Backward Design: Keeping the Target in View (Part 1 of 3)

In a previous post, I referenced the wonderfully creative TED workshop by Simon Sinek titled How Great Leaders Inspire Action. If you have not viewed this video, the 18 minutes is well worth it. Of all of the thoughts that I took away that parallel education, there is one quote that stood out among the rest: “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.”

Bulls-eye by Emilio Kufferon Flickr
Bulls-eye by Emilio Kuffer
on Flickr

The reason this statement arrested my attention was because it contains such a gold nugget for teaching. Sinek used his Golden Circle idea to show that though we can articulate the “what” and “how” of what we do, it is more primarily the “why” that captures the heart and passion of people, and more specifically, my students. Answer that question in a clear fashion and your students are more likely to follow – leading versus pushing.

This past summer I read a very helpful text that caused me to think more creatively about the design of my courses. The book was titled Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L. Dee Fink. Though the book was full of helpful ideas for effective curricular design, the one idea that has truly moved the rudder of my thinking is Backward Design.

We are in a powerful age of information, but it becomes difficult in a classroom setting to decide the information that is of most importance for a course within a semester. Perhaps like me, planning a course has become somewhat of a “drag and drop” mentality, whereby I have a certain number of weeks to cover a large amount of content. And so the designing of a course becomes dividing a specific number of chapters over the weeks allotted, adding some quizzes, tests, projects, and voila! A course is created.

The problem that this mindset has posed for me is that I begin to lose the intentionality of my semester and my course drives me instead of me driving my course. The idea of Backward Design has been a lifesaver for my thinking. Backward Design consists of three focused questions that have helped me be intentional and focused with my course design. In today’s post I will cover the first of the three questions.

As educators, it should be our practice to have goals and objectives for every class. These are the targets and bull’s-eyes that determine what we have deemed to be important and necessary. And so the first question is this: “what is it I hope that students will have learned, that will still be there and have value, several years after the course is over?” The answer to this question forms our learning goals for the semester. It answers the “why” question that is so critical in learning.

This has been a great question for me to consider as it has forced me to shift my thinking from “what are all the concepts I can cram into this semester?” to “what is the irreducible minimum that must be carried away by the student even after they leave my class or perhaps graduate?” I believe I have good intentions in desiring to give my students all that I can give – after all, if I do not cover all 52 chapters of our text in a semester, surely they will struggle for the remainder of their days on this earth! Or so I would like to believe.

The truth of the matter, though, is that this first question of Backward Design forces me to reconcile the truths of my course with the reality of what each student will take away. And the reality of my teaching is that I am one teacher among many who is adding tools to a student’s tool belt. I become more effective as I can hone in on those three or four goals for the semester that could become game changers for a student once he or she has left my class.

Community Input: Is this first question a good question to ask as educators? How are you using this idea in your own classroom?


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