Sunday, October 23, 2011

Backwards Design and Higher Education

A note about the title: it's actually a joke.  There really isn't any meaningful backwards design in higher education.  But I'm not here to complain.  No, there's actually very little backwards design at every level of education, and for the most part I've managed to enjoy being a student throughout my life.  Even without backwards design, schools are wonderful places to establish networks, to have conversations, to try out ideas, and, if you put yourself in the right mental space, to learn by failing.*

* That could be its own post, but we'll save it for now.

Before I can say anything about higher education, I need to talk about backwards design, briefly.  Back in 1998, Grant Wiggins - who happened to go to a very good Great Books college - and Jay McTighe wrote a book called "Understanding by Design."  It's essentially a handbook for curriculum writers, advocating an approach that starts at the end and works its way backwards.  This idea was hardly new to educational theory by 1998 - indeed, in one of my courses this week we've been reading a piece from 1949 that advocates the same idea - but for whatever reason the formulation by Wiggins and McTighe grabbed ahold of the world of educational practice.

The essence of the concept is this.  First, you figure out what core idea or ability you want students to finish a class with, then you figure out how you're going to know whether they have it.  And voila, you're curriculum is done!

That's not entirely true, but it's pretty close.  Sure, you can import a handful of secondary and tertiary ideas or abilities with which students should gain familiarity, if not mastery.  And sure, there's still the work of actually writing the curriculum after that.  But figuring out the end goal and the assessment really is more than half the battle.  I would say that, in writing my creative writing curriculum this summer, for example, I spent a good two or three weeks decided on an end goal and an assessment, and maybe a day or two on writing the actual curriculum from there.  That is, once you know what you're trying to do, it's not so hard to figure out whether any particular activity or lesson plan fits into that bigger frame.

The funny thing is, in higher education this doesn't seem to happen at all.  I could speak to my current classes - though a couple are better than others on this front - but rather I want to point out a deeper and less personal issue.  It should seem obvious to anyone who has been to college or graduate school that the vast majority of Professors do not use anything resembling backwards design in their curricula (heck, most of them just stand up and lecture every week, and then have their TAs administer and grade a content-knowledge test at the end).  The question is, why?

At the heart of the problem, it seems to me, is a dichotomous conflict between research and pedagogy.  The difference between a Professor and a researcher at a think tank or consulting firm is, primarily, this: the Professor, in addition to doing research, teaches.  Perhaps it is easier to find Professor jobs than pure research jobs, or perhaps Professors like the idea of and prestige associated with University positions.  Regardless, once in the Academy, Professors do not, actually, get to choose one or the other.  Or, rather, they are not assessed, themselves, on both fronts.

For the most part, academic survival depends upon research and publishing.  While a great many people will defend the "publish or perish" mentality of the academic market as a necessary part of a meritocracy, it has an unintended side effect.  Professors, because they are evaluated almost entirely on research, do not spend time or energy designing or executing their pedagogical functions.  They are, in short, bad teachers.  And they are not necessarily bad teacher by choice, but rather by necessity.  A Lecturer (not a full Professor) at Stanford I spoke with this week related a story of a colleague whose Dean told him not to spend so much time teaching.  "If you ever want to get tenure," he (more or less) said, "You have to cut back on your teaching and get to work doing research and publishing."

It's important to note that "cut back on your teaching" does not mean teach fewer courses.  No, the admonition is to take your teaching less seriously, to spend less time and effort on designing a good curriculum, on employing effective pedagogy, on evaluating whether your students are understanding the material.  The result, for students, is long, boring lectures and even longer, even more boring reading assignments that float aimlessly in an ethereal mist, never to be connected to their studies except in their own minds.  In short, none of the habits of mind - design, making informed connections, creative generation of questions, and so on - that make for good research are modeled for students in the classroom.

So what does that have to do with backwards design?  While Wiggins and McTighe talk mostly about courses, I think there's an argument to be made that educational structures as a whole can be subjected to a similar analysis.  In the case of higher education - and especially graduate studies - the analysis leads to disturbing revelations.

