Considering June in September: The Practice of Backward Design

Posted on 09/26/14

As a child, I loved the transition from summer to fall as it indicated the beginning of school. Crisp air, new books and a sense of excitement and possibility made this my favorite time of year. During this time, I would often daydream about the end of the school year, not because I wanted the year to pass by quickly, but because I wondered how I would be different and what I would learn over the course of the year. I tried to imagine a smarter, stronger, more skilled version of myself that would be able to look back at my “September self” and see changes. It can be more difficult to hold onto this sense of excitement as an educator diving into a new school year; it is easy to get lost in planning, shifting schedules, contracts and budgets, and all the anxieties that come with teaching. Re-centering at the beginning of the school year has become an important practice for me, as it directly benefits my students and myself.

I’ve started approaching the beginning of the school year in much the same way I did as a child—by focusing on what the end of the year will look like. How will I be changed by the experience of teaching? What do I want my students to understand deeply by June? This process asking questions and setting goals is part of “backward design”, a pedagogical tool for creating unit plans and lessons that I learned from Patricia Reedy while taking my first dance education course. By holding the bigger picture of both the beginning and the end of the year for myself and my students, I find it easier to focus on what is really important to me: practice and possibility. Refocusing on the macro view of the academic year makes the logistical micro elements shift in order of importance and become more manageable.

The idea of backward design is to identify the end goals for a class, session or population of students, determine how you will assess progress, and develop a plan that works backward from your goals. I love asking questions like: “What is really important for my students to know by the end of the year, and what are the steps I need to get them there?” Working backwards allows skills and concepts to unfold in an organic way. For example, if my end goal is having my students create their own folk dance at the end of the year, I can determine all of the collaborative skills and elements of space, time and energy they will need to understand in order to be successful in this endeavor. If I value good audience skills, I can decide on all the elements needed and place them in a flow where each skill is nested in the previous concept. This feels more coherent to me than starting at the beginning and guessing what I should do next, with no anchor. I like to think of my plans like a blueprint for a building—it makes sense to me to design the building first, determining what will make a sound foundation to support the structure. After planning, I can be confident and focused about what I am building, rather than laying bricks at the outset and hoping for something stable and beautiful.

Backward design also encourages assessment and reflection, which have become essential elements in my teaching practice. Assessments are built in, as it is necessary to have adequate evidence that the anticipated results are being met. As an educator I am able to focus on what my students need to learn, how I can measure their progress, and what I may need to shift based on their individual needs. I can also apply backward design to my own learning process as a teaching artist, by identifying my desired “destination” and creating a road map that will get me there. I encourage fellow educators as they launch into their busy year to take a moment and consider what the final days of school will look like.

By Katherine McGinity

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