Backwards design is not the problem; lousy implementation is

5 Sep

A friend and former colleague sent me this article and audio piece featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition this past Saturday. It details the experience of Rick Young, a veteran high-school history teacher in Colorado who is leaving the profession after 25 years due to the growing amount of documentation his school requires from him.

One of the time-consuming tasks he cites as the culprit for his desire to retire is having to go through the process of using backwards design. The article notes:

Young says lessons must be written in the form of a “backward design.” That is a three-stage framework. It begins with detailing his desired results, how students will be assessed and finally explaining how he will provide learning experiences and opportunities for practice and application.

First of all, let me say I’m the first person to sympathize with overkill in paperwork. As a teacher, learning coach, and consultant, I’ve seen how time-consuming writing curriculum maps or documenting assessments can be in a school system, and I am a huge fan of simplifying this process from the top down so that teachers themselves can focus on the teaching, feedback, and assessment that is so important to student learning.

But let’s get real. How could anyone who cares about learning take issue with setting desired results, assessing those results, and providing learning experiences for practice and application? Isn’t that practically the definition of teaching and learning? I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t do those three things regularly or who would argue that they aren’t worthwhile. I don’t know Mr. Young, but I’d bet that even he doesn’t disagree with a single of those three components of backwards design; my guess is that he is chafing against lousy implementation of them.

The article reminded of one of my late father’s great blog posts on this very subject in 2014: 12 Ways to Kill Understanding by Design (UbD) from the Start. I had missed the initial publication of it and only heard about it when a curriculum leader I knew told me she had printed it out and posted it prominently in her office because she found it a refreshing counter to the many ways schools bungle good ideas and reforms.

Here is a sampling of the typical pitfalls he cites in the post, errors my dad and Jay McTighe have seen well-intended schools and districts make over the years with regard to their brand of backwards design:

  1. Fixate on terminology and boxes in the Template and provide little or no insight into the issues and purposes that underlie UbD. 
  2. Mandate that every teacher must use UbD for ALL of their planning immediately (without sufficient training, on-going support, or structured planning time).
  1. Announce that UbD is the official way to plan all lessons from here on – even though UbD is not a lesson-plan system.
  2. Assume that staff members understand the need for UbD and/or will naturally welcome it. i.e. hurriedly prescribe UbD before helping staff to understand and appreciate the need for change – ensuring that they do not own the change. 
  3. Standardize all implementation and experimentation. Don’t permit options/alternatives/different approaches to learning, trying, and using ubd. Don’t play to any particular interests, talents, and readiness of staff.

Sound familiar?

Too often, schools are looking for a quick fix or strategy that will solve many of their challenges at once: curriculum, professional development, student outcomes, assessment.

Backwards design, at its very core, is really just the most common-sense approach to learning: What do we want students to know, be able to do, and understand? How will we assess it or know that they can? What’s the most effective way to get them there? The discussion of and answers to these simple questions should involve rich, intellectual, in-depth thinking and collaboration. It’s meant to spark excitement, innovation, tough questions, a little discomfort, and good conversations among the teaching staff. It’s meant to help teachers and students grow. It isn’t meant to be death by template boxes. What’s the point of that, anyway? Who benefits ? Not the teachers, and certainly not the students.

I wish Jenny Brundin‘s coverage of this topic had been more in-depth and balanced given her experience, rather than just taking Young’s story at face value and offering a cursory estimation that backwards design and twenty-first-century skills — not lousy implementation of them — is the reason for good teachers leaving the profession.

Obviously, I am not impartial as Grant’s daughter and as a big believer in backwards design. But I think that any reasonable educator can agree that we all want better learning outcomes, and thinking through how you get them is a valuable and expected part of the teacher’s job.

School and district leaders using backwards design should all print out a copy of Grant’s 12 Ways to Kill Understanding by Design (UbD) from the Start and implement his suggestions for fixing them, including inviting teachers into the conversation at all levels. They are, after all, the ones most impacted by these decisions and often have little to no say in them.

Good ideas like backwards design, authentic assessment, or teaching 21st-century skills aren’t the culprit — lousy implementation of them is. When teachers’ time is spent filling out a series of cookie-cutter template boxes as quickly as possible, writing enormously long curriculum maps at the end of a unit, or mindlessly running through checklists, they are not engaging in backwards design. They are engaging in poor implementation. And we educators (and NPR) should know the difference.


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