A Journey in Backward Design
In this post, we examine the process of designing an innovative, blended learning course with a student-centered environment to teach German in middle school. The pilot course is an introduction to German, a language not currently offered in our school, built using the backward design model. Backward design considers what students will take away from the course above and beyond the content, and walks backwards by thinking about outcomes, activities, and goals to structure the course.
This course was designed by following L. Dee Fink’s model of designing significant learning environments. Please continue reading to see the process in action.
Learning is tough. We can’t overlook the inner resolve of a toddler as he takes his first steps. He sees people walking but lacks the knowledge (and communication skills) to get his legs moving. He watches, adjusts, struggles, and falls. The desire to walk is so strong that he’s willing to face the discomfort again and again somehow knowing it’ll be worth it. Walking upright is something most of us achieve. It’s one of our first big challenges – to walk – and perseverance is our first life lesson.
I believe teachers are set apart in society because they recognize the enormous task of learning something new. It’s not that they’re better able to perform – although I know some really talented teachers. They think about their work from two vantages – one as an instructor and the other as a learner. The quality of education comes from students’ ability to learn, which is more about the environment in which learning takes place than the teacher’s role in presenting materials. This course was designed with that premise.
Great teachers teach with a purpose. The purpose is not to satisfy themselves but to spark the students’ inner drive to learn. Some great teachers convey life lessons hidden in their thoughts, words, actions and even, gestures. Great teachers see the big picture. They teach content knowing it’s the very act of learning that fuels students’ inner resolve. Although each child will take away a memory or two from the class, great teachers understand students grow most because of their effort to learn, not necessarily because of content.
A group of teens at my school are about to embark on a learning adventure, and I’ll be their guide. Like learning to walk, it will require effort, and at times may be uncomfortable. Learners may even fail at first. But, with perseverance they will learn. These students may not actually have a burning desire to know the German language, some might, but it’s more likely they just don’t want to learn a language in a traditional classroom where they feel disconnected from the subject. Teachers get it. We know how kids feel, but we don’t always have the freedom to change the course at its foundation.
It’s not that kids aren’t willing to work hard in a traditional classroom – most do in our school. They seem to want to experience learning with a purpose. The German Blended Learning Course I’ve developed is an opportunity for students to take learning into their own hands – to learn differently, by using mostly technology and following learning goals they set for themselves. It’s an entirely student-centered environment. Added to their goals is my goal for them, a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) as it’s called in other industries, that they will let their curiosity lead their learning.
On this adventure, students will listen and decipher, research and summarize, compare and contrast, all without a teacher telling them they are right or wrong. These students will learn how to learn what they want to know – in German. It’s an introduction to language course designed as a pilot for using blended learning and a facilitator rather than a trained language teacher. There are risks, but I think the rewards outweigh them.
As their guide, I’ll lead students to view language as a doorway to discover knowledge about culture through another language. Secretly I hope they learn something more significant, another life lesson, that through their own curiosity they can push the limits of learning and seek to understand, even when they don’t speak the language.
Making Nontraditional Learning fit into Traditional Expectations
As much as we would like to sip a latte in English Lit or jam to iTunes in Algebra, some modern learning concepts don’t fit into traditional expectations in schools – at least not in middle school. The challenge of the German Blended Learning Course is to provide structure without boundaries so a nontraditional course design can go unnoticed come report card time. Student learning outcomes need to be measured just like the other courses. Until all of education commits to Starbucks baristas and Beats headsets as standard issue in the classroom, this course must meet the litmus test for quality education, just like all the other middle school courses we offer.
Among the resources that help creative educators bridge the divide between course types and teaching styles, L. Dee Fink, Ph.D. provides a long list of formulas for adding structure to a course in a way it won’t stifle the learning environment. The model demonstrates how the German Blended Learning Course is designed to maximize self-directed learning. The model focuses on goals, activities, and assessments in six key areas (human dimension and caring are combined in this example). These guidelines serve as landmarks on the journey through the course.
First, build a foundation of knowledge followed by applying what you know. Next, combine what you’ve learned with your existing investigation skills and look for the German version of your own day-to-day life activities. Finally, push yourself through the fear of failing and communicate – using German – while searching for the German version of what intrigues you as a learner. This check-and-balance system provides the “what,” the “how” and the “yep, you got it” in column form.
Take a look at the layout of this course using Fink’s three column model, below. This process should lead learners to the life lesson mentioned earlier – to recognize that through their own curiosity they can push the limits of learning and seek to understand, even when they don’t speak the language. The next section will explain the thought process behind the goals, activities, and outcomes listed in the table.
To learn more about Fink’s model visit:
Making Decisions about Course Goals, Activities, and Outcomes
Can I Walk on Water?
