The baby and the bathwater

If you read anything about curriculum design these days, or attend a presentation or workshop, you will learn only one model. Backward design starts at the end, defining student learning outcomes, then working backward through assessment, teaching and learning objectives, content and sequencing, and finally teaching and learning. This approach to curriculum design is so pervasive that anyone new to education might think there is no other way.

Thanks to the recently published second edition of Jack Richards’ book Curriculum Development in Language Teaching, we can learn about, or be reminded of, the alternative. Although it was never recognized with the name, forward design took the opposite approach: decide on your content and sequence it, teach, assess, and evaluate with a grade. This used to be the standard way to design  and teach a course in higher education. And the fact is, many teachers who used this approach continue to do so, or try to do so, in tension with an institutional backward design ethos promoted by accrediting organizations.

Backward design has the benefit of identifying (in theory anyway) student needs, developing measurable learning outcomes, and demonstrating program quality through analyzing and publishing student success rates against those outcomes. There is accountability for student success, which is important in an increasingly competitive environment in which customers (students and their sponsors) demand transparency in results. Yet as we are reminded in Richards’ book:

“The experience of language teachers today is often one of diminished classroom autonomy and of being managed by business-savvy administrators.” (Hadley, 2014, cited in Richards, 2017, p. 228)

This is because teachers are increasingly told to work with standardized outcomes and learning objectives, demonstrate that their assessments address the student learning outcomes, and use textbooks that deskill teachers by driving many of their instructional decisions (Richards, p. 247).

If backward design has introduced an obsessive focus on outcomes, or product, forward design was always much more about the educational process. A process curriculum:

“…is person-centered, considers users’ needs, identifies problems rather than rushing to solutions, and does not rely on top-down mechanistic models but is a process that works towards interaction between participants at all levels.” (Kennedy, 2013, cited in Richards, 2017, p. 227)

The emphasis is more on what teachers might call the art of teaching, making meaningful experiences for students, and letting the teaching and learning follow, to an extent, students’ needs and interests as they arise during the course. In a process approach, students and teachers form a learning community that explores together, often with an unclear destination. While backward design requires assessment of students’ achievement of learning outcomes exclusively, forward design grades participation, homework, and attendance, because these are indicators of students’ engagement in the process of learning.

While I don’t think we can or should return to a purely process-focused approach, we should consider what is lost when we throw out the process approach baby with the forward design bathwater, and embrace a product-based approach too strongly. Now that backward design is established as the accepted way to design curriculum, I hope that we can start to talk about how to maintain art in the process of teaching, one that recognizes teacher creativity, responds to the students in the class and the needs of the particular group, and provides a unique and unrepeatable experience for learners.

Thanks to Richards’ book, we may be able to start having that conversation.

Jack Richards’ book Curriculum Development in Language Teaching is published by Cambridge University Press.