School desperately needs a design revolution. Since Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe published Understanding by Design in 1998, we’ve been on the slow boat to backward design. (Even though the term was coined in 1949 by Ralph Tyler, classroom teachers have only really been thinking about it for two decades). The problem is that most teachers believe they are designing backwards already. But designing for what teachers think should be taught yields very different outcomes from designing for what we want learners to learn. So why do schools still build march-through-the-content syllabi when what you design backwards from is as important as the process itself?
At One Schoolhouse, our teachers do not start their course design process by creating the course syllabus. The first thing they do is create a course map, where they develop three to five competencies that students will master. A competency is an aptitude (or collection of skills) that captures our values and is measurable. The next step in course mapping is to determine the skills to be scaffolded and the evidence that will show measurable progress towards mastery. Our teachers also design assessments that result in the creation of authentic artifacts of mastery and determine pathways students may take in each learning cycle. One of the last things that they do is backfill with the content needed to master the course competencies. Does the subject-specific content still get learned? Absolutely, but it isn’t the design-driver because amassing knowledge is not a competency in most of our classes.
Let’s take a moment to address those courses where the lower level Bloom’s skills -- “to know” or “to understand” -- do show up in one of the competencies, and explain that we are secure with the belief that knowledge is absolutely essential at some point in every course. When committing facts to memory needs to be elevated (in Art History, for example), the teacher uses project-based learning techniques so that the knowledge attainment is a necessary component of the process. When knowing specific content needs to be a measurable outcome (in classes culminating in an AP test, for example), then the skill of standardized testing may show up as a piece of a competency.
As a supplemental online program, most students are attracted to our courses for the subject-specific knowledge they hope to attain. Our goal is to leverage that curiosity into enduring ways of thinking and doing -- rather than transitory exposure -- so that we can send students off with a lifelong skill. This is the essence of designing backwards from competencies: turn passion into permanence by designing backwards from that which abides.
Gretchen Warner, Upper School Director at The Archer School for Girls, shares why she appreciates the backwards design of One Schoolhouse courses.
For more information about how Archer partners with One Schoolhouse to expand its core curriculum and inform on-campus innovation, check out Archer's Partner Profile!
Connection, collaboration, creativity, and application were the original pillars that we built from, though as the field (and technology evolved) and as we learned more in the online space, that baseline pedagogy was added to and evolved.
Our challenge was to understand how to measure progress and growth that supported the pedagogy we had set out. Interestingly, we started with the understanding that these things should be measured… and that’s not always where we come from in the independent school world.
As we designed backwards from the goals, we had to determine both what we wanted to measure and which tools were best for the job. Student voice was key for us. We wanted to know how students perceived what was being built--not only at the end of the course but also at key moments throughout the academic year. So, since our start, we’ve surveyed our students five times a year: two weeks into the course, and at the end of each quarter. Teachers receive this feedback, and they review it with the Assistant Head and our Instructional Designer, in order to make any in-moment course corrections and to plan for future iterations of the course.
Similarly, faculty are evaluated by themselves and by the Assistant Head of School, in order to make sure that objectives are met. Faculty evaluations, in aggregate, are even shown to the Board, as a marker of course progress and to demonstrate how and why investments are being made in certain areas.
We also continue to improve and adjust our pedagogy, using the latest available research and learnings of our faculty and administrative team. We keep the pedagogy of the school updated, and adjust our faculty course standards and competencies annually — we continue to move the goalposts so that what was “exemplary implementation” in year one, is “baseline effectiveness” by year three.
We deliberately built from mission and goals, and then measured. For schools, there might be an opportunity either with reverse design or with building instruments to measure how you are meeting the stated goals and objectives.
For a deeper dive into the topic, check out the below research and resources:
White-Papers & Blogs:
Science provides, by definition, fact-based conclusions. But beliefs get their moments in the sun too, and are often rooted in lived experience. As a science teacher and a person of faith, I have sat in this tension all my life. And I have come to understand that science can’t answer questions of faith, nor can faith answer questions of science; the two, again by definition, are mutually exclusive.
So what do you do when your beliefs - for which you may even have some anecdotal evidence - about teaching and learning aren’t supported by the science? You allow the research to challenge your assumptions. Every year we dive deep into the literature to answer tough pedagogical and curricular questions. Here are three myths that we’ve tackled over the years.