Getting back to the analogy of learning to walk, the child might think to himself – can I walk on water? Well, realistically, no, and he probably won’t ask that question. When he sees a rail puddle, he just steps in it. He won’t consider how it’ll feel to be splashed and dirty, or stand in wet shoes. If a child knew and truly understood the problems that would result from walking on water, he might prepare, wear boots or may choose another path – or maybe not. He might actually enjoy the novelty of something different.
Fink’s model is about having a game plan. It keeps learners focused, and teachers, too. It helps nontraditional courses adhere to the expectations of stakeholders – administrators, other teachers, parents, as well as students (it keeps little boys out of puddles, but still encourages fun in the rain). But for the model to lead to a life lesson, it has to be vetted by examining the entire context in which it’ll be used. Fink offers questions to ask during the decision making process. The list below is the modified version being used to frame the German Blended Learning Course.
Thinking it Through – Why these goals, activities, and assessments?
It helps to know as much as possible about the people and environment where the course resides. What situation prompted the course? Why? How does the teacher impact the learning? What makes these learners right for this course? Ultimately, the class begins here. It seems counter-intuitive, but like the boy in the puddle, it would make sense to consider the weather before dressing for the day. Below is the dialog used to assess “weather” in my middle school learning environment. Understanding these details helps to optimize the plan.
The model asks, “What would you want to tell your stakeholders about these five areas of consideration?”
- Specific context of the teaching/learning situation
- General Context of the learning situation
- Nature of the subject
- Characteristics of the learners
- Characteristics of the teacher
Here’s what I discovered and used to design the German course:
1. Specific Context of the Teaching/Learning Situation
How many students are in the class? Is the course primary, secondary, undergraduate, or graduate level? How long and frequent are the class meetings? How will the course be delivered: live, online, blended, flipped or in a classroom or lab? What physical elements of the learning environment will affect the class? What technology, networking, and access issues will affect the class?
Introduction to German is a blended learning course offered only to 8th-grade students at this time -due to scheduling constraints. The course will have no more than 8 students per section and will meet twice weekly for one hour. The duration of the course is 18 weeks.
Students will use Chromebooks to connect to the internet. Some sessions won’t require technology, but most days students will need internet access and a headset. All students will learn German through online software. Students can access the program from outside school on an internet enabled device by logging into their accounts.
Additional programs will be used including Voice Thread, Duolingo, YouTube, Quizlet, SMART Response 2, Google Classroom, Freshgrade, iTunes and several websites.
German-speaking individuals have been invited to add to the conversations students initiate through their online recordings.
2. General Context of the Learning Situation
What learning expectations are placed on this course or curriculum by the school, district, university, college and/or department? The profession? Society?
The State of Alabama has standards associated with learning a language at each age. Standards for 6-8 will be applied to the course:
- Use formal and informal expressions to communicate
- Interpret target language gestures, intonation, and visual clues
- Identify the main idea of nonfiction texts, including target language newspaper and magazine advertisements
- Create presentations in the target language
- Explain cultural practices of a target culture
- Identify trends found in various aspects of a target language culture
- Identify significant historical, scientific, and artistic target culture contributions or events
- Relate vocabulary of the target language to vocabulary of other subject areas
- Use spoken and written language to reflect knowledge of grammatical differences between English and the target language
- Identify critical sound distinctions of the target language and of English that must be mastered to communicate meaning
- Compare verbal and nonverbal behavior of the target culture to the culture of the United States
- Create presentations about the target culture for various audiences
Stakeholders (the administration team and parents) have expectations that students will gain experiences through our learning environment that uphold the values and practices of the school – in academic rigor and Catholic faith. Therefore this course will also include discussion about faith-based traditions found in German culture. It’s assumed that course materials and other influences will add positively to the conversation to promote a genuine human connection with modern-day Germany.
3. Nature of the Subject
Is this subject primarily theoretical, practical, or a combination? Is the subject primarily convergent or divergent? Are there important changes or controversies occurring within the field?
Introduction to German is a practical course designed to increase student awareness of culture outside the US (German culture), introduce sounds of the German language, and recognize basic German vocabulary. It’s not designed to teach speaking fluency. The convergent course brings together assumptions about history, teen lifestyles, knowledge of language, faith, culture, and tradition to compare against American culture – all from the eyes of a peer group. The course won’t delve into Germany history or the country’s relationship with the US.; however, it will promote discussions about the current political and economic conditions in both countries.
4. Characteristics of the Learners
What is the life situation of the learners (e.g., socioeconomic, cultural, personal, family, professional goals)? What prior knowledge, experiences, and initial feelings do students usually have about this subject? What are their learning goals and expectations?
Because the course hasn’t yet started, I make assumptions about students who would want to take this course, and offer known situations surrounding the “proposed student.” When the course pilot has ended, I’ll have actual student profiles. The pilot course will be optional and have limited enrollment so the characteristics listed here represent students who might want to take the course and their likely reasons why. While preparing to design the course, casual conversations with rising 8th-grade students revealed four basic profiles of learners in foreign language classes.
