Backwards Design

The primary way we organize the learning that happens in Innovation Diploma is by using problems or design briefs as the framework. I am not talking about a typical “project” – I am talking about a real, client-delivered design brief that is high stakes because it’s truly a problem that needs solving. To open the year, we decided to deliver our own design brief that has slightly lower stakes than one delivered from the City Council or a well-known company like Porsche. We challenged the team with this question:

How might we increase awareness and traffic in our outdoor classroom?

We landed on this question for a couple reasons. Not only is the outdoor space completely overgrown, bug-infested, unappealing and entirely underused, but students in iDiploma are changemakers and committed to leaving the world better than they found it. Right now, their world is Mount Vernon, and if we can help our student team feel connected and prideful of their world, well, that’s huge. It has to start with the simple notion and belief that we ALL have a responsibility to take action and better the world around us. We also believe that learning happens anywhere, so why not outside? Inevitably, this small hack would spur conversation among teachers, students and administrators around what learning looks like and what conditions we believe must exist in order for learning to “happen.” I will say, it’s been fascinating to watch the team unpack interviews and even discuss their own opinions about learning schooling.

One of the recurring ideas that comes up is how would I possibly teach/learn [subject/content] outside when there are so many distractions? Well this has me puzzled. And then on the other hand, I get it…you teach/are learning health or math or English at any given time. But what if we didn’t organize our schooling that way? What if we made our schooling more connected to how we learn? What if we started with contextualized problems or design briefs like this one as an entry point and let our content weave into other subjects and 21st century skills?

As a case study, I spent a couple minutes digging through our school’s learning outcomes across subject areas, and here are some learning outcomes we’re hitting with this outdoor classroom project:

How does the outdoors influence your behavior? What benefits do the outdoors have on your health?

  • Health: High school students will demonstrate patterns of healthy behaviors to prevent or reduce the risk of injury and/or illness throughout their lifespan. Students will describe the interrelationships of emotional, physical, social, and intellectual health and how each aspect of health can be impacted by their surroundings. Students will evaluate established health behavior theories and models.

How will you track frequency of use? How will you collect your data? If you decide to build or add elements to this space, how much material will you need?

  • Measurement: The student is expected to use appropriate units of measure to solve real-world problems, including conversions between measurement systems.
  • Data:The student is expected to determine the strengths and weaknesses of reports based on data when solving problems in real-world situations.  
  • Statistics and Probability: The student is expected to determine solutions to mathematical and real-world problems involving qualitative and quantitative data from simple experiments.

What research have you found to help convince people of the value of this space? What will you produce to help others see that value?

  • English Language Arts/ Reading and Critical Thinking: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • English Language Arts / Writing and CommunicationUse technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.
  • English Language Arts/ ReasoningConduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

So would we say this is a health project? Math? English? Or maybe it’s psychology…What if subject didn’t matter?

What if we backwards designed from problem to skills? What if the way we currently organize our day in most upper schools is really the backwards design?


One thought on “Backwards Design

  1. Meghan, Love that last turn of phrase. Seems spot on. Have you read “A Thousand Rivers” by Carol Black at ? It’s all about her experience Unschooling, and it might be heresy to those of us who are career teachers, but it’s so well written. I think it probably overlooks the fact that Unschooling is, usually, the privilege of the privileged class who can afford to have one parent home instead of both at work. Regardless, the sentiments in her piece are also reminiscent of your piece here. All the best this year.


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