Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom observed that most teaching and learning never gets beyond remembering and comprehending facts. As he explained, the true goal of learning is to be able to analyze, synthesize and evaluate facts and ideas, and to develop original ideas.
Traditional “frontward” teaching begins with basic facts, and gets stuck there. Backwards Thinking™ begins with the highest level of reasoning. Students start by designing and making a never-before-seen object that represents what they will learn in the textbook. They explain how it functions and where it belongs. Then they have traditional guided lessons to learn the basic subject matter.
The Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning™
Backwards Thinking Process
Example: Protection is a universal concept. In the social sciences, students learn about protection from the elements (in a dwelling) and the role of laws that safeguard life and property laws. In science, students learn about the role of skin on the body and antibodies in blood.
How are things(people)(the body)protected?
A 10th-grade science class might be asked to create a never-before-seen solution to the following challenge:
“What if a highly contagious and often fatal disease is spreading in a city, and you are a public health official charged with locating the source of the epidemic and preventing new outbreaks?"
The students start thinking about objects and places that could resolve the problem, using the vocabulary of the vector of a disease—before any formal learning takes place about disease or public epidemics.
Disease Protection: Criteria for Assessment
Don’t make people stay in their homes.
Don’t make them wear weird clothing.
Don’t make them take medicine that tastes bad.
Where does the disease start?
How is the disease caused?
Which people are most vulnerable to the disease?
How long do people show symptoms of the disease?
How does the disease transfer from one person to another?
These two lists:
A rolled-up or crumpled piece of paper can become a rough 3-D model (a kind of 3-D bubble diagram). Making the model unlocks the students’ thinking and problem-solving capabilities—and gets them to use the lesson vocabulary over and over as they talk about the challenge.
Students refine the model based on feedback from one another. All the students ask questions, even the more passive members of the class and those with English limitations. Students talk to each other and talk in small groups. They make presentations to the class. Then they use the same vocabulary to write down what they’ve been talking about.
Demonstrating with their models as they explain their solutions, the students are eager to learn more. The textbook has the vocabulary they’ve already used. With this new information, the students make formal presentations to the class and document what they’ve learned in outlines, summaries, charts, diagrams, maps and computations.
Students synthesize what they’ve learned from making the model and from participating in the guided lessons.