The case for backward curriculum design

Dance students at Passaic County Technical Institute, performing at their annual concert

K–12 teachers are multitaskers. Not only do you impart foundational technique, but you also weave culture, choreographic principles, history and interdisciplinary studies into lessons. Prioritizing these demands when lesson-planning, says Karen Kuebler, who teaches pre-kindergarten through second grade in Baltimore County Public Schools, can be a constant source of stress. “It was so overwhelming, because I was always asking, ‘Where am I going? Is this gonna get me there?’” she says. Ten years ago her solution came in the form of Backward Curriculum Design (BCD), a system in which teachers begin with a set of year-end goals, and then work backward to establish shorter-term goals and daily strategies. “It’s a teacher’s GPS,” she says. “I’m not as overwhelmed, because I know where I am going.”

Since 1998, when Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins started the buzz about backward design with their book Understanding by Design, BCD has gradually gained ground in all subject areas of K–12. Many school districts currently promote it, but some teachers have been hesitant to part with familiar methods. However, with advancements in dance curriculum standards, as well as the current attention on teacher evaluation systems, BCD is finding a new relevance in the dance studio. And BCD is expected to play a key role in new national curriculum standards to be released by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards (NCCAS) in partnership with the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO) in early 2014.

A Natural Fit

Many dance teachers may already practice elements of backward design without realizing it, says Karen Kohn Bradley of the University of Maryland. Because dance is performance-oriented, BCD aligns with planning methods that dance teachers naturally use—that is, organizing units and daily goals based on a piece of repertoire students will present at the end of the year, or planning daily activities based on a phrase students will learn at the end of class. BCD simply adds a level of organization and includes clear benchmarks for ease of assessment.

To implement BCD in your own classroom, establish a starting point by pre-assessing your students. Barbara Bashaw of Rutgers University recommends asking yourself questions such as: What do the students already know? Where are they developmentally? And, what is just beyond what they can do on their own? From there, you can form clear and specific goals.

For Cassandra Roberts, who teaches grades 9–12 at Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, New Jersey, creating appropriate—and reachable—goals was a challenge at first. The key, she found, was to write goals that are specific, simple and clear enough for students to understand.

At the beginning of the year, she gives each student a rubric—a chart that outlines the categories she will use to assess them. One of her year-end goals is, “Students will increase their score on the class rubric by at least 5 points.” One side of the chart breaks down categories for improvement, such as musicality, performance quality, anatomical alignment, focus and ability to retain movement sequences. From here, she assesses the student’s proficiency in each area on a scale from novice (1 point) to distinguished (4 points). She then establishes short-term strategies based on categories in her rubric; for example, she might dedicate a series of classes to improving musicality or focus of the head and eyes.

Roberts thinks of her goals as “scaffolding,” which helps her to streamline activities so that students can understand their destination and see themselves moving forward. Millennial learners, who often need to know the “why” behind activities, respond especially well. “I always think of climbing up a ladder to get where the students need to go,” she says. “If there’s no top to the ladder and no steps, then they can’t get there.”

A Worthwhile Transition

BCD requires teachers to think strategically, since it eliminates what Bashaw calls “potpourri” teaching, or throwing in activities that don’t serve a clear purpose toward the students’ progress. It also assists teachers with efficiency—vital in a K–12 setting—by allowing them to establish parallel goals for each category of learning in a unit, such as technique, history and interdisciplinary studies. If dance teachers within a district collaborate, it can be used to facilitate a clearer progression of learning from one grade to the next, even if the students work with multiple teachers. According to Bashaw, this boosts retention of students, since they do not become bored with unnecessary repetition and drop out of classes.

Collecting and evaluating so much data does take extra time out of a teacher’s day. Bashaw and Kuebler assure, however, that it gets easier with experience. Kuebler’s biggest challenge has been learning not to overestimate what she can accomplish in one class or unit. Rather than focusing on unmet goals, teachers should periodically revise them based on a class’ development and abilities.

“At the end of the year, I can say to students, ‘This is where you started—look how much you’ve learned,’” Roberts says. “There’s a clear sense of arrival.” DT

Ashley Rivers is based in Boston.

Photo courtesy of Cassie Roberts

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