Planning a Class with Backward Design

A BlueprintIt’s easy to switch into automatic pilot mode when it comes to planning a course. It goes something like this: (1) we look at the topic of the course we’re assigned to teach, (2) we select enough essential/canonical/anti-canonical reading material to fill out fifteen or so weeks, and then (3) we plot that reading onto a calendar. Instant Syllabus!

I found myself falling into this very mode of course design recently, as I began planning an upper-level science fiction class for Fall 2011. I’ve never taught this particular course, although I’ve been an avid science fiction reader for years. I pulled together a few thematic strands I’m familiar with and wove them into the required course description, and then began thinking about what novels to teach.

That was it. That was the extent of my course design. I wrote a description and began picking novels I wanted to teach.

So what’s the problem with this method? Simply this: I was letting my reading list design the course, instead of designing my course around goals. I was thinking about what I wanted my students to read, rather than what I wanted my students to learn.

In their excellent book Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe call the process of designing courses around learning goals “the backward design process.” It’s not a revolutionary idea by any means, but Wiggins and McTighe illuminate the method and potentially radical implications of backward design in instructive ways.

For example, they offer a three-stage diagram of the backward design process that looks deceptively simple:

  1. Identify desired results
  2. Determine Acceptable Evidence
  3. Plan Learning Experiences

But as Wiggins and McTighe parse out the details of each stage, it becomes clear that all three stages require deep reflection and continued self-awareness about both content and method. This need for attentiveness is evident in Wiggins and McTighe’s breakdown of the first stage. It’s not just that you “identity desired results”—what you want your students to learn—you also prioritize those desired results into three categories.

Imagine a set of three concentric rings. The outer ring represents knowledge “worth being familiar with” for students. The middle ring encapsulates knowledge and skills “important to know and do.” Finally, the smallest ring, the inner ring, represents “enduring understanding”—the fundamental ideas you want to students to remember days and months and years later, even after they’ve forgotten the details of the course.

These are the three categories you keep in mind as you design your course, ultimately making the smallest circle—enduring understanding—the bullseye of your target. And this is the stage that I find myself in at the moment. As I plan my science fiction course, I am asking myself, what are the linchpin ideas of this genre? What are the big ideas at the heart of science fiction studies? What knowledge and skills should be enduring for my students?

These questions are a far cry from what should we read?, and I believe by asking them, I will end up with a course that engages and challenges students long after the course itself is over, rather than a reading list that takes fifteen weeks to go through and then we’re done.

[Do You Know Where Your Valves Are? photograph courtesy of Timothy Allen / Creative Commons License]

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