Backwards design in curriculum and course design is a method of planning out learning so that objectives and goals are met. The idea is simple: if a student must be able to perform or know A, B, and C by the end of the term, then A, B, and C are what all materials, lessons, assessments, and assignments aim at throughout the term. This eliminates the guesswork of achieving learning outcomes. The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University puts it this way: “backward design is beneficial to instructors because it innately encourages intentionality during the design process. It continually encourages the instructor to establish the purpose of doing something before implementing it into the curriculum.” And Wiggins and McTighe, in their seminal work on the matter, Understanding by Design, write that
“Our lessons, units, and courses should be logically inferred from the results sought, not derived from the methods, books, and activities with which we are most comfortable. Curriculum should lay out the most effective ways of achieving specific results… in short, the best designs derive backward from the learnings sought.” (14)
Backwards design leaves very little room for error, for digression, for a lack of foresight because it presumes to begin from a place of hindsight. The three steps of backward design are, as the theory, simple enough:
- Identify desired results.
- Determine acceptable evidence of learning.
- Plan learning experiences and instruction.
Begin at the end and work backwards to the start, so the start always has the end in mind. The Back to the Future of instructional design. Many instructional and learning designers swear by backward design because, frankly, it works. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems with it.
I always design with the end in mind. But I recognize the impossibility of starting at the end. The end, per se, is a point in time I have not yet visited, a condition in which the classroom and its community will be… only then and not before. The beauty and the flaw of backwards design is in its confidence. It assumes the class—the students and teacher, but also all their surrounding circumstances and people (family, friends) and health (and mental health) and the weather and traffic and subsistence-level concerns—can hold steady for the duration of the term in order to achieve those masterfully conceived outcomes, or “learnings”. No one during the term will break a leg, no one will lose a grandmother, no one will catch the flu, no one will need a mental health break, no one will end or begin a romance, no one will lose a dog, no one will start a new diet or start a new medication.
But of course there has never been a semester since the invention of school that has passed without surprise or distress or disaster or some new development. The new iPhone always comes out just after the start of a new term. In the States, there are elections in November (sometimes devastating ones). Adjuncts sometimes have one or two weeks (or days) to prepare a 15-week class. Sometimes, there's a pandemic.
And then there are all the strident, brave things that college students get up to when they first arrive on campus, or arrive there again. And since there’s no clean way to leave life behind when through the classroom door we stride, it means that backwards design, in all its confidence, cannot restrain the extracurricular issues which affect outcomes and learning.
There’s another problem with backward design, too. The Henry David Thoreau problem. In Walden, Thoreau writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau, decades before Wiggns and McTighe, was thinking about backward design: “when I came to die.” Standing at the fictional end of his life, the young Henry David peered back at the days he imagined he’d wake and sleep through and made himself a goal: to discover, at the end, that he had lived; or, to discover that he had not not lived. He set his life upon a path of not failing, presuming in his youth that not-failing would be the most satisfying outcome of a life lived deliberately.
But he was wrong. The most satisfying outcome of a life lived deliberately is precisely the passing on with that same deliberateness. Looking back and appreciating what we have learned and not what we planned to. Remembering that we could not have known who we would be, what we have seen, when it comes time to go; and therefore our fondest predictions of regret, which we’ve held so dear for so many years, have no place at the end, just as they had no place at the beginning, or in our 20s, or ever.
So, I always design with the end in mind, but not from the end. Because the end will be determined by factors greater and more diverse than I can plan for. It will come, and I will be surprised by what it looks like. Joyce Carol Oates says that “A daydreamer is prepared for most things,” and so I look at learning design as a fiction, a story, a narrative. I will initiate it at the opening of the term, and I have an idea for the end. How the rest of the story is filled in will be a collaboration, willing or not, intentional or not, praxical or not, between me and those others telling it.
I cannot tell a student what they will learn. But I can tell a student that they will learn.