Tag Archives: backwards design

Forwards design, backwards design

Backwards-design curriculum is a relatively new approach to curriculum design that is finding its way into many disciplines. In English language teaching, backwards design originated with English for Specific Purposes courses (such as English for pilots or English for the food service industry) where it was important to specify what learners should be able to do following the course or program. In the US, it was given a boost by the accreditation requirements of ACCET and CEA, themselves subject to the mandates of a federal Department of Education that sought greater accountability from educational institutions, starting with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

To understand backwards design, it helps to understand what it sought to replace. In a forwards-design approach to curriculum, the subject matter is broken down into its component parts and taught. At the end there is a test or other form of assessment to check what the students learned. The most obvious example in English language teaching is the traditional grammar syllabus, which organizes teaching grammar point by grammar point, and is still popular in many schools. In early versions of the communicative approach, grammar was replaced by communicative functions, but the approach was essentially the same. When I started teaching, I followed this approach: teach the points, then make a test.

Backwards design turns the process around. In this approach, you first analyze the needs of the students. What are they learning for? What do they need to do? This results in an overall goal for the course or program, and learning outcomes (often referred to as Student Learning Outcomes or SLOs) that state what students are expected to know or be able to do after completing it. Then you determine what would be acceptable evidence of achievement of this knowledge or ability, and design a means of assessment. Following that, you break the outcomes down into teaching and learning objectives and order them into a logical sequence. Finally, you decide how you are going to teach the knowledge and skills – your methodology.

Backwards design has been disruptive in many schools. Faculty with many years of experience are used to a forwards-design approach, and have developed their preferred ways of teaching around this approach. They may feel that the classroom is a place to explore new knowledge with students, they may want to meet students where they are, and may not want to define in advance exactly where those students will end up. Many are uncomfortable with trying to shoehorn their established teaching practices into a backwards-design course. Newer faculty are more likely to have been trained in backwards-design principles and accept them as natural.

However we feel about backwards design, it responds to a demand for greater accountability in education. This is the result of rising tuitions, a value-for-money orientation among students and their parents and sponsors, and a greater demand for demonstrable practical skills resulting from education. Love it or hate it, teachers have to embrace backwards design and incorporate it into their professional practice.

What is backwards design?

When devising your curriculum, you need to start out by thinking about goals, outcomes, and assessment. What do you want students to achieve by the end of the course? How will you know if they have achieved it? Once you are clear about these things, you can start to work on the teaching and learning objectives that will guide classroom learning. Often, curriculum design starts at the wrong end, with lists of items to be learned and teaching and learning activities, with little thought at the outset about overall outcomes or assessment. By using backwards design, you prioritize student learning outcomes and let them be your guide in assessment, objectives, materials, and teaching and learning activities.