- At the level of the individual course, there is no clear sense of what a student ought to be getting out of the course, nor how anyone (except maybe the student) will know whether the course succeeded.

- Institutionally, there is little coherence to the student experience except what the student is capable of bringing to it herself.

- It is not clear that the assessment procedures we have in place - that is, the dissertation - are effective measures of whether students are adequately prepared to do meaningful research.

I've hit on the first of these above, but the second two deserve quick explication.

Institutional incoherence is a big problem in the humanities in particular, where students routinely take ten years or more before they finish their studies.  While there are many factors that cause this problem, one of the most important is the lack of clear objective for graduate students at an institutional level.  That is, Universities do a very poor job of saying "what we want out of our PhDs in English is _____."  Of course, they do generally have something to fill in that blank with, but it's rarely something that makes sense, or that would be agreeable across the department (let alone amongst students).  Now, that may not be a problem, per se, except it leads to our other issue.

How do you assess outcomes (or processes, even) when you do not know what outcomes (or processes) you desire?  In the case of the University, the dissertation has long been the be-all-end-all.  Why? Because of tradition.  Oh, sure, there's more to it than that, but not much more.

In the modern world, I think it's fair to ask whether the dissertation is an adequate reflection of whatever kind of learning students are meant to do.  That is, the dissertation exists, primarily, as a kind of pre-monograph, a preface to a first book.  But is our goal to turn all PhD students into writers of books, anymore?  How many graduate school programs define their success based on whether or not graduates go on to publish books?  While that may have been the model in the past, that publishing itself is undergoing rapid transformation in the modern age demonstrates that its probably not the best model for the future.

What's more, the dissertation is written, published, and defended individually.  It is, perhaps, in some ancillary sense a collaborative experience, but it is still held up as an indication of individual achievement.  The problem is, Professorial research is decreasingly individual.  Collaboration has taken hold in much of the academy, and, indeed, part of the goal of graduate studies probably ought to be habituating students - many of whom have been stuck in highly uncollaborative environments through the whole of their academic lives - to working in teams.  And yet, our final assessment is monolithic, and, what's more, it's almost unimaginable that it be anything but the work of a single person.

All of which shows not only a disconnect between purpose and assessment in higher education,* but a total lack of consideration of that disconnect.  What is the purpose of a graduate education? How do we know that we've achieved that purpose?

* We haven't even touched undergraduate, which is its own messy can of worms.

A great many institutions obviously do a fine job creating future scholars, and so the system is working fine on a certain level.  The question is not, however, if it has worked or if it is working, but rather how does it work and will it continue to work?  Despite missing the kind of clear curricular structure I've mentioned above, the Academy has always has a resilience, thanks largely to its clever, self-motivated members.  It is not clear, however, that survival alone means that the system actually works.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing these series of posts. I know I'm not in exactly the same situation (though the fact that your having some of the same struggles as me at that high a level is disturbing), but I often have the same feeling that I've no idea why it's important for my overall learning to do many of the things I have to do and at least one of my professors seems to have no idea either. These are big lecture classes, but in one there is some structure and at least the sense that everything I'm learning is building towards some larger picture, which feels exhilarating even if the end result never amounts to much more than the parts. My other class however, is unfocused and tiresome because we're basically just learning a bunch of random things that amount to nothing.

    I was thinking the other day about why books on similar topics are interesting but this class isn't. I think it's because, as you say above, most books are organized around a single argument, so for example, the Selfish Gene has in it many of the same things I'm learning right now, but the book is near riveting because the central concept is introduced early, but not really understood until many pieces come together and along the way there are all these cathartic moments where everything seems to click into place.

    Of course I still have to play the grading game so I'm memorizing a bunch of stuff I don't care about and will promptly forget afterwards (this long post is a result of procrastinating studying). Yay learning!