Backwards Design in Education

Through reading concerning experts who have studied learning theories and practice in emerging technologies, discussions involve situated cognition and virtual immersive situated learning.  One such theory discussed is the concept and application of backwards design in education.

Backwards planning is goal driven learning. It is like project based learning where you have a final goal in mind. In backwards planning you start with the end result, the goal, and then explain to the student the steps they need to take to achieve this goal. This is beneficial because it is not a monotonous timeline which can seem overwhelming and irrelevant to some students. Instead it can be used as a motivational tool that will bring them a personal sense of achievement.

My daughter for example, can be given a second grade text book with all the subject matter needed for her grade level with the goal of completing all the pages and activities in the 400 page work book by the years end…. I have found that this is not an engaging goal for an eight year old. The first question that comes to mind is…”Why?”. The potential answer of, “Because you’re in the second grade and this is what we have to do in the second grade”, just doesn’t seem like an appealing answer.

In a tale of two classrooms reading text books, watching movies, writing answers and answering questions are not always effective in engaging all the students in the classroom. Play acting can be more engaging, however if you add technology and enhance the concept of play acting through, for example the creation of a movie, or multimedia presentation, you can increase cognitive learning through engagement and personal motivation.

Cognitive learning in virtual environments can also enhance the engagement of students.  It is similar to internships and apprenticed learning. Instead of reading about history and regurgitating the facts in writing, students can role play in immersive virtual environments that expose them, not only to the historical facts, but the social and cultural realities of the point in history and location or event being studied. In addition, in teaching specific concepts, parents or teachers can create virtual environments that specifically reinforce the cultural, social, and spiritual goals they have for their student. Beyond simply teaching a subject, through immersion experiences, applicable concepts are learned that deepen understanding. This can be exampled by the virtual environment created by Dr. Chris Dede in River City and Science Space.

Other motivational techniques that can be used to increase understanding of subject matter by students is to design projects and experiences that are personal and relevant to the learner. An example would be interviewing or creating presentations concerning local culture, or family history. Being able to produce quality presentations through the use of technology. Presentations that can be shared with family or the community also add internal motivation for the student in the learning and creative process.

By working in groups or with adults, parents, teachers, family or community members, as coaches and guides, students experience situated learning in which they learn through actual application of skills to achieve the set goals. One example may be in the creation of a comic book style presentation. Comic books require layouts in different forms such as squares or rectangles and triangles that can be used for math applications in their placements and measurements in design. The writing of the story line incorporates English skills, sentence structure, and vocabulary. The content can be focused on history, the tools used can teach about technology. Emerging technologies have made these options more accessible to the general learner. The end result can be shared either in print or electronic means. All of this adds to the community of practice where mentors can guide and learners can benefit from and engage each other with different levels of ability.

The reason project based learning is effective in the cognitive modeling process is that the learner is able to see the end goal and then, through the process of and steps presented in order to create the project, the student comes to a cognitive understanding of how the knowledge learned is applied in a real world scenario. The reason this works is because each project can be tailored to the learning level of the student in order to teach the learning standards required for their level.

For example in the state of Maine no specific standards exist except that subjects must include English, language arts, math, science, social studies, physical education, health education, library skills, fine arts, Maine studies (for one year between 6th and 12th grade) and computer proficiency  (for one year between 7th and 12th grade). With no standards of achievement the homeschooling parent must ensure that the goals they have for their child are met through the homeschooling program. If the goal is college then project based learning can be built to prepare them to achieve that goal. If the goal is employability, then the same is true.

For younger students the goal may for the purpose of cooking; as an example.  This goal centered activity, baking a cake or preparing a whole meal, can cover standards that can be incorporated easily in the steps needed to accomplish the goal. Reading recipes for English comprehension, mathematics with measurements, exampled by the math involved in purchasing food with a budget, and even figuring the taxes. It can also include health education through conversations on nutrition and meal planning, and making nutritional choices, and science through the process of baking, all depending on age level and ability.

In the same way other subjects can be incorporated into the goal of planning a Sunday family meal; the history of the food or a tradition such as special meals and family gathering. A complete curriculum engaging the student on a deeper cognitive level through immersion in preparing, and of course, enjoying the outcome.

In this example the expert is the parent who is experience with the task at hand. The steps involved to accomplish the task are a verbal explanation of the skills needed and why those skills are needed. The same theories are applied to virtual based learning, especially for younger children who may not be able to bake and cook in the kitchen, they can learn and develop deeper cognitive understanding through a virtual based role playing game that brings them through all of the same process and steps as in the real world scenario.

With this form of learning one concern often brought up is how can one assess the actual learning of the student? I found a relevant article concerning how virtual learning can be assessed. Because virtual and immersion based learning in virtual reality is very similar to communal learning, apprenticeship, and project based, the exploration of how this learning is assessed is very relevant in my goals as a homeschooling parent and my desire to support other parents homeschooling efforts.

The article Designing Assessments and Assessing Designs in Virtual Educational Environments, discusses how ineffective test based assessments can be to evaluate actual learning. Here is a scenario I often saw, even in the private school setting when it came time for state mandated assessments.  Weeks of drills and coaching on specific subject matter, memorization and daily review in preparation for the timed tests. The students were in actuality only being tested on their ability to memorize and remember facts and figures for the short term required to answer the questions presented.

Although it can be argued and in part rightfully so that the tests were designed to evaluate the learning acquired by the student throughout the school year, the simple fact of common cramming techniques that were practiced school wide in every grade, seriously diminished my confidence in the relevance of the test results. In comparison creating portfolio type assessments shows actual progression and application of knowledge learned over time.

The authors of the above article use this same aspect in creating “Quests” within the virtual worlds, with the learner engaged in accomplishing tasks and goals through the use of learned knowledge. This shows that the learner has not just memorized facts and figures but they have achieved a cognitive level of understanding in which they can then apply the knowledge learned to solve problems and real life scenarios within the virtual environment.


Hickey, D. d., Ingram-Goble, A. A., & Jameson, E. M. (2009). Designing Assessments and Assessing Designs in Virtual Educational Environments. Journal Of Science Education & Technology, 18(2), 187-208. doi:10.1007/s10956-008-9143-1




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