Backwards design to survive our quarter course reality

Welcome Back!

Quarters. Copernican. Ten weeks. These are the words many high school teachers across British Columbia have heard in the last few weeks instilling intrigue, fear, and anxiousness for the new school year. Sure, it’s the same number of teaching minutes, but it’s not so easy to just double the lessons and call it a day. It’s not so easy as to try to cram what we usually do in the same amount of time. Our students aren’t built to handle double the work within the confines of  2 hours and 40 minutes every day so we cannot expect them to work at twice the speed. The sentiment, students only have two subjects to focus on for ten weeks shouldn’t be entertained as justification for bombarding them with content at twice the usual rate of absorption.  Students will get stressed by the amount of material we’re unrealistically expecting them to focus on.  This will be piled upon the current stress of health and safety protocols, feeling limited by a cohort, and oh yeah…there’s this little virus going around called Covid19 they are worried they might get.

The reality is we cannot possibly teach our beloved courses in the same way this year as we have in the past. It’s not fair to students and it’s not fair to us. Now more than ever, embracing backwards design will be what saves us.  Grab a handful of curricular competencies and have at it.

View the curriculum differently

A closer look at the Reader | San Diego Reader

We have to stop looking at our curricula in divide and conquer terms. I have X number of competencies to cover over ten weeks which means I’ll focus on three days per competency… Think about course specific curricula as an evolution of learning over years.  I’m serious. Kids need time to practice, crash and burn, pick themselves up off the floor, and try again. They’ll need us as guides, but more importantly they need plenty of opportunity to practice. It’s incredibly unrealistic in the we have approached our curriculum, forcing students to gulp large chunks of content and showcase skills in just one attempt. We need to help our students set goals and support them to reach their own targets. For some students that might mean simply supporting them to get to Emerging in one competency; for others, it may be to get to Extending. Both Emerging and Extending are goals for individual students. So long as teachers keep considering the curriculum in terms of passing and failing, or Emerging is bad and Proficient is success, instead of treating the levels as the movement of learning and personal growth, we’ll never get students and ourselves out a fixed mindset about teaching – trying to get students to pass the course or pass every competency instead of getting them to their personal best.

It’s not about how many competencies we can get every student to touch on, it’s about which competencies are integral and how can we give students multiple learning opportunities to provide evidence of learning for those competencies. What about all the other competencies? Who cares!  The curriculum police will not come take you away for not hitting all of them.  Our curriculum is too frigen big anyways. Let’s try to avoid covering it all, teaching a mile wide, inch deep curriculum.  Let’s immerse students in one competency at a time and then move on to the next. Let’s lap the same competency so kids can become as proficient in that skill as possible. Let’s build learning opportunities that will connect students to the curriculum and give them voice and choice instead of insisting on only one way to show learning. Here’s the thing, when we insist on only giving students one way to show proficiency of a skill, like a test, we actually don’t know if they are truly at that level because we only have one piece of evidence to show for it. One piece of evidence wouldn’t stand up in court to justify the guiltiness of a person, why should one piece of evidence justify proficiency in the classroom.  

Discharging curriculum at students in rounds of rapid fire succession will do no students any good. Stress will increase. When students get stressed they won’t come. They’ll be more susceptible to illness. They’ll cheat. I could go on and on…

A note on tests. Tests often come at the end of learning and simply aren’t an accurate reflection of skills. It’s a high pressure, high stakes, standardized way of justifying our practice – tests are ego boosters for teachers. Did I teach them well? Yes? I’m awesome. No? Oh well, next unit! Any and all assessments should be used as guides for our next teaching steps. If you insist on giving a test, and students blow it, it’s time to ditch that evidence, go back to the drawing board and reteach, giving every single student another opportunity to show improvement.  Additionally, tests are often designed for students to show proficiency. Relying on the score of the test to dictate a level of proficiency (10/10 = Extending) makes no sense unless the test was designed for students to get to all levels of proficiency, including Extending, which is an additional challenge or opportunity to show a sophisticated level of skill.  More often than not, tests are a hodgepodge of multiple competencies and thus are unreliable unless simply used in a formative way to guide a teacher’s next steps.

Backwards Design

I propose we use backwards design to breathe into the learning over ten weeks. Teachers who have been around for awhile will find shifting to backwards design quite easy because as they look at competencies, they can visualize how the content they already know fits and perhaps even have tried and true learning opportunities in their arsenal that would make dandy evidence of learning. By the same token, new teachers can create novel learning opportunities without worrying about how much content students need to know by the end of the year.

In backwards design, teachers look at the curricular competencies first and view them as goals in the form of “I can” statements, instead of a test, project, or assignment as the goal, which is forwards design.  Then, teachers use the content to support the competency chosen, any content really. If a teacher wants to work linearly they can. A Social Studies teacher, for example, could begin with the Middle Ages and end the course in Early Canada as they normally would.  They could also pull from multiple times in history moving back and forth as they see fit. But it’s competency first, content second.

Using backwards design to determine proficiency of a competency, teachers create learning opportunities for students and a variety of ways they can meet the goal. I love the term, learning opportunity because it sounds so optimistic and it is! Learning opportunities are about possibilities and potential. To give a learning opportunity means to give students chances to show their skill.  When we create learning opportunities, we should offer opportunities that meet all students’ needs: oral, written, tactile, collaborative, dramatic, and artistic (I’m sure there are others I’m missing).

