With respect to some of the previous reviewers, I really don't think they have done justice to this book. I'll completely expose my inner geek and admit that curriculum design is fascinating to me, and add that I own a considerable number of books on the topic. I am particularly interested in differentiating curricula, and I purchase books about educational theory and classroom ideas the way other women purchase shoes--insatiably. I have constantly challenged myself to create personalized lessons with meaningful learning goals throughout my teaching career, but I will say that this book has definitely changed the way I view teaching and curricular design--and for the better.
I liked this book because it embraces the numerous messy variables that exist in the real world of teaching, and provides a template for you to construct meaningful, integrated learning activities for students. These messy variables include differing student interests and abilities, the struggle to keep activities engaging as well as applicable to important premises of a given discipline, as well as logistical restraints, such as time and access to resources. Other models provide neat flow charts that look beautiful, but often prove unusable given a unique teaching situation (and who doesn't have a unique teaching situation?) This philosophy expects messy variability, and gives a vision and a plan to work with that, instead of hoping everything will turn out neatly.
Here are some of the huge ideas I got from this book. First, it is essential to clarify the "so what?" of whatever you are teaching--the big ideas, the principles of the field, the "It" things you want students to come away with. I have always done this instinctively, but I have not been so great about communicating those principles clearly and repeatedly to students (and parents and colleagues). The idea that students can be actively involved in the philosophy and understanding behind the curricular design (as well as, of course, make choices as part of the lessons), was a light bulb for me. Also, teaching often tends to become scattered with lots of facts and pressure to "cover" information, and clarifying these big ideas and working from there makes intuitive sense--if it doesn't connect to the big ideas you've established as critical, then the lesson doesn't belong. Perhaps these ideas seem like huge "duh" statements, but in the real world of teaching, I think very few people manage to adequately establish the critical issues, articulate and refer to them with students, and connect them to related ideas throughout the term. This book really is a valuable resource for doing the hard, thinking work that teachers really are capable of doing. It provides direction in an environment bound by paperwork and directives that have us running in circles. It is not the idea of backward design that's revolutionary, but the practicality of the technique that aligns so well with what good teachers instinctively know works best.
The reviewer who took issue with the philosophy as being problematic because it was inherently incapable of being truly student-driven raises an interesting point, but I'm not sure it's really a downfall of the book. There are very few schools (with a notable exception profiled on 60 Minutes some years ago) which allow students to determine what they will study based solely on their interests. I appreciate the question, and it's a worthy one to discuss--after all, is it only worthwhile to investigate and learn about things that really interest us? Or should every person be responsible for a core set of knowledge before branching into specialization in a field? Most schools operate with the latter premise and have requisite standards to be met, so a student-driven curriculum is not an option for most teachers. Further, a central tenet of the book relates to designing curricula so that students will "uncover" truths--rather than having a teacher or textbook "tell it" to them--students uncover meaning in an authentic way as it relates to a given topic in a discipline. To me, this is meaning-making--learning--at its best.