Feeling Backwards About Backwards Design

Until recently (like, last week) backwards design felt right. I always tried to have the end in sight and figure out with the students what learning engagements they could encounter to get to that end. “Best practice,” right?

On my path for more agency with my students I am beginning to question this. Our new unit is really what is making me think more about it. Here is some background information about the unit, if you are interested.

How We Organise Ourselves
CI: Technology is an integral element of our lives
LOI1: Responsible consumption of technology (Responsibility)
LOI2: The positive and negative aspects of current technology (Reflection)
LOI3: The advances that technology has enabled (Function)

We keep trying to think of a summative assessment for this unit… where are we going with this? What do we want them to accomplish or know? How can they show this?

We have had multiple thoughts from “how to” videos showing online safety, to blogs with comments and questions from students safely and positively interacting with each other, to a “show what you know” type thing where they can just tell us (in any form) what they know about the central idea and lines of inquiry. We are also toying with the idea of bringing in the Sustainable Development Goals and having the central idea and lines of inquiry be the driver/lens for it.

Of course formative assessment is key. I don’t want to ignore that fact. We need to be monitoring student actions and knowledge of all lines of inquiry as we go. But if students with agency are choosing their own paths for their learning, should we be contriving a summative assessment for them based on what we think is best? Is this fitting student needs or ours?

I suppose the “backwards design” is starting with the why. Why is this unit important… For us this means why do we need students to know about how technology is an integral element of our lives? Why do we need students to know how to consume technology responsibly? Why do we need students to know the positive and negative aspects of technology? Why do we need students to know the advances technology has enabled? It is a hard one because really it is for their current and future use of technology in their own lives inside and outside of school. The real summative assessment is if they are actually using technology safely and positively as they get older, after they leave our classrooms.

Maybe the “show what you know” is the best option for now? Maybe a mini portfolio of examples of their positive tech use and knowledge in the unit? Aren’t the central idea and lines of inquiry what we want them to accomplish or know? Should we use that for our backwards design thinking instead of a summative? I’m not sure where we are headed, but if students reflections along the way show their knowledge, I am not sure we need to contrive a fake summative for them. Do we?

Original post here

8 thoughts on “Feeling Backwards About Backwards Design

  1. I enjoyed reading this honest post. I have been struggling with the issue of summative assessment too and the question of – Do we need one? I have always be taught to design a solid summative assessment, often before the unit has even started.
    Lately, I have been letting the students guide me more. Sometimes, an opportunity for a summative assessment pops up during the unit, usually inspired by the students. Other times, nothing authentic enough presents itself. This happened this year with our unit on Sustainability. It was more about waiting to observe students making more sustainable choices/ habits, like your ‘real summative assessment’. I observed some students taking action during the unit, some weeks after the unit and for some students I am still waiting :). But then again, I’m not really sure what to do with these observations apart from just noting as comments. One of my colleagues suggested end of unit recorded individual interviews based on the 6 facets of understanding, so I have played around with these a bit too.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I know what you mean! Summatives have been the burden of my PYP experience because I don’t think one ‘task’ for all is possible or can really show all of the learning. I use formative throughout plus student assessment. At the end it’s all about the growth in knowledge, understanding, skill development etc which we document in a way that students can also choose. I thought it was supposed to be about the process anyway.
    We’re also using the level of independence chart that I first saw in studio 5 by @OrenjiButa, I believe. They are sharing evidence of their independent and leading levels on Seesaw. It could be a photo or video of something they’ve done, piece of writing etc.
    (see link for an example of a student’s personal chart for their Exhibition unit with questions-LOIs- attitudes and skills they want to develop/understand: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1VK5rAcIj5IQJFwt_lBkDO2HumuwGaIz3/view?usp=drivesdk )

    I think it could still be important to have a goal in mind, if WE’RE planning units, and then have the concepts, but I’m trying to leave as much space as possible for students to design the unit with me with their own questions/concepts. They can then show their growth of these too. They will still be lots to assess.
    The only thing needed, in my mind, is how to assess them on a continuum if you want to have degrees of proficiency that can be developed.
    Good food for thought, thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Feeling the the same. No to summarize task for the sake of it. It is all about the evidence you collect and rich and authentic learning engagements. Thank you for putting out there what many think.


  4. Thanks for sharing this sentiment. This is a great example of a unit that is doesn’t fit inside the box of Backwards Design. This seems like student self reflection is best suited to document action that came out of the learning. There was a great webinar by Jan Mills about data and learning that spoke about how we curate data as evidence of student learning. I wonder how you might use surveys and other tools to gather data instead of relying on a learning task to rate their knowledge and skills. Hmmm. Well thanks for sharing your conundrum- I think there are quite a few of us who “backwards” at times.


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