The Four Questions and Backwards Design

January 1, 2018

Research for This Tool

This planning tool for teachers and teams combines two of the most well researched based educational planning practices: The Four Questions Essential For Learning used in schools implementing the Professional Learning Communities philosophy and Backwards Design, a planning process described by authors Wiggins and McTighe in their groundbreaking book, Understanding by Design,2005.

The Four Questions Essential for Learning:

Using these four questions for instructional planning provides the necessary framework to design instruction and interventions in order for every student to reach high levels of achievement.

  1. What is it we want our students to learn?
  2. How will we know if each student is learning each of the skills we have deemed most essential?
  3. What will we do if they don’t learn it?
  4. What if they already know it?

Backwards Design:

Backwards Design consists of three distinct planning steps:

  1. Identify desired results
  2. Determine the evidence of learning
  3. Plan / Design Instruction

Following these steps prevents teachers from planning activities and then realizing that their lesson and assessment do not fully address or match the rigor required by the standard being taught. The graphic below illustrates the process when both the four questions and backwards design are used.

The Four Questions and Backwards Design

Here are some references related to this tool

Dufour R., Dufour R., and Eaker R., Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work, Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2008

Wiggins G., and McTighe J., Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.

How to Use this Tool

Teachers and teams should use the resources listed as well as others to familiarize themselves with the intent of both processes. A careful review of the literature will show that The Four Questions Essential for Learning and Backwards Design complement and support each other.

In order to answer Question 1 and 2 teachers should fully analyze their standards and identify the essential skills to be taught / learned and how mastery will be assessed. At this point it is appropriate to design a learning plan or the activities that will be used for instruction. Questions 3 and 4 require teachers to plan in advance at Tier 1 for the students who will need re-teaching in a different manner as well as those who need enrichment or extension.

We have provided a free form to help you with this process. To download, click on one of the links below:


“The Four Questions and Backwards Design” Form (.docx)
“The Four Questions and Backwards Design” Form (.pdf)