Is it a fallacy to not use backwards design?

Fallacies are notable not only for their wrong-ness but ease-ness in which they are made. Case in point today is elucidated pretty clearly over at Grant Wiggins’ post.

He talks about the fallacy of breaking things down (he just calls it a mistake, though) in education in terms of syllabus or textbook writing. He’s responding to Common Core’s work on “microstandards” which is the breaking down of standards:

This problem of turning everything into “microstandards” is a problem of long standing in education. One might even say it is the original sin in curriculum design. Take a complex whole, divide into the simplest and most reductionist bits, string them together and call it a curriculum. Though well-intentioned, it leads to fractured, boring, and useless learning of superficial bits.

This is analogous to my own perspective regarding the particular approach to take when teaching weak English Language Learners in an English-medium instruction institution.

“Let’s teach them ESL” and — here comes the fallacy — proceed to break that down into various parts (and give it a technical-sounding name: “macroskills“) and to further proceed judging a student in convoluted ways: “How good is their grammar?” And then you start breaking it down even further. “How is their grammar when they are speaking?” “How is their grammar when they are answering questions?” “How is their grammar when they are applying it?”

Human beings learning to communicate in a new language aren’t linguists, they are communicators. If you’re expecting linguists, you’re committing the fallacy of breaking-downing-ness by making a checklist to make a judgment.

The IB really does address this pattern, and proscribes a teaching approach directly opposing checklists (to the horror of many), in particular its emphasis on the backwards design model of curriculum building.

Backwards design, which I simplify in my own head to IDG: “identify, determine, generate”. That is, identify the content of the summative assessment, determine criteria for success of such content, and then generate learning experiences based on those criterion-based goals. This idea also incorporates a robust understanding of the teaching & learning cycle. Those learning experiences that you have designed produce data, which in turn provides an opportunity for the teacher to regenerate some learning experiences.

This is where it gets hard though: Backwards design itself is an experiential process. It isn’t a checkbox itself, because if you treat it like something to tick off the point of it all simply hasn’t been understood. And if you don’t get the point of it, you’ll go right back to the familiar checklist mentality of “Yeah, I do that too” instead of looking at the quality of the unit design as a cohesive, integral whole. But you notice that I broke down the concept of backwards design — yes? — by offering an interpretation of what the concept in question means? It’s almost as if I’m saying “the path to backwards design is to check these items off the list: identify, determine, and generate.”

That’s right, I broke it down but that was done authentically in an attempt to come to an understanding and derive a notion of it. The breaking down came after I’ve engaged on the problem itself, entirely contextualized. It wasn’t foisted onto you in the first place. That’s what syllabi often do: front-load the vocabulary and explanations without presenting the problem. It’s what teachers of second languages do when they treat their students as linguists: front-load the intricacies of how language works without emphasizing their identity as communicators.

A future post could address the problem of calling something a fallacy that is part of one’s practice rather than of one’s argument.

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