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.


2 Responses to “Backwards design is not the problem; lousy implementation is”

  1. B. Chand. January 25, 2018 at 3:02 am #

    You say, ” 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 do not think learning has to do with desired results, assessing those desired results, and then applying those desired results in ALL facets of education–maybe certain instrumental modes of education, but certainly not necessarily the humanities. Learning has results, but they may not be the DESIRED results. They may be surprise results that develop through a process. Learning can be a process that leads to more questions. The idea that all education must be boiled down to a micro-level production of specified results after results, to me, sounds mind numbing and a damper on all creativity and the intrinsic value of learning for its own sake. The pendulum has swung so far to the means-ends relationship in current education that it dries out both the teacher and the student, forcing them to focus solely on outcomes and evidence for outcomes, losing all the joy of learning for its own sake.

    • alexisswiggins January 25, 2018 at 3:53 am #

      It seems to me you don’t understand the point of the blog post or of backwards design. YOU decide what the results are. if those results are creative, free expression, then great. Curriculum and assessment design can be as draconian as teachers and admin make it, or as freeing as teachers an admin make it. There doesn’t need to be anything dry about backwards design — it’s a tool for ensuring we are designing the kind of learning environments we want to see (with outcomes we hope to see, whatever they are) rather than merely marching through content (now that seems dry to me!).

      Put another way, the art teacher might say: “I want students to experiment more in this unit: take risks, get messy and be unafraid to get outside their usual medium and comfort zone.” OK, what is the best way to achieve that given the aim? And then how will I know if the students have achieved it or not? Why isn’t it beneficial to both teacher and students to ask and attempt to answer these questions?

      Put another way, in a HS English class (my subject area), I might really want my students to develop their personal narrative skills, since they have perhaps worked hard on analytical ones but maybe struggle more with the creative and personal writing. How might I want to teach them about great, inspirational personal narrative? I would probably start by thinking they need to work on risk-taking and developing voice. How might I inspire them to do this? Maybe by beginning with great examples of risk-taking and voice in the texts we read, to show them some examples. So I go looking for the best examples of risk and voice on the page I can find, given my aim for that desired outcome. From there, maybe students can do some formative, ungraded writing with feedback, where they get to play around with personal essay prompts or ideas meant to help them develop their voice. Later, I can design a summative assessment with clear criteria that further develops these skills and asks students to measure their own progress through self-assessment. At the end, seeing their essays (and using a good rubric that I designed for the purpose) will help me know if they have been successful at transferring those honed voice and risk-taking skills from our readings, discussions about writing, and formative work to the final draft. If I don’t feel like they have achieved what I aimed, then I can head back to the drawing board for another way to tackle my goal, allow another draft if I believe they just need a little more time or refining, etc. Put simply, I think this is just good teaching: we are constantly evaluating how well our students are reaching the standards we want them to and redesigning our work as instructors based on those evaluations.

      None of this is meant to take the place of spontaneity or creativity for the sake of creativity. There should always be space and time for those elements in learning. But I think you confuse my call for using backwards design effectively instead of engaging in that old Wiggins-McTighe adage of “teach, test and hope for the best” with some kind of cookie-cutter approach. It’s just a framework for helping us identify what we want students to know, understand and be able to do — whatever we decide that actually is.

      But maybe you just want a school with no curriculum and students learn whatever they want at any given time? Check out that interesting model here at this Sudbury school:

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