Backward Design: Bad For Languages

TLDR; Don’t use UbD, especially this next year. COVID-19 messed with everything, so keeping the same expectations is unreasonable. Let’s face it…there’s not going to be any miraculous “catch up,” nor should we expect that. Instead of guessing where students will be in the fall, and how far their proficiency might develop with all the disruptions, try Forward Procedure.

I began writing this post after seeing calls from a lot of language teachers seeking tech tools as answers…to all the wrong questions. Rather than trying to maintain what we’ve done, we’re gonna need to make considerable adjustments to our expectations. Curricular design is one of those.

Backward Design
Sure, it makes perfect sense. You start with the result you want for your students, then go backwards from there, planning learning experiences along the way. It’s been recognized as good teaching across all content areas for at least a decade, and has been around since the late 90s. This is “textbook” best practice. In fact, it’s literally a textbook…

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Unit Test “Mastery” (UTM)

Unit Test “Mastery” (UTM) is a symptom many teachers and students suffer from. The teacher:

  1. presents content (Present)
  2. provides a learning experience (Practice)
  3. announces an assessment
  4. assesses students (Produce)
  5. chooses remediation based on low performance, or moves on
  6. repeat

The consequences of UTM is that students appear to “master” the content either right away or after the remediation, which itself is usually misinterpreted as assisting a “struggling student.” The teacher then moves on, and students seldom run into the same content, even from what you might expect from cumulative courses (e.g. one-off math/science concepts, or that perfunctory “transportation unit” in which students are given a vocabulary list for all possible—and likely outdated—ways to get around Madrid, etc.).

This symptom seriously misleads the teacher. It’s one source of validating teaching practices that don’t actually produce results they seem to be producing. For example, most language teachers attribute their understanding of language to how they were taught, yet they’ve probably just been exposed to the language daily over time, teaching similar (same?) content year after year. This looks like proficiency, yet is probably just daily recall of translated and memorized information!

In reality, communication isn’t really something anyone can master, at least not in the subject-matter-learning sense used in other content areas. There’s a lot of pressure to make language courses fit what’s expected in school, but the model fails when we have inclusive classrooms based on universal human traits, and not intellectualizing language. The best teachers are able to resist that, educating their administration, or at least find the wiggle room to provide input and encourage interaction in a second language during the school day—something all humans are hardwired for.

I encourage everyone to find alternatives to traditional units accompanied by lessons with limited flexibility. Instead, meet students where they are, and move forward. One way to think about curriculum is basing it on vocabulary frequency, but not thematic (e.g. Greetings, Getting Around, Sports, etc.). Chris Stolz has shares how Mike Peto’s entire department has taken this to an extreme with fantastic results! All of these ideas are supported by what Eric Herman has coined “Forward Procedure:”

Forward procedure is process-oriented. It focuses on where students are. That doesn’t mean you can’t have tests, but those are not pre-determined. They are created in response to what has happened in class and tailored to where students are. If there had to be an element of “standardization” between sections, this would be to agree to use the same test format, but not the same content (e.g., sections hear a different story and do a timed rewrite). Rather than focus on something to cover, it focuses on giving students what they want and need in that moment to learn. It is the approach that makes a teacher most responsible to the learner. In a second language, communicative classroom, this is a much better fit. To quote Savignon (1976): “Above all, remember that for it to be real, communication must be a personalized, spontaneous event. It cannot be programmed – but you can make it happen” (p. 20).