Missing the Target
In which Alice debates the direction in which one should be travelling; backwards or forwards.
‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. ‘Come, it’s pleased so far,’ thought Alice, and she went on. ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
‘–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.
‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’
[That first section is taken straight from Lewis Carrol. The rest is mine.]
Alice reflected on the Cheshire Cat’s comments as she walked down the corridor. She was used to people telling her where to go, or at least telling her where she should be trying to get to. She felt comfortable with targets to aim for and expected outcomes to achieve. To be told that it didn’t matter where she went, but she would be sure to get somewhere was rather interesting.
On the way down the corridor Alice noticed some beautiful paintings up on the wall. Each one different and in a style of its own, they were nothing like anything she had seen before. She was drawn to stop and look carefully at one or two of them. The paintings were so different that they asked some interesting questions of Alice. I don’t mean that they caused questions to form in Alice’s mind. No, these pictures actually asked the questions which she could hear quite clearly. There was a clammer of voices saying “What am I about?”, “Do you understand me?”, “Explain this to a friend!”, “Look harder!” and other comments and questions
The first painting had a series of dials on it, or were they flowers? As she looked at it Alice heard it say “How would you use this painting in a Maths lesson?”. After she had got over the shock, Alice studied the painting more carefully and saw that she could find a way of using it in a Maths lesson.
As she looked at the paintings, contemplating the beauty of complex numbers, she heard a scuttling and a muttering. Looking round she saw it was the White Rabbit, still dressed in his waistcoat and still looking at his pocket watch. “I’m late, I’m late” was the familiar refrain.
“Oh, Mr Rabbit, how nice to see you. Have you seen these paintings?” ventured Alice.
“Of course not. I have no time. I have my targets to meet and deadlines to chase.” Returned the agitated bunny.
“But Mr Rabbit, you must find the time to stop and look at these. They are beautiful and so full of ideas. You will find so many new things to do with your students, just by looking at them.”
“I already have enough things to do with my students, thank you very much, and too little time to do them in. If I don’t reach my targets, the students won’t reach their learning outcomes. They won’t learn all the things I have on my list of things to learn. And what will happen then?” Asked the rabbit.
“Well, what would happen then?”
“Well, erm, they might learn other things that are not on my list instead!” The White Rabbit was clearly shocked at the suggestion, “My Learning Outcomes are very important.”
Alice had a strange feeling that sound and vision were becoming confused. First she had had the experience of the paintings speaking to her, but now it was the other way round. The sounds carried pictures. Even though she had only heard the White Rabbit say the words “Learning Outcomes”, she was absolutely certain that they began with capital letters. “But why,” she asked, “are your Outcomes so important?”
Mr Rabbit sighed, glanced again at his pocket watch, and reluctantly decided to devote some of his precious time to explaining the paramount importance of Learning Outcomes.
“You see” he began “Imagine you were planning a journey. You get up in the morning and decide that you want to go to, erm, Rome. That is the first decision. Only then can you work out what steps you have to take to get there.”
Alice was astute enough to see both the power and the weakness of analogies. “Surely not all journeys are like that. Sometimes I get up in the morning and go for a walk in the park without a particular destination in mind and have a wonderful time. Secondly, education is not really like a journey, at least not one where we all decide to go to the same place. All your students, being individuals, might want to go to different places. And finally, or at least thirdly if not necessarily finally, all roads lead to Rome. Although, that may not be actually relevant.”
“The basic principle is that, unless we know where we are trying to get to, we won’t know what direction we should be going in. We must begin at the end and work backwards.” The rabbit explained.
Beginning at the end and going backwards seemed, to Alice a very looking-glass way of doing things. She was much happier moving forwards than backwards. She demonstrated this by taking a few confident steps down the corridor, and then trying to walk back to the White Rabbit, only succeeding in banging into the wall, tripping over her dress and falling on the floor.
Mr Rabbit ignored her plight entirely and continued in his discourse. She could imagine him in class as a figure of great authority, determined to reach his Outcomes regardless of any tumbles the student might experience on the way. “You are right that education is more complicated than a journey.” He continued. “The challenge in education is how we find out whether we have got there or not.”
“That’s not like a journey at all. If I managed to get to Rome, I would know that I had got there.”
“Yes, but let’s suppose you told me that you had been to Rome. How would I know that you are telling the truth.”
Alice was aghast. “Because you know I am absolutely not the sort of person that fibs about this sort of thing! If I say I have been to Rome, I have been.”
“If it was someone who didn’t know you very well, and you were persuading them that you had been to Rome. No. This will not work. The journey analogy has completely lost its direction. In Education we are looking at more abstract goals that just getting to Rome. Let us suppose the outcome was a particular type of communication skill. Perhaps we want you to be able to summarise the meaning of a piece of writing .”
“Er, yes.” Said Alice cautiously.
“Well, I need to ask myself what sort of activity you could do that would demonstrate that you have acquired the skill I want you have. Then I teach you to do that activity, and so demonstrate your mastery of the skill.” The White Rabbit looked pleased with himself. “We call this Backwards By Design,” he concluded with a smug grin.
“But does it always have to be like this?” Asked Alice.
“Of course,” said the Rabbit, as though it were the most obvious and most certain thing in the entire world. “This is what Education is about. This where Backwards by Design becomes Understanding by Design. The role of educators is to define the outcomes we require in our students, design the assessment that will demonstrate that these outcomes have been reached and teach our students to perform the assessments. Then we can measure the students’ progress and, just as importantly, measure the teachers’ success by how well the students do on the agreed assessments. Now, I have to go.” and off he ran in search of a target.
Alice was left with an unsatisfactory feeling that combined mild confusion with disappointment that something exciting had been taken away from her. Some of the joy of uncertainty, anticipation and surprise, that she felt should be central to learning, seemed to have been wrapped up in a formulaic procedure that left no room for any of these things. She couldn’t yet put her finger on what had gone wrong, but knew that this was a task for her take on.
You will see what she thought in a later chapter.