It’s time to consider backward design…your students already have.

Recently I attended a training on Understanding by Design (UbD). Otherwise known as Backward Design, this curriculum design methodology popularized by Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins encourages the designer to plan with the end in mind, seeking clarity of purpose above all things. The intent is that by declaring purpose (“what will learners take away from this experience?”), assessment and activity design become much more focused, resulting in the abandonment of less important activities and content. Speaking personally, the practice of UbD, in conjunction with my work with educational consultant Greg Duncan and my colleagues in PLC, has transformed how I plan, how I teach, and how I communicate with students regarding their growth as language learners.

End of infomercial.

My writing today is prompted not by my belief in the effectiveness of backward design; rather, by a comment made by a colleague during today’s training. A Grade Chair and music teacher in the training said, “Kids walk into my class thinking with the end in mind all the time. They say ‘Why do we need to learn this anyway?'”

Why do we need to learn this anyway?

A teacher’s reaction to this question is most often rage, frustration, or anaphalaxis. It seems to us like the knee-jerk reaction of an ill-informed and petulant child. In reality, kids are asking themselves the very question that we should be asking: “why are we doing this in the first place?”

It can be a sobering moment when someone you previously considered “under your wing” is actually way ahead of you in the thought process. While kids aren’t really thinking about backward design when they ask the dreaded question, they are thinking economicallyHow will I benefit from the lesson you’re about to put me through?

Economist Thomas Sowell would put it like this: My time is a finite resource that has alternative uses. Why am I using it like this?

And while our first reaction may be to buck up and throw a flag (“Disrespectful remark…five yards, loss of down!”), we should instead join them in their thinking. Why am I teaching this lesson? How does it figure into the unit of instruction? What skills or capacities should kids expect to gain from this experience?

I’ve heard kids ask me “why do we need to learn this?” for years. But I wasn’t listening. I didn’t realize that they were asking the question that, until recent years, I never thought to ask myself.

That’s something I should think about.

Homework: to grade or not to grade? Better question: “Why are you assigning it?”

In our PLCs we are discussing assessment and percentages (this is a crude reduction of the many conversations that are going on, but for the sake of brevity…).  One of the issues that we’ve been touching on is homework.  Here’s the question, or rather, series of questions:

  • Should homework count?
  • Should homework be graded?
  • Is homework a demonstration of student responsibility?

How do we address homework in a world of competing assumptions, philosophies, and objectives? Should a school be expected, for the sake of continuity of experience, to have a uniform policy on homework?

First, ask yourself why you assign homework in the first place.  Is it to prepare them for a future assessment?  To reinforce something that they’ve already learned, perhaps mastered?  To deepen their understanding of a concept learned?

Would this assignment best be done at home, alone, with no support from the teacher?  With limited resources?  Or would this assignment create greater meaning if it took place in the context of a conversation with a subject matter expert in the room?

I’m curious to hear from any and all.

Why add pre-assessment to the classroom learning experience?

Before you dust off last year’s book of lesson plans (giving many the benefit of the doubt…), consider this:

Should I make pre-assessment a part of the learning experience in my classroom?

It’s a big question, really. So by all means ask it, but make sure you understand what it entails…

Pre-assessment is not an activity, it’s part of your students’ “assessment strategy”

Pre-assessment (the act of demonstrating your current knowledge or skill prior to instruction) must figure into the overall plan for assessment.  A pre-assessment must assess the same knowledge or skills that are on the end-of-unit assessment and most, if not all the formative assessments in-between.  Which means that the teacher needs to have the framework in place before students begin the pre-assessment process.

Pre-assessment will expose kids to failure…and that’s a good thing!

Students should NOT perform well on a pre-assessment.  If they do, they should move on to something else, or at the very least, learn what they’re about to learn so that they can demonstrate an even higher degree of mastery.  Pre-assessment forces students to confront the notion that they don’t know something.  And much to our own chagrin, school isn’t set up for that reality.

What if pre-assessment were a small, easy step to change the reality of school?  If students establish a “I don’t know A, so I’m going to learning by doing B” schema at the beginning of a unit, might that change their mindset going into the first graded assignment?  (My answer: Only if the teacher crafts the language he/she uses around that schema)

Pre-assessment just might change your curriculum…permanently and perpetually

If a pre-assessment identifies what a student knows/doesn’t know and can do/cannot do, the results of that pre-assessment must affect the students’ next steps.  And odds are that those next steps do not match the scribbles from last year’s lesson plan book.

What if a pre-assessment were followed up with the question, What should we do next (first) to increase your performance on the next assessment?

A skilled teacher may be apt to answer this question, perhaps even for every student in the classroom.  But students can often answer this question for themselves.  Who then owns the curriculum?

Pre-assessment has the potential to significantly impact:

  1. The framework and progression of a unit of instruction
  2. The students’ mindset of learning, doing, and learning about how they’re doing
  3. The ownership of the curriculum itself

At the very least it helps improve your design potential and student mindset.  At the most, it redefines the learning experience in your classroom.

“The benevolent future of the Internet”

I first heard this TED Talk through NPR’s TED Radio Hour. Links to both the video and the NPR segment are below.

In the transition to a 1:1 school, and at the beginning of the school year for many years after 1:1 was established, there is a great deal of concern over the dangers surrounding this tool, a networked laptop.  These concerns need not be minimized by pointing out what an interviewee in this story calls “the benevolent future of the internet.”  What a wonderful term that is, “the benevolent future of the internet.”  There is hope and grace in connectedness.  That doesn’t make the dangers any less real, but it does change the calculus in our decision to allow or restrict our children’s access to the internet.

Why are “bloopers” celebrated while “mistakes” are feared?

Near the end of every student video project is the bloopers real. It’s, by the look on their faces when the project ends and the bloopers begin, they’re favorite part of the project by far.

How strange that in a video project mistakes are captured and unnecessarily added to the end, while in 99% of school life mistakes are feared, avoided, hidden, covered over, judged, or even punished.

What can we do about that?