Backwards Design for Life-Long Learning and Engagement

This post is a response to a colleague of mine, Ron Dorland, and a blog post he wrote called Frameworks for Thought.  It sparked some thinking on my part and I decided to take the time to craft a response which you will find below.  I encourage you to add to the discussion either on this blog, or on Ron’s original post.


I read your blog post with some interest. Normally I read posts and move on, but something about yours made me sit and think a few things through that I wanted to add to the conversation with you and your readers. Writing this has been an interesting form of reflection for me and I hope it deepens both our understandings of the framework I would hate to see be thrown away. I fear we might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we were to rid ourselves of this form of curriculum design. Understanding by Design has played such an important role in my practice as both teacher and teacher educator that I want to highlight some of its merits; some of which I think will also support your desire to have students more engaged, honoured for their diversity, leaving schools as life-long learners.

In your post you state that a backwards design model doesn’t support a 21st century classroom. We’re 15 years into the 21st century and still many have different ideas on what that exactly means. The best definitions of a 21st century classrooms in my opinion are ones in which students are taught how to learn, how to think critically, how to be creative, how to collaborate, how to problem solve, and how to reflect on their individual learning process so that eventually they become self sufficient learners. I find too often a 21st century classroom comes with the idea that it needs to be online, blogging, twittering and posting accomplishments on Youtube etc. etc. I also find that there are a growing number of teachers who believe that not being online puts teachers and their students at a disadvantage. While I maintain an online presence (heck, I’m commenting on a blog), I believe that one doesn’t have to make their practice public to be an effective teacher. This is still a tension of mine. I believe in the importance of understanding technology and social media, but I don’t believe it needs to be top priority in the average classroom. Thinking trumps technology everyday in my classroom. We are teaching students for an unknown future and if we aren’t helping students develop cognitively I don’t believe we’re making the best use of our precious time with them. I believe a backwards design curriculum framework can effectively develop the skills needed for success in the 21st century.

You also make the distinction between a ‘final destination’ and ‘process,’ which I don’t believe are as mutually exclusive as you suggest. What if the final destination was the process, or the final destination wasn’t a content piece such as ‘Vancouver’ but was the thinking skills, strategies and processes needed to exist in the ‘21 Century?’ Wouldn’t then a backwards design framework be useful for educators who are trying to teach these skills and processes to students? If we want students to think critically, how do we design our instructional strategies and techniques to teach them how to do so, then how will we know if they have thought critically enough and how will we describe the criticalness of their thinking if we don’t have some language around what good critical thinking looks like? As you can see I am making the argument that using backwards design, identifying the desired skill, and language to describe that skill (assessment), is key in helping students develop skills to be successful in their life, which for many of them will exist solely in the 21st century.

You ask, ‘So then why do we create a final destination?  Why can’t we have students create and hand in their own objectives and then become accountable in following their own pre-made paths? Why have an end point, when we have so much diversity in our classrooms?’ In my experience when students are given this kind of autonomy over their learning they are lost as to where to start. I have seen teachers use ‘20% time’ or ‘passion projects’ or other forms of inquiry projects with their students with the best of intentions, only to have students struggle to pick topics and when they do create projects that lack real depth of inquiry and understanding and are little more than the modern day version of the poster project copied and pasted from somewhere else. With other students they create beautiful projects that are what we’d hope they’d produce.

Both these scenarios make sense if we use Daniel Pink’s research to help us understand why motivation is lost in some projects and not in others. We give the students autonomy but we don’t help them find purpose (the ones who excel are ones that find the purpose on their own or create their own purpose). Clearly identifying the purpose of what we are asking students to do in the classroom is an important part of backwards design. Too often though the purpose becomes ‘get to Vancouver,’ know this fact, write this 5 paragraph essay, answer these questions on The Outsiders. If this type of objective is the purpose then yes, I agree with you, get rid of backwards design. But if we help students identify a purpose that is grander and more applicable to them learning how to learn, then we can’t abandon a curriculum design framework that supports both teachers and students in reaching this goal. To continue with Daniel Pink’s argument, he also writes about the importance of mastery; getting better at something. The only way we know we are getting better at something is if we know what getting better looks / sounds like; we need to know the criteria, which is where the all important assessment piece comes in.

Maybe we need to give the backwards design framework to students as part of their inquiry projects? Obviously within this framework there needs to be space for students to experiment and take risks. This too can be supported when the goals and objectives of our units and lessons aren’t as scripted as to ‘get to Vancouver.’ The new BC curriculum allows for planning that is focused on big ideas that endure throughout subjects and over time. I think there is still too much focus on the content, which I know we need as a vehicle to higher-level thinking. My concern is that too many teachers still want to get all their students ‘to Vancouver’ and are focused on the content that is covered at each grade level. It is easier to identify if students have been successful in remembering and regurgitating content. If backwards design is being used to accomplish such goals then, I agree, a conversation needs to be had; not about the framework, but what we are valuing within the framework.

So I think that your desire to put students at the centre of their learning is noble and should continue to be a priority in all teachers’ practice. However I would invite you to re-examine a backwards design framework and see how it can be used to teach students to be more skillful, more independent, more critical thinkers and take more ownership of their learning rather than a way to cover ‘objectives.’ I think that you could accomplish your goals supported by a framework that encourages us to visualize what we want for our students, and a way to know they have arrived.


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