Going Backwards

When I was a teacher, we developed our curriculum based on the principles of backwards design. Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe’s seminal book Understanding By Design posits a fairly simple model. First, decide what enduring learning outcomes you want to meet. Next, craft essential questions that have neither a right nor a wrong answer but invite exploration. Then decide on how you will know that your students know those enduring learning outcomes– what evidence will prove their knowledge? Finally, figure out what activities and instructions will convey those enduring learning outcomes best. Or, in other words, decide where you want to go and then map out a course to get there. What will be your landmarks? How will you know you’ve arrived?

If one thing is clear right now, it’s that schools– all schools, K – 12, four-year universities– have lost track of the enduring learning outcomes we are teaching to. Education is not an end in itself. Academia is not a self-sustaining ecosystem. There is no inherent good in education. Education, as James Comer points out, has a job to do:

“…the expressed purpose of education is to help prepare students to be successful in school and in life; to protect and promote their own health, development and learning, to be highly competent workers in school and beyond, to be competent and responsible family members (parents if they choose) community members and citizens capable of finding gratification and meaning in life.” Link

Education is a tool that lives in service to something larger than itself. And while my early-20s-something self dreamily talked about “making the world a better place”, in reality, everything I was doing needed to be about making sure my students would make a substantive positive contribution to our national economy someday. It’s about jobs.

It’s time that educators did some backwards design around the fundamentals of our own institutions. What is the purpose? What are our goals? (And, here’s a hint, “graduation” isn’t enough.) No Child Left Behind & high stakes testing have narrowed our focus to only what lies immediately before us. We need to be asking what our society needs from our education system. Why should taxpayer dollars be invested in this at all? Is education not the biggest R&D expenditure we make as a nation?

I have many educator friends– indeed, I was one myself– who protest that “corporations shouldn’t be dictating what we do in the classroom”. The anger is justifiable. For years we have suffered the slings and arrows of legislative directives, crafted by people who have never spent a day of their lives as teachers, whose last experiences in schools were during their own student days. We have seen profiteering charter schools co-opt public education in the name of “efficiency and effectiveness”, yet those schools haven’t found the magic bullet either. Being responsive to employer needs, however, is not letting your classroom material be dictated by some nameless, greedy enterprise. It’s ensuring that what you’re doing in the classroom will prepare your students to be successful. It’s keeping in mind what is good and important and practical about what we are doing. It’s the respect of giving our students context for their learning. They deserve to know when they’ll use algebra (answer: all the time). If we don’t align them for the world that is and the world that is yet to come, if we insist on clinging to our idealistic visions of Maria von Trapp in the meadows (or whatever your particular utopia might be), we risk condemning our students to irrelevance.

This is one of the many areas where technical colleges excel. We are legally bound to have close industry connections through advisory committees made up of industry practitioners. Our teachers are all former practicing professionals in their fields. We are held accountable not only to graduation rates but also to placement rates– the percentage of students who land a job in their field of training. Our overall college placement rate is 76%. It’s much higher in many of our programs. Our advisory committee members hire our graduates– and give us very honest feedback about how they’re performing.

What would education be like, K – 12, 13 – 20, if we held all schools to that same standard?