Designing Backward – No High Heels Required

5 Dec

1982 Frank and Ernest Cartoon

Dancing in High Heels

Swing Time – the 1936 US dance-infused film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – is perhaps the best of the duos’ films for showcasing their dance partnership and magical routines. And for our purposes, Swing Time is also film that brings student Lucky (Astaire) back to the dance studio to show Mr. Gordon, boss of teacher Penny (Rogers) what he has learned from what she has taught. Teacher. Learner. Summative Assessment of Learning by Expert Observer. And, yes, the expert teacher is teaching dance backward and in high heels, which you can glimpse courtesy this YouTube selection.

Designing backward – like dancing in high heels – requires, even unleashes, a remarkable shift in perspective:

The shift involves thinking a great deal, first, about the specific learnings sought, and the evidence of such learnings, before thinking about what we, as the teacher, will do or provide in teaching and learning activities. Though considerations about what to teach and how to teach it may dominate our thinking as a matter of habit, the challenge is to focus first on the desired learnings from which appropriate teaching will logically follow.

“Why backward is best” in Backward Design

As Wiggins and McTighe note, teaching backward encompasses these three actions of teachers sitting down to redesign courses and to rewrite syllabi, those documents that convey our teaching ideas and practices to students and colleagues:

  1. Identifying desired results (cognitive, affective, kinesthetic learning outcomes)
  2. Determining acceptable evidence of learning (multiple measures/means of assessing degree to which learners have learned)
  3. Planning learning and teaching activities (determining in alignment with outcomes and assessments what students will do to prepare for class, what interactions among students and between students and teachers will shape class sessions, and what informal assessments of learning can be conducted in class so that students and teachers understand that and what learning happened in class)

The principles and practices associated with teaching backward – also known as backward design, constructive alignment, integrated design – are attributable to several scholars, with the earliest iteration I know embedded in the 1999 edition of Teaching for Quality Learning at University by John Biggs (and expanded upon in 2007, 3rd edition), with the most cited US attributions linked to L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences (2003; and the self-directed guide), and to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design (2005).

This synthesis of backward design – often called “Aligned Course Design” – can take shape as this pyramid involving Atmosphere, Aims, Activities, and Assessments – the 4As, in brief:


And what of students’ learning in this dance metaphor – dancing requires learning to lead from learning ways and whys of following – with missteps, rejection of particular moves, and coaching on footwork.  When teacher as leader in a dance is clear

  • about goals – where we’re heading and why these moves, a course choreography;
  • about means of measuring – what moves are required at what proficiencies and with what range of creativity to complete the dance successfully, a course assessment plan; and
  • about ways of teaching, practicing, rehearsing and getting feedback on the way to the big show – strategies for teaching and learning

then a student as dance participant begins to find his way via footprints mapped out on the floor, and by taking steps on her own that builds a new choreography from steps learned.  With this process, dancing is more than just a bunch of footprints on the floor.


Many university teachers come to the academic dance with teaching preparation akin to casual dancing – perhaps a copy of another’s syllabus and examination copies of course materials, perhaps a departmental set of workshops during the first teaching assistantship year, perhaps with an advisor who is (or points us toward) a teaching mentor.  Few of us have had access to something like a Preparing Future Faculty program (US), or postgraduate certificate in teaching in higher education (UK), or to continuing professional development crossing ranks and across a career.

So what happens when teachers want to try out teaching in high heels – or in tap shoes if you’d prefer a gender-neutral specialty shoe to wear while dancing?   What sort of dance development is available, then?

For the reader who wants to read more about it – the books cited above and the four resources at the close of this post will provide useful ideas and models.



2 Responses to “Designing Backward – No High Heels Required”


  1. Diversity and Inclusion – with USalford #altsep12 in mind « morelearning4morelearners - 4 November 2012

    […] and practices set out by John Biggs and Catherine Tang (for future references, see the post here).  We suggest questions, resources and examples regarding what might come of the merging of MCTL […]

  2. Fancy Joining Us for Some Tapas? Course Design in Small Bites, That Is. « Techniques in Learning & Teaching - 5 November 2012

    […] Using backward design, these lunch time workshops share the seminar’s commitment to illuminating principles and practices that can be drawn on in the process of making course design decisions about learning outcomes; and to exploring strategies of embedded active learning that teachers can draw on in developing the sorts of activities students in specific classes will need to complete in order to actively learn ideas (moving beyond acquiring information) and complexly demonstrate learning (moving beyond reiteration of information). […]

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