Backwards Design

Backwards design is the process of designing learning experiences by beginning with identifying the outcomes and planning all resources and activities in direct response to how they will support the learner in meeting the outcomes. It is the designer’s job to know what it will look like when the learners have met the objectives.

There are three main stages:

  1. Identify Desired Results (unpack your content, identify essential questions, establish goals and outcomes)
  2. What evidence of learning will you seek? (plan for assessment)
  3. Developing a responsive learning plan that ensures that WHAT is taught and HOW it is taught aligns with the first two stages (outcomes and assessment)

We will mention two different ways to think about backwards design, each with their own perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses. Keep in mind that very few planning frameworks (if any) will be perfectly applicable to any given situation, and there are certainly other frameworks that can help structure your work as a learning designer (ADDIE, Agile, etc). What is consistent between the two frameworks here, Understanding by Design and Design Thinking, is that designers begin with the end goal in mind.

We don’t have time in this overview course to dive deeply into either of these frameworks, but we will model the process as we work through your blueprint and build your interactive learning resource.

Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design (UBD) implements the principles of Backwards Design using a template and a range of design rules. This planning framework encourages teachers to design units of study with the end in mind. The Understanding by Design framework is structured to focus the designer on the long term goals of what the learners will be able to do or know at the end and then plan the learning activities in alignment with what they will need to meet these goals.

For more information on this framework, consider watching the following two videos (about 24 minutes in total) or by reading this article by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). You can also view a template for Understanding By Design here.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking is an iterative approach to learning that encourages learners to prototype (as designers) in response to a challenge or problem. Designers work collaboratively to solve real world problems, starting with ensuring that they truly understand the context. Ideally, designers would interview the individual(s) whose problem they are working to solve. This encourages the designer to shed their own perceptions or needs and develop empathy and deep understanding of why the problem exists.

A lesson employing a Design Thinking approach would be framed as a provocation. This provocation should be styled in such a way that participants immediately feel invested, and motivated to solve the problem.

Once you have generated interest in the provocation, students should work through the following five phases:

  • Empathy – Who is impacted by the problem, and in what ways?
  • Define – Clarify the problem, the constraints, and the available resources.
  • Ideate – Brainstorm possible solutions – think flexibly and openly.
  • Prototype – Draw or build models of potential solutions.
  • Test – Try out the prototypes and share potential solutions.

These phases may begin in a linear way, but as the designers delve deeply into the problem, they will need to revisit steps repeatedly. For example, they may learn that they missed a critical interview question when they are prototyping a model and not know if their design actually meets the needs of the user. They must then seek to deepen their empathy by meeting with their interview partner again. Testing a prototype might reveal limitations that require working through ideating new models.

This model is different from other “making” models because of the grounding in empathy. For example, if participants were asked to create an ideal energy efficient housing design with limited materials, a “maker” or project-based approach might begin with research, or brainstorming prior knowledge. A design thinking approach would be to interview whoever this housing will be designed for. They would identify the constraints (why there is limited materials, what materials are available, possible renewable energy sources). The interviewer’s job is to listen deeply, ask critical questions to gain true empathy, and to ensure they understand exactly what the interviewee needs.

This work is done best by groups. After the problem and needs are clearly defined, a group can work together to begin prototyping. They may make sketches or models while they constantly compare their work against the needs of the individual who was interviewed.

Design thinking is an excellent approach to finding and solving real world problems in creative ways. It fosters curiosity and empathy in the learners and a constructivist approach to learning.

One award winning example of design thinking was done by a Victoria. B. C. student, Ann Makosinski, a 16 year old student who wanted to know if it was possible to develop a flashlight without batteries for use in places without easy access to electricity. The problem was shared by a friend in the Philippines and Ann prototyped to find a solution that would work within the constraints of the problem.

For more information about Design Thinking, I encourage you to watch the following TED Talk by Tim Brown: