The 6 ½ Steps of Backwards Thinking™

Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom observed that most teaching and learning never gets beyond remembering and comprehending facts. As he explained, the true goal of learning is to be able to analyze, synthesize and evaluate facts and ideas, and to develop original ideas.

Traditional “frontward” teaching begins with basic facts, and gets stuck there. Backwards Thinking™  begins with the highest level of reasoning. Students start by designing and making a never-before-seen object that represents what they will learn in the textbook. They explain how it functions and where it belongs. Then they have traditional guided lessons to learn the basic subject matter.

The Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning™
Backwards Thinking Process

6 and one half steps backwards thinking process circle

Download an accessible PDF file of this chart

Step One

What do I need to teach? Identify a theme or concept that underlies the curriculum.

Example:  Protection is a universal concept. In the social sciences, students learn about protection from the elements (in a dwelling) and the role of laws that safeguard life and property laws. In science, students learn about the role of skin on the body and antibodies in blood.

Step Two

Identify a problem from the curriculum.

How are things(people)(the body)protected?


Turn the problem into a “never-before-seen” design challenge. This could be a never-before-seen way to protect people from the elements, from criminals or from invasion, or to protect the body itself.

A 10th-grade science class might be asked to create a never-before-seen solution to the following challenge:

“What if a highly contagious and often fatal disease is spreading in a city, and you are a public health official charged with locating the source of the epidemic and preventing new outbreaks?"

The students start thinking about objects and places that could resolve the problem, using the vocabulary of the vector of a disease—before any formal learning takes place about disease or public epidemics.

Step Three

Set criteria for assessment, using the standards and content of the required curriculum. Make two lists, “Don’t Wants” and “Needs.”

Disease Protection: Criteria for Assessment

Don't Wants

Don’t make people stay in their homes.

Don’t make them wear weird clothing.

Don’t make them take medicine that tastes bad.

Where does the disease start?

How is the disease caused?

Which people are most vulnerable to the disease?

How long do people show symptoms of the disease?

How does the disease transfer from one person to another?

These two lists:

  • guide and organize the students’ work
  • set standards by which students are to evaluate their work
  • serve as a means of grading student achievement

Step Four

Let students “give it a try.”

A rolled-up or crumpled piece of paper can become a rough 3-D model (a kind of 3-D bubble diagram). Making the model unlocks the students’ thinking and problem-solving capabilities—and gets them to use the lesson vocabulary over and over as they talk about the challenge.

Students refine the model based on feedback from one another. All the students ask questions, even the more passive members of the class and those with English limitations. Students talk to each other and talk in small groups. They make presentations to the class. Then they use the same vocabulary to write down what they’ve been talking about.

Step Five

Teach Traditional Guided Lessons.

Demonstrating with their models as they explain their solutions, the students are eager to learn more. The textbook has the vocabulary they’ve already used. With this new information, the students make formal presentations to the class and document what they’ve learned in outlines, summaries, charts, diagrams, maps and computations.

Mandated Curriculum:

  • Research/reading
  • Speak (informal conversation, formal presentations)
  • Write (outline, summarize, propose new ideas)
  • Compute
  • Make comparisons
  • Chart, diagram and map results

Step Six

Students Revise Designs

Students synthesize what they’ve learned from making the model and from participating in the guided lessons.

  • Rebuild models
  • Apply learning from guided lessons
  • Assess
  • Synthesize

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