Backward Design: Articulating the Results

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By Alison Randall
English Department
Delaware Technical Community College
George Campus

It is odd that sometimes you can spend ages planning a lesson and it is dull. You are bored. Students are not engaged. How could all of the work backfire?

Other times, a simple exercise gets everyone in class talking. Students are asking questions, arguing with their peers, going online to prove their points, answering your questions, changing their opinions etc.

What happened? Sometimes it is beyond your control. Sometimes the students in the class are just hard to motivate, while another class with the same lesson is lively. As a teacher we learn to adapt to those unforeseen circumstances. But other times, we know we might need to adapt our lesson plans.

I recently shared an article with the Instructional Innovation Committee Research Group which I think has given more focus to my classes and my instruction. The article is actually Chapter 1 “What is backward design?” from Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Although it is from 2005, it can help teachers rethink their work.

Rather than using the old: What will I teach today? What is the final assignment? How will I assess it? the new model asks instructors to think very clearly about results, then assessment, then instruction.

Delaware Tech has CCPOs and MPOs, and they certainly help us clarify our goals, but identifying desired results asks instructors to apply filters (I prefer the word criteria, and our research group had a good discussion about the differences in these terms).

The filters or criteria help the instructor determine what is worth understanding. As the instructor thinks about this, the process moves from general content standards to a specific desired result you want from that class. Maybe that is why Wiggins and McTighe call them filters: you filter your results until you get to a distilled goal.

For example, you might go from: Students will think critically, students will learn about context, students will address the issue of artistic freedom through a cultural lens to…What do I really want them to get from this class? Students will use their understanding of context and apply it to a specific problem to show how contextual awareness can impact one’s interpretation of a situation.

With my focus so specific, my activities become more focused, and so does my assessment. How will I know they have understood these concepts? Will I provide a sheet which prompts responses? Will I ask students to discuss the issue and present their findings to the class?

Finally, I plan my learning experience. This is hard because even as I am planning my goals and assessment, how I am going to teach it is always at the back of my mind. Clearly, I am not completely immersed in backward thinking yet; however, working backward has informed my instructional plan.

For example, now that I know the specific skills I want from this lesson, I can think about ways they can demonstrate this. They will need to know what contextualization is? They will need to know some key critical thinking skills. They will need to know what Freedom of Speech really means. They will need to know if private schools are subject to the same rules as public schools. They will need to see how other educational institutions have dealt with offensive art.

So…

I am going to need to design a class that addresses an issue, has some time built in for students to respond immediately, and then some time for them to do research. I can divide them into groups with each group researching a different prompt and reporting the results to the class, then revisit the solution and see if the research offers a more meditated position on it. This will necessitate a class discussion about how the political and cultural context has reshaped their position. Class participation will be assessed, and so will understanding of the cultural context.

I know I need to focus on desired results and put the instructional design on the back burner, but I am finding the refinement of outcomes, goals, and results is producing more focused classes where students are engaged in understanding specific meaningful topics rather than a generic rush to complete the course assignment.

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