From forward thinking to backward design

A couple years ago, I had the privilege of working with a team of math and science colleagues working to revise their undergraduate curriculum (affectionately known as “Core Ed” to reflect the new core education that they were creating for their math and science majors). To be specific, these were colleagues from math, biology, chemistry, and physics. They were all faculty who care deeply about their chosen discipline… and about teaching undergraduates to know, do, and love their discipline. So what really impressed me about this team’s work was that it stemmed from a very forward-thinking conception of what it means to be a successful math/science graduate in today’s complex, technological, interconnected world. In sum, the team’s mission was to create a new Core Ed that would help their students develop in four key areas:

as scholars who can apply advanced technical knowledge of their chosen field to solve complex problems,

as professionals who can effectively communicate and work in teams,

as citizens who recognize the complex interactions between science and society and are willing to apply science for social good, and

as individuals who strive for personal wellness, fulfillment, and life-long learning.

Now, if I had to guess, I’d say you were probably pretty impressed when you got to the third item (citizens) on the above list. But then, upon reading the fourth one (individuals), you were genuinely surprised. Am I right?

Let me really go out on a limb here and predict that your next thought was/is something along these lines: Those grandiose goals are all well and good, but how could a new improved science and math curriculum actually accomplish all that? Whether or not you were thinking that, I can definitely say that the team members were… along with other questions like: How can these lofty goals guide us to make good decisions about curriculum change? How will we know if Core Ed is successful in each of these four areas?

To tackle these questions, the team’s next step involved getting concrete about what the four goals meant to them – by writing student-centered, measurable program outcomes, i.e., “When students graduate from our program, they should be able to:

  • Communicate effectively via oral, visual, and written formats …
  • Participate effectively in multidisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary teams …
  • Critically assess their current state of knowledge [relative to a task or goal] and develop a plan to acquire needed new knowledge…
  • Engage in recursive, reflective processes to assess their own levels of physical, emotional, and social wellness …

Then, they analyzed the degree to which the current curriculum supported students to achieve these outcomes and, in cases where it didn’t, decided to create or revise courses to target what was missing. They imagined specific assessments that could tell them whether a student had succeeded or not, and they wrangled over whether they were expecting too much or too little from students after four years in their program. Some of these conversations were heated, with consensus barely achieved. But all of them were immensely informative in guiding the course designs and refinements that followed.

Now, if I may say so, that’s backward design! (And I mean that in the most positive way.)

In essence, this team of mathematicians and scientists did all the steps I encourage in my previous post (well, except for actually sitting down and writing a looking-back-from-the-future commencement speech). I especially appreciate that they took the plunge to “dream big” for their students by laying out the four major areas of development. But they didn’t stop there, simply assuming (or hoping) that students would magically achieve those noble goals; rather, they translated from the abstract to the concrete and used the results to guide curricular design.

It’s still early days in the implementation of “Core Ed” (way too early to claim anything like victory or success). But I’m glad to report that the collaboration is ongoing, and we are working together to track students’ development and performance on key tasks, and to use the results as a guide for iterative improvements.

Perhaps when I’m at the next meeting with this group, I’ll ask them to think forward again – forward in time – to write the commencement speech they’d like to give to the class of 2020. I have a guess what they’ll say…

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