common Core has both all over it.

It's easy to see, Randy, that you're a cheerleader and apologist for Common Core. While you may be a great dance instructor, the last time I checked, dance was not even one of the studies identified as being critical for our young people to get better in, even to the point of it being a national security issue. That's one of the things I'm concerned with, and am involved in, on an increasing national level.

The bottom line is that this isn't the method to change Common Core or even stop it, or even develop a new system. As such, it is a low priority for my ever increasing high priority schedule. Have fun with your dance classes. I've got real work to do - .

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