The Power of Backward Design for teachers
by Alec Patton
I’ve just been reading an extract from Understanding by Design,by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, which is about what they call ‘teaching for understanding’.
One of the key compononents of this is ‘backward design’, the essence of which is that
Our lessons, units, and courses should be logically inferred from the results sought, not derived from the methods, books, and activities with which we are most comfortable.
They contrast this with what they call ‘content-focused design’, a typical example of which would look like this:
The teacher might base a lesson on a particular topic (e.g., racial prejudice), select a resource (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird), choose specific instructional methods based on the resource and topic (e.g., Socratic seminar to discuss the book and cooperative groups to analyze stereotypical images in films and on television), and hope thereby to cause learning (and meet a few English/language arts standards). Finally, the teacher might think up a few essay questions and quizzes for assessing student understanding of the book.
The problem here, they point out, is that the design starts from what the students should do ( read To Kill A Mockingbird) rather than what the students should learn from having done it. Wiggins and McTighe describe this approach, in a wonderfully tactile image, as ‘Throw some content and activities against the wall and hope some of it sticks.’
Backward design, by contrast, has three stages:
- Identify desired results
- Determine acceptable evidence
- Plan learning experiences and instruction
This really appeals to me – and I think it applies beyond education (though I haven’t entirely thought this through). For whatever reason, it’s very easy to start planning with ‘what we want to do’ rather than with ‘what we want to have achieved at the end of it’.
Backward design is one of those ideas that’s so simple it seems inconceivable that it isn’t the norm – but the familiarity of the ‘Mockingbird’ example is a clear indication that it is not.
Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.