Is This Called Backwards Design?

I was reminded today about a principle in design that is easy to overlook, but is so critical to accomplishing long term goals. It’s particularly useful when the goal is arbitrary or currently unbounded. I have the goal of designing educational systems and structures which minimize the predictability of student success along racial and socio-economic (think destroying the achievement gap instead of closing it), but what the hell does that actually look like. How do you quantify that in measurable increments of success? I’m not sure what this problem solving principle is called if it even has a name. Maybe it’s some version of backwards design – start with an end goal that is difficult to quantify, think about something you could say about a person with whom the goal pertains to, and stretch that out long enough so you can find something measurable to work towards. Here’s an example: a few years ago we had a goal of increasing teacher’s job satisfaction. Eventually we asked ourselves the question, what do happy teachers do. We answered that question with the response: happy teachers will be proud of their work and teachers that are proud of their work will want to show off what they are doing. So we created a goal to, as organically as possible, to see if we could get teachers to host peer learning sessions during professional development days. Then, when almost all of them volunteered at some point in the year, we figured that we made a positive impact on the staff’s job satisfaction, or at the very least we maintained what we already had.

Working at an alternative school for ten years I’ve interviewed nearly 1,000 students that struggled in a traditional school model. Almost every single new transfer was behind in credits. A very high percentage of them don’t look like me and didn’t live in households with the resources that mine has. If that’s our target audience, the ones we are designing around, which I think is what we should be doing, and what I want to do, then we could look at patterns. Many times I would have a vision in my head of one of their former teachers musing to themselves at night with a glass of wine in hand about how so and so kid just doesn’t care. 

Ok, so we know students that are unsuccessful in traditional schools, many times, give off the appearance they don’t care. One might think if we could just get that kid to care, then their academic progress would begin to mirror their peers. But you can’t just force someone to care. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, we must ask ourselves what would someone that cared do. What could we see that individual doing or, even better, what would we say about that person. A student that cares takes ownership over their education and how do we manufacture ownership? First we need buy-in. If I take ownership over my physical health, you would see me participating in activities that individuals lacking in ownership wouldn’t bother to get behind. I would be bought into the idea that I should consider orienting my life around running because if I run, I will have a better chance of being healthy and someone that is intentionally healthy is taking ownership over their health. QED

The process for designing educational structures isn’t that dissimilar. We want kids bought in. We want them to care, but how do we create buy-in. One way we do so is by giving them choice. When it’s five minutes until bed time and I don’t want an argument with my kids, I ask them if they want to go to bed now or in 5 minutes. Either way, they are up in bed when they are supposed to be and if they flip out, that’s a good indicator that something else is going on and maybe we should all tap the brakes and investigate that a little. 

I love goals within goals – or maybe it’s like a goal to the second power. For the life of me I never understood how almost every kid I’ve talked to that is behind in credits has no idea how to actually graduate high school. They have no concept for how credits go on transcripts in these certain areas. It’s a completely foreign concept to them. I mean if I didn’t care about school I probably wouldn’t bother to figure out how it works either. If I can manufacture buy-in by giving choice while teaching kids the mechanics of obtaining a high school diploma that’s a goal squared. 

I’m proud to say that today we verified that scheduling for the first quarter at Dottke PBL High School will be done individually by each student through our data management system. Like, they click a button to take a class, on the first day of school. They choose and they choose based on which courses they need – to graduate. Enough safeguards have been created to limit errors while still giving students the ability to choose their own courses, including high interest seminars like forms of comedy, shark tank, the hero’s journey and basic home maintenance and repair. Unless a kid refuses to schedule themselves, which is the equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum 5 minutes before bed, every student will choose how they spend their day while simultaneously learning the ins and outs of credits and graduation requirements because not only do the have to choose, they have to choose wisely based on an unvarying set of graduation requirements. I wasn’t sure we were actually going to be able to pull it off, but with the help of a solid team, we think we have a high quality first iteration.