Myth #1: Online learning is sterile.
Research: Connection between student and teacher is the cornerstone of online learning.
When the Online School for Girls started, we had to overcome a lot of assumptions, not just about online learning but also about best practices for teaching girls online. With the guidance of Lisa Damour of Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls, we built a research-based pedagogy on four pillars: connection, collaboration, creativity, and application. When it comes to student-teacher connection, the belief isn’t antithetical to the research - the more sterile the online learning environment is, the less likely students are to finish the course. So we design intentionally for the experience of connection, building video, meetings, and collaborations into each course. Ten years later, connection is still the most important piece of the user experience at One Schoolhouse: we track it quarterly in our classes, and draw a direct correlation between the experience of connectedness and our 95% course completion rate. Online learning can’t be sterile.
Myth #2: Students can’t learn language online.
Research: Students don’t learn language well in traditional classrooms.
It turns out that America’s way of teaching a second language is an abysmal failure. The research shows that fewer than 1% of Americans are proficient in the language they studied in school. When I kept saying “no” to our schools who were asking for the full Chinese and Latin sequences online, I was holding tight to my fear that language couldn’t be taught well online. Once I discovered that there’s almost no evidence that “the way we’ve always done it” in traditional classrooms works, then I started exploring progressive practices that do work. And guess what? They all involve either intensive immersion experiences (no surprise there) or the effective use of technology that intentionally breaks the learning into the four language competencies. As a competency-based school, now we had the research to guide the building out our language program.
Myth #3: Some students just can’t learn online.
Research: Most students just haven’t been taught how to learn online yet.
The fixed vs. growth mindset is the decisive blow to the beliefs-trump-research argument. Being open to what the research says - and allowing it to lead you to your answer - allows you to gracefully move from your fixed belief to a more expansive understanding. In this case, the research--and the experience of every teacher I know--says every student learns differently. That’s as true in the online space as it is in the brick-and-mortar classroom. Just as classroom teachers need a toolbox of approaches, well-trained online teachers have an array of strategies at their fingertips to help students who mistakenly think they can't learn online. The truth is, they just can’t do it because no one has taught them how to yet.
Myth-busting research isn’t always a bird in hand, though. There are times when it is hard to find the research that answers my question exactly. We are, as the first supplemental online independent school, a pretty unique entity. No one is studying schools just like ours. But we are cautious not to dismiss research because at first glance it doesn’t seem to specifically apply to us. Often a closer study offers useful analysis that can inform our decisions. Sometimes, I realize that I’m not even asking the right question. In these cases, I have to use the data I’m finding to ask bigger, more mission-aligned questions. So the next time that you are faced with a question about teaching and learning, look to the research and allow it to challenge your assumptions. When you can’t find research that aligns with what you’re looking for, ask yourself if you’re asking the right question. Adjust your question so you can get a bird’s eye view. Your school will be better for it.
Whether you are an administrator, department chair or a classroom teacher, we have research to help on your journey towards challenging assumptions and resources to help you continuously improve your practice. Check them out below:
Cohort PD Courses:
Thinking about how to take your school beyond standardized advanced curriculums but don't know how to go about it? This course, facilitated by Peter Gow, will provide your school with a toolbox for developing and promoting indigenous advanced learning experiences built and designed for your own student body. Course begins April 1, 2019.
Beyond: Preparing Your School for the Journey to Independent Advanced Curriculum
On-Demand PD Programs:
If you are looking to dive into the world of personalized learning, we offer three, four-hour long programs that give you the tools you need to begin to redesign your classroom from a learner-driven approach.
Introduction to Personalized Learning: The Why, How, What
Personalizing Pathways: Creating Student Voice and Choice
Student Agency: The Foundation of a Learner-Driven Pedagogy
White-Papers & Blogs:
Corinne Dedini, Assistant Head of School, shares how One Schoolhouse uses research to support what learning -not teaching - looks like at the School. Want to take a deeper dive into the topic? Take a look at our Pedagogy of One Schoolhouse whitepaper to learn more about our approach to learner-driven courses. Here, we outline why we approach teaching & learning from this perspective and how we stay true to our roots of being research driven in order to continuously update our practice.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO