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October 24, 2015

Backward Design: Beginning with the end in mind

What if we told you that your child can and should begin studying for final exams the moment he sets foot in the classroom? What if we told you that acing a long-term assignment has, in some cases, little to do with that assignment at all? What if we told you that success has to do with day-in, day-out minutiae, not a giant mid-term grade, or an award-winning piece of writing?

Students might find these claims extreme or excessive, knowing that big assignments have the power to make or break their grades. And, no student would burden themselves with work that is extraneous, exhaustive, or likely to lead to burnout, especially small and seemingly insignificant “busy work.”  However, preparing for finals early, or setting oneself up to succeed by creating goals and developing positive habits far in advance of perceived outcomes, actually minimizes student workloads, bolsters academic performance, and leads to greater control and confidence when those “big assignments” finally come to light.

As your child embarks on his first few weeks of school, he has an enormous opportunity to prepare early and often, by taking thorough notes, monitoring his knowledge carefully, setting goals to master his material, and seeking out help when he needs it. He just needs to begin with the end in mind.

What is Backward Design?

“Begin with the end in mind” is one of our favorite phrases at Engaging Minds for good reason. This problem-solving approach comes from a teaching tool called “Backward Design.” Using Backward Design, teachers develop individualized education plans for every student in the classroom in three simple steps.  First, teachers envision a “desired outcome” for student performance. Second, teachers keep that outcome in mind while developing a series of plans to successfully reach their classroom goal. Finally, teachers decide what “evidence of achievement’ will mark progress along the way, or show that their students have finally reached the goal their teacher set for them.

How to Achieve the “Picture of Success”

Using a different way of thinking and preparing, one that envisions the “end goal” and works backward to design a plan of action, students can more readily achieve their long-term goals. Here are some tips to help your child begin working with a Backward Design:

  1. Envision every assignment completely, and break down the materials or steps needed to complete it first. Envisioning and preparing can be as simple as creating a grocery list for a recipe. But, sometimes “getting ready” gets complicated, and involves mapping out assignments for all classes and developing complementary, overlapping goals to use time and energy most efficiently. Executive function coaches can be a great help for this stage of backward design, as they can offer expert suggestions about planning and time-management decisions.
  2. Have consistent progress checks to make sure that the methods used along the way are, in fact, preparing for a future goal. Many students will admit that they are “stuck in their ways,” or even insist that “their usual methods are fine” and do not need changing. However, consistent progress check-ins can help to change their tune and make them more willing to try something new and purposeful. An effective “check-in” might include a weekly binder check, to ensure that all notes and worksheets are finished and accounted for. Another check-in might include a reflection on recent strategies and a decision about whether they have or haven’t helped with ongoing use and practice.
  3. Emphasize function; every assignment has a purpose and a goal to contribute to the “big picture.” If there is one thing students hate, it’s doing school work “for no reason.” When your child plans using Backward Design, every approach to every assignment is chosen for a specific reason. For example, a note-taking strategy might lend itself to easy studying later on. Or, a system for organizing materials might help your student keep track of the work they will need to come back to at a later date. These strategies have clear functions. Knowing why a task is useful or important is often the key to gaining student cooperation.

Let’s start the beginning of the year off strongly by envisioning the end! When your student makes every assignment count the first time, he won’t need to scramble when bigger assignments or exams arrive. He’ll have tools and strategies at the ready, have a clear plan to follow, and have prepared himself to balance work and play, even in high-stress times of the year. Cheers to another year of looking forward.