- learners who didn’t like learning Spanish
- learners who didn’t like the traditional teaching methods used
- learners who did poorly in the traditional classroom setting
- learners who did well in the traditional classroom setting and/or liked Spanish
Students likely to choose this course as their foreign language in 8th grade will probably come from the first three profile groups.
Prior exposure to second languages: One group of students are familiar with German because their families hosted German exchange students. A few have learned some German vocabulary through a self-paced online program. The remaining students have been exposed to Spanish as a second language, or a first language.
Prior academic performance: The school prefers that students taking this course have a history of completing schoolwork independently, have average or above grades, balance academics with social activities, and have no record of discipline issues. Most students entering 8th grade are well known and have several years of academic history with the school.
Motivational factors: Although self-motivated students are likely to do well in a self-directed course, students who do poorly in the traditional classroom may also do well because the depth of the subject is in the control of the student. Also, if the environment of language courses negatively affected student performance in the past, a new, different environment might positively influence their learning. Only after the pilot course has been completed will I know more about how the learning environment affected learning outcomes.
Learning preferences: In this course, students will design learning goals based on his/her interests. When asked about learning a foreign language in a traditional classroom environment some students explained they prefer to learn without the rote memorization, worksheets, quizzes, and tests, suggesting many other ways to demonstrate knowledge.
Students prefer to use electronics while learning (i.e., using computers, listening to music, etc.). They also want to work at their own pace. One student said, “demonstrating what I know without the “failure” that comes with not knowing, keeps me from getting discouraged.” I haven’t investigated learning style preferences of students in our school such as Meyers Briggs or Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory, but I can include a variety of resources to accommodate preferences.
Most students prefer to work in groups. They have similar interests and would like to learn only what they will need to know, not the language as a whole. Students are interested in conversational foreign language. Ultimately, they want the process of learning to be fun and non-judgmental and relevant to their daily lives.
Outside factors: In the Catholic School environment, most socioeconomic and cultural influences don’t come into play when designing courses. The school strives to keep the learning environment neutral and doesn’t discriminate between the lifestyles or cultures of students in and outside of school. Where needed, the school provides assistance to ensure all students have equal opportunity to reach their highest learning potential.
5. Characteristics of the Teacher
What beliefs and values do the teacher have about teaching and learning? What is his/her attitude toward the subject? Students? What level of knowledge or familiarity does s/he have with this subject? What are his/her strengths in teaching?
I am the teacher/facilitator and have no knowledge of the language beyond the rudimentary understanding of letter sounds and a minimal vocabulary. My experience with the language is limited to personal interactions with members of the German community while they lived in the US.
I believe learning German is particularly vital in Alabama, where our school is located. Several key employers reside in the state, and each of the major universities has work-study programs and international exchange programs with German companies. A large group of German residents work in the Engineering and Scientific communities; both industries are leaders in the state’s economy. Our Catholic High Schools also hosts exchange students from Germany, although our local Catholic High School doesn’t offer German as a foreign language.
Of the many languages students can learn in addition to Spanish, the German (from Germany) has a significant Roman Catholic presence. Students will come to understand the differences in American and European Catholic traditions through learning about the German culture.
The non-traditional nature of the learning environment is preferred for this course. My teaching style is to coach students as self-directed learners. I’m very familiar with the factors that affect learning in a self-directed course. My role will be to manage the environment and preempt students from straying off-course by showing them new and engaging ways to learn and accomplish their learning goals.
I agree with research that suggests language is best learned when self-paced using natural occurring references such as recent experiences. While immersion would be the most effective option, in its absence, allowing students to become immersed in the language through topics of great interest and relevance reduce the context to a manageable size, helping students learn and retain more effectively.
Final Thoughts about Backward Design
A thriving learning environment has many components which are highlighted through backward design. The course needs an overarching learning objective that students will take with them long after the class is done – a final destination. In this course, my first hope is for students to remember they learned “how to learn.” Second, if I’ve evaluated the landscape accurately through backward design principles, the non-traditional process of learning should yield the desired results. Backward design helped me design the course with full knowledge of the travelers and the likely stops they’ll need to address along the way. And finally, thinking about a class in reverse help build the map – a GPS system that helps keep everyone traveling on the same path.
Backward design for creating significant learning environments is rooted in my favorite quote by Stephen Covey, “Begin with the end in mind.” In order to create a learning adventure into the world of German language and culture, we all need to know where we’re going. In this course, it’s the journey itself that’s real learning.
Image Source: Google Images licensed for Reuse
Fink, L. D. A Self Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning. Retrieved from https://www.deefinkandassociates.com/GuidetoCourseDesignAug05.pdf.
Covey, S. R. (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. New York. NY. Simon & Schuster.