Tag Archives: curriculum

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.

Faculty freedom and curriculum design in intensive English programs

How much freedom do intensive English program (IEP) teachers have to design their courses, choose their materials, and teach to their interests? How much should they? These questions become ever more compelling as accreditation standards push programs to be accountable for their outcomes.

Teachers in proprietary (non-university-governed) IEPs have long been used to teaching within a structured framework, using prescribed textbooks and curricula that map out what is to be covered by the week or even by the day. This has been necessary because, adopting a customer-centric and profit-maximizing approach, they allow students frequent – weekly or monthly – entry and exit points. Students staying for a short program jump in and then out of existing classes with longer-term students. Those long-term students need to be able to move through a defined program of work and progress to the next, and then the next, level. This means that all teachers need to be on the specified part of the curriculum – in some cases on the specified page of the textbook – at all times.

Many university IEPs have inherited the university tradition of faculty autonomy, giving faculty the freedom to write their own syllabi, choose their own materials, and generally teach to their own interests. Under the influence of CEA accreditation standards, faculty are losing some of this autonomy, as student achievement standards require them to teach to a program-wide set of learning objectives. Student promotion to the next level must be based on student achievement of objectives, so faculty have to conform to standard assessment, evaluation, and grading practices. In order to ensure all students are getting the same course, university programs are increasingly prescribing textbooks. As a result, university IEP curricula and faculty work are looking more like those of proprietary programs.

This trend has caused much tension between faculty and administration at IEPs where faculty have fought to retain autonomy in their teaching. Some faculty claim that students are losing out because, being close to the students, they know what is best for them. Administrators charged with implementing accreditation standards argue in turn that students gain when there is a program-wide system that smooths out the differences between faculty styles and preferences.

In proprietary programs, curriculum can be imposed by administrative fiat. This is harder in university programs. Those that have adapted best are the ones where administrators and faculty have a trusting relationship and can jointly respond to the new requirements in a collaborative way that reconciles the divergent demands of individual autonomy and program standardization. Some programs continue to struggle.