In Social Studies 8, for example,  I may have students assess the significance of people, places, events, and developments (the competency) for the Fall of Rome (the content) by having students complete cause and effect chains (learning opportunity). Then, I may have students rank two powerful leaders from the Early Middle ages (the content) by having students write an expository or narrative paragraph (learning opportunity). Finally, students could create original games (learning opportunity) for what they feel is the single most important development in the High and Late Middle Ages (the content). All these learning opportunities offer voice and choice and focus on the same competency. By the end of the Middle Ages unit, I will have gathered evidence of learning from three vastly different learning opportunities for the same competency instead of plowing through the Middle Ages unit and having all students write a unit test. Feedback carries over from opportunity to opportunity, helping students move forward in their learning, individually.

Assessing a competency doesn’t begin and end with a product though. We must also consider conversations and observations, giving them equal weight to justify learning. Competencies are action words, so assessment of learning can be witnessed in action. Often we can see that a student is proficient before the product is in our hands because we hear the conversations among students sharing their learning or between a teacher and student.

In terms of assessment and tracking, after a learning opportunity, we need to simply ask ourselves, Can this student (insert competency) and To what extent can they (insert competency)?  After the first learning opportunity, offer feedback for how a student can improve in the next learning opportunity, and so on and so forth.  Ultimately, any piece of evidence can stand as a student’s best evidence of learning.  Perhaps have the student choose their best evidence! That’s empowering stuff!

What about the content? Content is vital in backwards design because it provides the foundation to show curricular competency skills.  It’s important for students to know the content so they can explore the skill, what they need to be able to do.  Knowing the content, though, shouldn’t take priority over practicing the skill (the curricular competency).  While practicing the skill, students set content to memory because it is the through skill development that the content becomes significant or meaningful. Why do we teach literary elements? So students can apply comprehension strategies to texts using that language. Why do we teach elements of art and principles of design? So students can express meaning, intent, and emotion through their own art. Give students content but prioritize the skills through the learning opportunities.  Students need not have all the content, but they do need multiple learning opportunities to become proficient at a skill.  In backwards design, consider, how much time do I really need to spend on content?

When teachers use backwards design, their focus becomes on the curricular competency and that means doing a thorough spring cleaning of current units, all the work you might usually have students do to get to say, a unit test, and instead keep the work that is directly connected to the competency you want students to practice.  Bloom’s Taxonomy helps teachers scaffold instruction, but that doesn’t mean one has to start at remembering and hit every level in Bloom’s to reach the competency.  It does mean that content is part of remembering and understanding. If the competency is about analyzing or evaluating, getting students to complete comprehension questions isn’t analyzing or evaluating. Get to the verb and practice the verb. Evaluate the verb!

Backwards design supports high school teachers in their new Copernican reality because it allows them to focus on competency development, which is the purpose of the new curriculum.  If teachers focus on a handful of competencies and work through their usual units accordingly, they will feel empowered to let go of extraneous assignments they might usually offer students ultimately creating more efficient use of their class time.  Instead of trying to link all the curricular competencies to content, focusing on few competencies gives students time to provide evidence for a competency in more than one way, preventing treatment of the competencies as one hit wonders.  It also gives teachers the opportunity to really understand one competency at a time.  Let’s face it, the curricular competencies aren’t the easiest competencies to understand. A deep dive is just want we need to get to know them.

A handful of competencies, eh? Which ones?

It’s incredibly freeing to think about only having to address and assess a handful of competencies, right? But which ones? Aren’t they all important? Dam straight they are all important, but I’m suggesting more efficient use of your teaching time and more practical use of students’ class time to work on a smaller number of skills. I would suggest choosing higher order thinking skills over lower, but I think the discussion over importance should happen between members of the same department/course.  In courses that have multiple categories in their curriculum, choosing one curricular competency from each heading or combining competencies that mesh better together is a great place to start.

In the case of some curricula, the headings provide the most efficient and clear opportunities to work on skills. For Science 10, for example, using the words, I can formulate questions, formulate hypotheses, and make predictions might serve Science teachers better than the three individual competencies below the heading, Questioning and Predicting.  It’s also realistic to think about practicing that skill repeatedly from lab to lab.  Criteria could be created that would function for multiple learning opportunities making less work for the teacher.

In the case of Theatre Company 11, choosing Take creative risks to express ideas, meaning, and emotions might be deemed as more significant a skill than others within the heading, Explore and Create. With 18 competencies in the course, attempting to tackle all with any kind of integrity even in a semester system is a daunting task.  By focusing on one competency, a teacher can consider multiple learning opportunities for the one competency.

Online learning

Alas, if we get a second wave and learning shifts from face to face to online again, backwards design will give us the opportunity to shift the way we teach from how do I get what I usually do in class to the students? to how can students to provide evidence of this competency at home?  It means letting go of what we specifically wanted to do in class and providing learning opportunities that can be accessed by all remotely. No amount of novel technology can replace face to face instruction.

Could have, would have, should have

I’m not suggesting anything that profound when I suggest that we should use backwards design and students’ best evidence of learning as powerful teaching and assessing strategies. I think there is a lot of dread and angst surrounding the forthcoming school year, and those emotions can cloud our good judgment, enticing us to flee back into archival practices that we know don’t work for kids but are comfortable because we’ve used them for a long time. Let’s remember how disconnected our students felt last year when we didn’t teach them face to face for oh so many weeks. They still feel disconnected, but they’re going to arrive in our rooms, masks in hands to get their thinking on! Let’s use the ten weeks we have with them as the opportunity to show them that learning is about them and that we’re going to embrace a handful of skills and work on those skills one day at a time. Their growth and their best is what matters.


3 thoughts on “Backwards design to survive our quarter course reality

  1. Another good read Shannon. Our district is doing an octet schedule instead of quarter system. I will be teaching one class for 5.5 hours 5 days a week for 5 weeks. Definitely going to have to let go of some things and focus on competencies. This will be the push that I needed to change things up. Thanks for your suggestions.


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