Backward Designing for the Whole Child


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By Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman

Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman Backward Design 300x300Eleven years in the classroom, and the entire time I’ve been planning backwards. That is, planning with the end in mind. Why? Because knowing what I want my students to learn helps me determine how to facilitate their learning throughout the year.

I’ve taught in Canada and the United States, and this year I’m teaching at a school in Singapore. The locations may have changed, but the planning process is the same. Teachers across the globe use the Understanding by Design® framework (the UbD framework) to plan units, asking themselves these questions: What do I want my students to know and be able to do by the end of the unit? How will I design my curriculum to support them in understanding what I want them to know?

As I began learning about the International Baccalaureate® Primary Years Programme (IB PYP), I discovered that there are learner profiles, attitudes, and benchmarks used to guide student learning experiences and outcomes. Learner profiles and attitudes are closely aligned to the ASCD Whole Child tenets. Coincidentally, chapter 5 of Taking the PYP Forward: The Future of the IB Primary Years Programme is titled “UbD and PYP: complementary planning frameworks” and is written by Jay McTighe, Marcella Emberger, and Steven Carber. The authors confirmed my thinking and learning about the IB PYP, which “focuses on the total growth of the developing child” (p. 67) by providing inquiry-based learning opportunities for students through a transdisciplinary approach.

Here’s how the tenets and learner profiles and attitudes fit together, and what they can look like in the classroom throughout the year:

  1. If the goal is for students to be healthy, design activities for students to compare and contrast healthy and unhealthy lifestyle habits. Let them uncover how lifestyle habits influence whether or not they lead a balanced life. Let them research what happens when there is a lifestyle imbalance and come up with ways to correct those choices. Teaching healthy habits and allowing for brain or activity breaks enables students to become balanced physically, emotionally, and mentally.
  2. If the goal is for students to feel safe, focus on building trust in the classroom community during the first few days of school. This sets the tone for the year to come. Design activities that foster trust by communicating validation of feelings, and discuss how to problem solve in respectful ways so that all students feel comfortable sharing their feelings and ideas. When students feel safe in their learning environment, they are more willing to be risk takers. Risks for some students may be simply asking questions, doing research, or presenting a project in front of the class. In a safe environment, students are likely to become tolerant, curious, and open minded about each other’s differences and ask questions to clarify misunderstanding or miscommunications. Students become caring toward one another, appreciate differences, and begin to empathize with others.
  3. If the goal is for students to be engaged, plan activities that require students to become creative thinkers and communicators. Being engaged is not to be confused with being busy. Engagement is when students are participating in student-led inquiries, discussions, and self-selected projects that allow them to deeply dive into content and their own interest areas.
  4. If the goal is for students to feel supported, design your curriculum so they become reflective in their learning processes. Support students in developing practices that allow them to use feedback, rubrics, and checklists to reflect on their work. Again, when students feel safe and supported, they are more willing to take risks in their learning.
  5. If the goal is for students to be challenged, model and plan opportunities that allow them to ask and answer deep questions. By doing so, students will evolve into enthusiastic inquirers who seek knowledge. Allow students to discuss, research, ask questions, and debate with each other. Challenging students will allow them to develop a commitment to their learning and to being cooperative learners.

Backward designing a curriculum using the ASCD Whole Child tenets and the IB learner profiles and attitudes will enable students to become principled and confident members of society who conduct themselves with integrity all year long. Isn’t this what we want for our students?

Visit the ASCD website to learn how you can begin with the end in mind.


McTighe, J., Emberger, M., & Carber, S. (2009). UbD and PYP: Complementary planning frameworks. In Davidson, S., & Carber, S. (Eds.), Taking the PYP forward: The future of the IB Primary Years Programme (p. 67). Woodbridge, UK: John Catt Educational Ltd.


Tamera Musiowsky-Borneman currently teaches in Singapore at an international school. For nine years, she worked for the New York City Department of Education as an elementary teacher and most recently an instructional coordinator with the Division of Early Childhood. She is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2014.



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