By Jill Thompson, Assistant Head of School
Last year, Stephen Gaynor School stakeholders participated in a strategic planning process that resulted in a curriculum initiative to evolve our curriculum while staying true to our mission to unlock each student’s potential. Over the next five years, our faculty will participate in small-group learning communities, online courses, and individualized mentoring to gradually implement a backward design, aka Understanding by Design, approach to the planning of our social studies, science, and literature curriculum.
What is Backward Design?
Understanding by Design is defined as “a planning process and structure to guide curriculum, assessment, and instruction by focusing on understanding an learning transfer.” A backward design framework was chosen because it develops master teaching skills and interlaces the Stephen Gaynor School mission with our learning goals. By working backwards to develop curriculum, we first prioritize content and establish what it is we want students to be able to do with what they have learned (learning goals). The second stage of backward design focuses on assessment and providing opportunities for students to explain, interpret, and apply their learning, as well as demonstrate perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. The third stage is to plan the learning activities, or lessons, based on the goals and assessment established in the first and second stages. This type of planning process ensures we plan with the end in mind by first clarifying the learning results we want our students to have.
How is Stephen Gaynor School rolling out this initiative?
The first phase of rolling out this curriculum development initiative included altering a backward design unit plan template to ensure we stay true to our mission. The alterations to the unit plan template include Gaynor’s core academic understandings integrated with executive function skills, the design cycle approach, and cross-curricular connections. Inclusion of executive functions skills into curriculum planning ensures students will have intentions practice with planning, initiating, sequencing, pacing, organizing, shifting, inhibiting, and self-monitoring. Inclusion of the design cycle ensures a project-based approach to authentic problem solving. And, intentionally planned cross-curricular connections ensure deeper understandings through increased opportunities to use what students learned in another setting (learning transfer) and for multi-sensory learning.
This past summer, the Education Directors and a small group of social studies teachers participated in an online Understanding by Design course and collaborative planning workshops. The purpose was to develop a professional learning community of Stephen Gaynor School faculty members to implement the backward design approach to our social studies curriculum planning. During our Summer Institute, all social studies and history teachers were introduced to the backward design planning process to collaboratively work on a yearlong endeavor to evolve our rich social studies content.
What’s phase 2 for the backward design approach at Stephen Gaynor School?
Next year, we will implement our evolved social studies curriculum units in the classroom and reflect on the impacts on teacher planning and student understanding. Additionally, the Stephen Gaynor School science faculty will begin the planning process to evolve our science curriculum.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Gaynor Gazette.