Monday, July 15, 2013

Backwards Is Better

Mutemath is one of my favorite bands. These guys are quirky showmen, but they have a ton of heart behind their music. The videos they have released for some of their songs illustrate their odd sense of humor. I think this video for their song "Typical" (released back in 2007) might be the best example I can provide. It's worth the four minutes to watch:

Now, I happen to love their sound, and the downright strange nature of this band's backwards video. It might not be your taste, exactly, but take a minute to think about the sheer WORK involved in creating it...
  • Imagine learning to lip-synch the whole song backwards. That took some time and dedication! (More than that, think about the drummer learning to drum the whole song backwards! Yikes!)
  • There was an immense amount of coordination involved. Every piece had to be arranged and ready, since the thing was basically filmed as one shot. (Okay, maybe two...when Paul, the lead singer, bangs into the camera in an extreme close-up at 2:33...)
  • The design of the video is pretty hilarious, but I'm also impressed with the timing of the whole thing. Every bit of it was orchestrated really well. Think of the paint scene, for instance. They had to get it right, because the set (and wardrobe) would have been pretty seriously screwed up for the rest of the day. Or the part with smashing the keytar (keyboard-guitar.) Or the bit with the silly string. Even the post-it notes. (If you haven't watched the video yet, I bet you want to now!)
The final product? A pretty amazing piece of filmmaking and music.


I'm thinking a lot about this because I'm teaching a curriculum development course this summer, and one of the books I assigned the class to read is Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe. It's become a classic of sorts for curriculum designers and teachers alike--admonishing curriculum developers to think like designers, and to plan their curricula to ensure that students understand the concepts to be learned.

Early in the book, Wiggins and McTighe introduce the idea of designing units "backwards." To understand why it is "backwards," you might first need to understand how teachers traditionally design their unit plans.

Traditionally, teachers:
  1. Set unit goals and develop objectives that will help them determine what students have learned.
  2. Prepare lessons and teach them.
  3. Assess what students have learned, in light of their goals and objectives.
That might sound very reasonable to you--and if you are a teacher, that may very well be what you do as you prepare units for your students. Wiggins and McTighe would encourage us to tweak this plan a bit, and instead work "backwards."

When planning "backwards," teachers:
  1. Set unit goals and develop objectives that will help them determine what students have learned.
  2. Develop assessments to determine how students will show they have met these goals and objectives.
  3. Prepare learning activities that will ensure that students will be able to meet the goals and objectives they have set.
So, the "backwards" part is that we are designing the assessment tasks first...but it's more than just that. It's also a focus on learning, a focus on ensuring that students understand these concepts.

Do students learn from traditionally designed units? Certainly. But the intentionality of the Understanding by Design framework is compelling: here we are trying to be MUCH more deliberate about ensuring that students learn the most important concepts, rather than hoping that they will catch things along the way.


Just like Mutemath, who took the time and deliberation to craft their video "backwards," I'm convinced that teachers who think "backwards" about their curriculum are going to be more sure of the outcomes for their students.

Imagine if the band hadn't practiced (and practiced, and practiced) their reversed lip-synching and playing. The illusion would have been broken (just as surely as the smashed keytar.)

Imagine if the band hand't coordinated and timed their performance. It still might have been humorous and entertaining, but not with the same impact as the carefully orchestrated show.

Wiggins and McTighe call the traditional approach to planning: "Teach, test, and hope for the best." (p.3) I think that is a helpful, if disparaging term. Teachers who don't make deliberate plans for ensuring students' success will have no way of telling what students will truly come away learning.

On the other hand, teachers who think "backwards" about their planning--developing clear goals and objectives for student learning, carefully crafting assessments vehicles to measure students' progress, designing learning activities created to ensure understanding--might actually be "forward-thinking" in the finest sense.


  1. Great summary of our ideas! Thanks for putting it so clearly and helpfully.

    1. I appreciate your feedback, Grant! Glad I did justice to your work. It's been extremely helpful in my own teaching practice, and we've had some great conversations in this course about curriculum, design, and what we really mean by "understanding." Many thanks to you and Jay for your influential work!

  2. Having not read the work, I cannot comment fully, of course, and may be overlooking something that was contained within it....

    With that caveat, I'm not quite sure I get it. I'm dumb and dense--I'll admit that. :) Isn't this teaching to the test? My guess is that you'll say I'm being overly simplistic--but that's what it comes across as.

    To a certain extent--yes--we have to make sure that what what we teach can be somehow evaluated...but am I ever REALLY--in any form assessment--gauging ultimate learning? Most of the stuff I've learned in my life has taken YEARS to sink in. Often it takes life experiences for the lessons to sink in...and that only happened b/c I often had "traditional" teaching of tests where I had to study hard, memorize, and analyze information. It provided a solid foundation for the lessons that were intended to perhaps sink in later.

    I do simulations and games in my classes (where practical and class sizes aren't large) and know that the real lessons that they learn often sink in quite a bit after the classes are done.

    Do I want to spend the time assessing that longitunally? Why? If common sense tells us that--it seems like make-work.

    Color me skeptical. :)


    1. Paul,
      It's amazing how often the "teaching to the test" argument gets leveled against backward design. I suppose that it's true in a sense--you *are* trying to ensure that students will be able to "pass the test." But I think teaching for understanding goes way beyond just being able to pass a test.

      I was probably being too concise in this summary--I'm condensing hundreds of pages of ideas into one blog I'm sure this is reductionistic (regardless of Grant's affirmation above.) Wiggins and McTighe really argue for multiple measures of the goals and objectives we set--not just a "once-and-done" test. I didn't even touch on several of their other big ideas in the book, such as framing learning with essential questions, exploring different facets of understanding (they lay out six different approaches), and ideas for creating more valid and reliable assessments. I'll loan you my copy of the book, if you'd like to read the whole thing.

      Regarding assessing longitudinally, I think it makes a lot of sense! If the things we want students to learn will take time to learn, providing them initial feedback, and then ongoing feedback (assessing along the way) is probably a better way to ensure their understanding. I'll agree that this might be more work--especially at first!--but if we are really teaching for big ideas and deep understanding, this sort of ongoing assessment is probably worth the effort!

      Thanks for the feedback, my friend! Love to discuss pedagogy with you. ;-)