Backwards Thinking Explained

What is Backwards Thinking?

K–12 classroom teachers learning the Design-Based Learning methodology find that using Backwards Thinking™ doesn’t require a whole new series of lessons or a new curriculum. All that is needed is to rethink the sequence of lessons to amplify any mandated curriculum and “sneak up” on learning.


To facilitate teachers’ understanding of the Backwards Thinking™ process, Leslie Stoltz, a teacher at Chaparral Middle School in the Walnut Valley Unified School District in Diamond Bar, California, who taught Design Based Learning to hundreds of teachers, worked with Doreen Nelson to develop the 6 ½ steps of Backwards Thinking™ graphic shown below. These 6 ½ steps are not rigid. To achieve the teaching of creative and critical thinking, however, the following three steps are essential: Step 3, “Set Criteria for Assessment,” based on the required curriculum; Step 4, “Give It a Try,” the springboard for Step 5:“Teach Guided Lessons.”


The 6½ Steps of Backwards Thinking

Step 1: What Do I Need to Teach?  Themes, Concepts, Standards

Each Design Challenge is derived from an Essential Question organized around a topic or a theme that comes from the required Standards. Example: migration.


Step 2:  Identify a “Problem” from the Curriculum

Examples: Why do people migrate? How do natural resources define cultures? Why did cities come into being?


Step 2 ½: State a “Never-Before-Seen” Design Challenge


Step 3: Set Criteria for Assessment

  • List “DON’T WANTS” and “NEEDS” based on curriculum, standards, and content.
  • Plan evaluation


Step 4: Let students “Give It a Try”  (Duration: 45 minutes to 2 hours)


  • Build instant 3-D models
  • Present and get feedback
  • Learn to ask “how“ and “why”
  • Learn to self-assess according to pre-set criteria
  • TALK, TALK, TALK, WRITE: Students learn to describe their designs
  • through presentation and discussion as preparation for writing.


Step 5: Teach Guided Lessons  (Duration: one week to a month)

Teach Guided Lessons in any subject using students’ personal connection to their Never-Before-Seen artifacts as a tool for learning. Examples: the mathematics of the artifact’s size, shape, and volume; its scientific feasibility, the language and art skills of reading, speaking, writing, and drawing.


  • Research information
  • Speak
  • Write
  • Compute
  • Make comparisons
  • Chart, diagram, and map results


Step 6: Students Revise Design



  • Rebuild Models
  • Apply lessons
  • Assess
  • Synthesize


Here's an example

An Example of the Design-Based Learning 6 ½ Step Process of Backwards Thinking™, Taught as an Integrated Curriculum at the 3rd Grade Level


Students Design Never-Before-Seen Creatures

Duration: One Month


  • Paper
  • Recycled materials
  • Criteria List


Step 1: What Do I Need To Teach?

The Essential Question: How do humans protect themselves and their world?


Step 2: Identify The Problem

Students’ Never-Before-Seen Creatures (built in a previous Design Challenge) need a way to protect themselves from the elements and enemies in their city.


Step 2 ½: State the Design Challenge

Build a Never-Before-Seen Shelter. (“Our creatures need to protect themselves. Invent how they will do it in a Never-Before-Seen Shelter that you build.” To promote originality, the teacher emphasizes, “your designs need to be something that you have never seen before.”)


Step 3: Set Criteria For Assessment

Introduce the Criteria List for the Never-Before-Seen Shelter Design Challenge. The words on the List come from the Social Studies and Science curricula that require the teaching of how humans have protected themselves from extremes of nature and other dangers. (This vocabulary prepares students for the Guided Lessons ahead.) The Don’t Wants on the left side are in red, meaning “stop” or “no,” prompting students to air their opinions about what should be avoided and why. The Needs on the right are in green, meaning “yes” or “go,” adhering to curricular requirements. Check for understanding of the words on the Criteria List by having students read the list and ask questions for clarification.




                   Don’t Wants                                                     Needs

 Already Seen





Ordinary houses with the usual doors and windows

Ways to get in and out

Ways to provide light and air

Temporary solutions

Forever solutions for protection from the extremes of nature:





Extreme heat and cold


Harmful or ugly solutions: guns, bars on the Shelter, or prisons

Protection from mean people


Step 4: Let Students Give It A Try  

Working alone or in groups, after selecting a variety of materials, students have 20 to 30 minutes to build their solutions, adhering to the Criteria List. If they start building forts or houses, referring them back to the Criteria List stops replication. After building their rough models, students are taught to talk about them in different settings. They learn to give oral presentations explaining their reasoning for their Never-Before-Seen Shelters and to listen to and question their classmates’ presentations. They TALK, TALK, TALK, WRITE. Small groups of students vote on the best design in their group; each group presents a summary of its chosen design to the whole class. Students then draw and write about the details of their Never-Before-Seen Shelters.


Step 5: Teach the Guided Lessons

Students are guided to:

  • Collect and compare scientific data to their Never-Before-Seen Shelter solutions for weather events and earthquakes.
  • Determine the geometric shapes and volume of their artifacts.
  • Diagram their Never-Before-Seen Shelters, labeled with exact measurements.
  • Differentiate how humans throughout history have protected themselves.
  • Write and edit original compositions using descriptive language to explain what it’s like to live in their Never-Before-Seen Shelters.


Step 6: Have Students Revise Their Designs

Students apply the information learned through Guided Lessons to revise their designs. They propose and discuss the changes they want to make to their Never-Before-Seen Shelters and why. The revision process is based on students’ research and the changes they propose making to their artifacts. Their proposed revisions can be spoken or built. Built is better.

Some Final Thoughts

Through all the years that the Design-Based Learning methodology has evolved, but there has always been one significant constant: when students of any age start their learning process with their own original creations based on required criteria, they become facile at making changes and reusing learned information and they come to experience problem seeking and problem solving as an engaging type of play and want to participate. 


During a visit with Jerome Bruner in 2015, he told Doreen Nelson, “I worry that today’s drive toward subject matter accountability is freezing creative thinking.” Doreen’s years of experience have shown her that it is not an either/or, that good test scores and creative thinking are compatible. The data collected consistently show that students in classrooms using the Design-Based Learning methodology excel. The quantitative data show that standardized test scores in Language Arts, Math, Science, and other subjects improve markedly, even for English language learners and those with learning disabilities. The qualitative data collected from students, teachers, administrators, and parents through surveys and anecdotal records describe the positive impact of Design-Based Learning on student engagement and understanding.

* The Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning (DBL) is protected by copyright and trademark law. Do not publish or make commercial use of any DBL materials without prior written permission. For details, visit