TITLE: Starting at the End and Working Backwards AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 28, 2011 4:11 PM DESC: ----- BODY: A couple of weeks ago, many people were discussing this response by Jeff Bezos to a question at Amazon's shareholder meeting, in a nutshell, "I don't see the company failing much these days. Is it taking enough risks?" Understandably, most of the discussion was about Bezos's description of how Amazon's corporate culture supports long-term vision and incremental innovation. Again, in a nutshell, "We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details." But the passage that jumped out to the faculty member in me was this one:
We start with the customer and work backwards. And, very importantly, we are willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.
First let me say that I do not believe that students are the "customers" of a university or academic department. They are a strange mix of many things, including product, collaborator, and customer. Still, the idea of starting with the student and working backwards strikes me as an intriguing but uncommon way for faculty to think about their curricula and courses. We talk a lot these days about student outcomes assessment, which can be a useful tool for accountability and continuous feedback in curriculum design but which is usually treated as a chore added on after the fact to courses we think are best. Even when faculties do start with the student, they tend to start at the beginning -- "the basics" -- and design their first-year courses around what they think their students need to know for the rest of the program. The real starting point is the body of knowledge that we think constitutes the discipline. We design courses around the topics of the discipline and, to the extent we think of students, we think of how to teach the basic ideas and skills they need to master those topical areas. The above is a generalization, both of how the faculties I have been a part of seem to work and of how the faculties my colleagues describe to me seem to work. But I do not think that it is so inaccurate as to be not useful. So that is the context in which I thought about Bezos's remark and began to think. What if we start with what we would like for our students to know and be able to do on graduation day, and work backwards? Start curriculum design not with CS 1 but with a capstone project course. What will students be able to do in that course if we have done a good job preparing them? Create one or more courses that prepare them for the project. Recurse. Yes, I know, education is about more than concrete skills, and it is more complicated than stacking one block on top of another. I am just trying think outside of the self-imposed constraints that usually hem us in academia and see where we might go. I have written about something similar before, Dave West's and Pam Rostal's vision of competency-based curriculum design as presented at the OOPSLA 2005 Educators' Symposium and elaborated in a ChiliPLoP 2008 hot topic. But I don't know about any schools have truly started at the endpoint and worked backward. If you so, please let me know. -----