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.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)