The Perils of Backward Design

Earlier posts in this series:
     Legitimate Uses of Assessment
     Problematic Uses of Assessment
     The Meaning of Grades
     De-emphasizing Grades
     Grades: the Research

The Assessment Trap, Part 6: The Perils of Backward Design

In previous posts, I addressed the true nature of grades and their corrosive impact on learning. Alas, over-emphasis on grades and summative assessment also corrupts curriculum and pedagogy. In other words, it not only affects students individually, it also affects all students as a group. This is what I will try to argue in this post.

Backward design, an idea pioneered by Grant Wiggins and others, is based on the idea that curriculum should be designed by first discussing what you want the student to be able to do at the end of the course or unit, and then build a curriculum that will provide a path to that destination. In principle, that makes a lot of sense, and I am sure it can be done well. However there are many ways this approach can backfire.

First of all, some of the most important destinations are hard to specify. Say that your goal is deep understanding of a given topic. What is that? How do you know whether a student has achieved it? Likewise, if you aim for an appreciation of the beauty of math, or student self-confidence, or increased curiosity, or social responsibility, or an ethical stance. None of those things lend themselves to straightforward measurement. The most important goals of education are hard to pin down, and this makes it difficult to design backward from there.

Even within a narrow definition of the discipline and even if one accepts basic goals within that framework, backward design can lead to a demand for easy-to-measure outcomes. Tell us what you want the students to be able to do, and we can see whether you were successful. We need data! And thus starts the descent into lists of micro-skills, items that can readily be checked off, or not checked off. Such lists are powerful, because they are easy to communicate to students, to parents, and to administrators. Pretty soon, the essential goals fade away, and the pressure is on to produce results in the form of check marks on a rubric.

This in turn affects how the subject is taught. Some time ago on this blog, I used equation-solving as an example of this. (Read the whole post on  “How To”.) Instead of empowering the student with the essential concepts they might use in solving an equation, we ask them to memorize many cases (one-step equations, two-step equations, etc.) The advantage of atomizing the subject like that is that those micro-skills are easy to assess, and the resulting assessments yield “data”. Simultaneously, it relieves the students from having to think, which is something they appreciate if that is how they have been taught math in the past. The disadvantage of this approach is that it does not work. It is not effective in helping students develop understanding, self-confidence, or an appreciation for mathematics.

This atomization of a subject can result from many different assessment policies, ranging from the standardized test mania which has done so much damage, to well-intentioned standards-based rubrics and grading schemes. Overemphasis on assessment inexorably pushes curriculum towards “how to do” things. There’s a place for that, of course, but too much of it and you’re treating the student as a programmable device, and preventing them from engaging with the subject matter intellectually. The message you are communicating is “Since I’ve already given up on your ability to think, I will have you memorize these easy-to-remember steps…” and your de facto low expectations will be self-fulfilling, as they reinforce students’ fixed mindset about their abilities.

Teaching for understanding is hard to assess, it is hard to capture in a checklist, and it is hard to define in a few words. In spite of all that, it is the most important part of our job. How can assessment help us rather than hinder us as we strive to do it? How can we resist the temptation to demean our students with low expectations, and our discipline by reducing it to simple recipes? I will make some suggestions in the next post.


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