Forward 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 Perils of Backward Design
Assessment Tools and Strategies

The Assessment Trap, Part 8: Forward Design

It’s time to wrap up this series. Here is a summary of the main points:

– From the point of view of teaching and learning, the most useful assessments are formative, not summative. They allow both teacher and student to make the best use of upcoming instruction.

– No matter how much people deny it, grades have a single purpose: comparing students to each other and ranking them.

– Trying to use grades to manipulate student motivation and behavior is counterproductive, because grades can reinforce a fixed mindset, because measurable progress as a learner may take longer than any one grading period, and because one cannot improve beyond an A+.

– Overemphasis on grades not only sabotages individual student learning, but also undermines curriculum and pedagogy by pressuring teachers to quantify everything in search of an illusory objectivity, and making us lose sight of important but hard-to-measure goals.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to

Prioritize formative assessments

Lower the stakes on summative assessments by any means available: awarding points for corrections, varying the types of assessments, de-emphasizing grades as much as possible, etc.

Finally, in planning a course, a unit, or a lesson, practice forward design. (I am indebted to Carlos Cabana for this concept. See this blog post.) Start your planning by asking these questions, preferably in conversation with colleagues:

– What are the big ideas? If you can only come up with specific microskills, think some more: what are the underlying concepts that connect these skills? Can different representations throw light on this? (For example, looking at an algebraic topic geometrically, or graphically, or in a “real world” context.)

– What tools are available to provide a way for students to engage in thinking and exploring? This can include manipulatives, technology, and/or pencil-paper tools. The right tool can make it possible to formulate a question that all students can engage in; it can support reflection and discussion; and it can add variety to your course. (I have written a lot about tools. See “For a Tool-Rich Pedagogy“.)

– What contexts (themes) are there, whether “real world” or not, that can provide useful problems?

For examples of these first three ingredients of forward design (“themes, tools, concepts”), see this blog post on proportional relationships (centered on a concept), or this piece on area (centered on a theme — scroll down to page T23.)

– What curricular resources can complement or replace the textbook? Look on your shelves, search the Web, ask your colleagues. This step is crucial, as you most likely do not have time to create everything from scratch, and moreover, freshly-minted activities usually require some classroom testing and tweaking.

– How will the students be working at different stages? individually? in pairs? in groups? in whole-class discussions? Different modes are appropriate to different activities, and doing it all in a single one of those is a costly mistake if you aim to avoid lethal boredom and want to reach the full range of students.

After you’ve done this preliminary work, you can resort to some backward design strategies such as designing your assessments in advance, making lists of specific learning goals, and so on. Starting with forward design will help you keep those practices under control, save you from losing perspective, and prioritize what is most important.

Admittedly, forward design involves a lot of work. Collaboration is key: who can help you? Colleagues at your school are in the best position to work with you, but alas many teachers have told me that such collaboration is not possible at their school, as their colleagues are not interested, or (in small schools) they have no colleagues. In that situation, you’ll need to develop offsite collaborations, perhaps through the #MTBoS. But remember: you do not have to do all this at once. Get started now, do what you can, and do a little more each year. As soon as you start this forward motion, you’ll start to see the signs of improvement in your classroom. One step at a time.

Societal pressures often push in the opposite direction, relentlessly. By resisting the bean-counting culture and by trusting that your students can enjoy learning, you can help them gradually move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. Few things are more depressing to me than educators who have given up on that, and choose instead to treat their students as if they were programmable entities, or customers haggling over grades at a flea market.

The beauty of the subject matter, the power of the ideas, the thrill of problem solving: the same things that motivate you to learn can work for your students, but only if you avoid falling in the assessment trap.


PS: I wrote a postscript to this series, random bits that didn’t make it into the posts.

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