Backwards Design

When educators talk about “Learning Design” or “Design in Learning” they are typically talking about Pedagogy. The “Backwards Design” documents and sites I’ve been looking at lately are actually great examples of what higher ed has done forever: focusing on the pedagogical end of the teaching/learning scale — instructors designing for students.

They typically don’t really address the andragogical side — design done by learners to more deeply situate their learning in practice (and Communities of Practice). This is not to say that it’s not included — Wiggins and McTighe’s “performance tasks” (in assessment) often includes some sort of learner design activity, and Bloom’s Analyze, Evaluate, Create are learner design activities — but these are often minimal or missing from “one-page” documents.

Perhaps more important, and missing in most, is the need to include and foster a community of practice (CoP) around these activities. Peer review is the gold standard in academic research, but higher education, like K-12, is hanging on to authoritarian, one-expert, models of assessment, where the instructor has the answer. This minimizes opportunities for students to develop in Bloom’s “Analysis” and “Evaluation” categories. Peer (CoP) assessment opportunities also provide development of Communication, which Bloom’s taxonomy misses.

It turns out that there’s not a lot out there (in higher ed) about learning by designing/creating authentic activities for a community of practice. This is partly because as originally visioned it tied together three aspects of learning that are often discussed individually, but less often together: Adult Learning, Constructionism, and Communities of Practice.

Designers will tell you that they learn a lot about the content of a field by designing for it. They need to live in the community to succeed. Their design needs to work, but it also needs to fit the social/cultural norms of the field closely enough for them to accept it. The best designs actually evolve the field — they’re close enough to the norms to be accepted, but change the behavior and sometimes attitudes/assumptions/paradigms of the field (Kuhn, 1959).

This is the goal of adult education: to groom active members of a field, who have the experience and agency to contribute new knowledge to a given field/discipline.

They need experience to do this. They need practice communicating with others in the field. They need opportunities to succeed (and fail) in the creation of new knowledge in the field — ideally enough low-stakes failures in school so that when they get to high sakes situations in the field, they’re not afraid to try, and they have enough experience to know what works and what doesn’t. Thus the need for Design Learning.

Here are some resources that are foundational to this: 

In some ways, Malcolm Knowles’ Adragogy has the simplest version, and this sitehas a pretty good/accessible overview (including slideshow). One key: “Adult learners should play a role in creating and evaluating learning content.” The go-to article: Knowles, M. S. (1996).  Adult learning.  In Craig, R. L., (ed.).  ASTD Training & Development Handbook:  A Guide to Human Resource Development, Fourth Edition.  New York:  McGraw Hill.

Though it doesn’t focus enough on the socio-cultural aspects, and is generally limited to tech and making tangible items, the principles behind Papert’s Constructionism are pretty foundational.

Tying learning design activities and sociocultural aspects to adult learning, Hansman’s (2008) Adult Learning in Communities of Practice: Situating Theory in Practice discusses the need for a community of practice:

excerpt: “Situated views of learning maintain that people learn as they interact with and within a community of practice, gaining understanding while participating and shaping its history, assumptions, cultural values, and rules (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Fenwick, 2000; Wenger, 1998).”

Hansman and Williams (2002) have another piece (Situating Cognition: Knowledge and Power in Context) that discusses, among other things, the importance of learner-agency in CoPs, being able to contribute their own designs/solutions to the community rather than just taking on the “expert” models: 

Excerpt: Concepts of cognitive apprenticeships, for example, are another way in which the theories of situated cognition may be misunderstood and misused.  Apprenticeships are typically defined and understood as a student serving an expert – further reifying the hegemonic notions that there are great differences between “experts” and “just plain folks.”  JPF’ are “depersonalized and devalued further; no longer ‘folks,’ they are perceived and theorized as JPF’s.  The knowledge of JPF’s is not seen as belonging to individual persons emerging from life problems and situations; rather, it become an exploitable resource for the institutions of schooling and research” (Damarin, 1996a, p. 83).  As Lave (1988) discusses in her work, some students “hide” the effective strategies they developed as “just plain folks” so that teachers believe that they solved problems in the “approved” school way, thus illustrating Gidden’s (1984) notion of recursive constitution: social practices, like education, both produce effects as they reproduce the practices themselves.

As far as quick reference sheets on “how-to” do this in education, Design-Thinking For Educators is the closest I’ve found, though it’s very pedagogy-based.

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