One of the most basic concepts in curriculum design – and one we use extensively at SLA – is the idea of “backward mapping.” At its most basic, backward mapping means that you must have some idea of where you want to go before you plan to get there. It is one of those common sense ideas that, when applied to a unit plan, makes things go much more smoothly.
The funny thing is I don’t think we do a great job of backward mapping when it comes to the notion of what we hope kids to get from school itself.
What is the purpose of school? What do we value, and what do we want for our kids?
If one were to look at the metrics that we measure, one would think that we value showing up (attendance,) reading and math (test scores,) doing what you’re told (grades) and finishing up (graduation rates.) And on some level, that is what is valued in school today. But is that really what we value? And are learning those things really the best purpose of school?
At the parental level, parents want school to help their children to be able to succeed. Many CEOs would like schools – especially the public ones – to produce a steady supply of competent workers. And when we has the larger questions of what society needs from the children in school, the answer is everything from the idealistic – we need to citizens who can better our world – to the cynical – needs students were educated enough to become workers, but not so educated as to upset the status quo.
So school itself isn’t it that easy to backward map. When one unpacks the many pressure points on school, we find that the “end” that we have in mind for our students is not so clear-cut.
So what should we consider to be the goal of the modern school?
First, we must admit that which we do not know. We have to admit that we do not and cannot claim to know what the world our students will inherit will look like. So the notion that we can prepare kids for the 21st century workforce is both an act of hubris and a far too narrow goal. We have to admit that we are handing our children challenges, both environmental and social, that will require them to be far more resourceful than we have had to be.
And so we must help them to become the citizens our world will need them to be. In many respects, the skills we want our students to be able to develop are no different than the best of what we have always wanted for our students, only now I do not believe we have the luxury of merely hoping for them without naming them.
If we are to embrace the notion that the purpose of school is to help students to become critically aware, fully realized citizens, then let us understand the skills that must then follow, and let us then rethink our schools and our curriculum and our assessments in an attempt to build the systems and structures that will help our students achieve those goals.
Let us help our students develop an agility of mind because we can already see that the world is changing more and more rapidly.
Let us help our students develop their creativity, not just as artists, but as artisans as well, because we want our students to be able to be creators across whatever milieu are necessary.
Let us help our students become more thoughtful – truly full of thoughts, because we want them to be able to understand the complexity of the world around them and take deliberate action, aware of and willing to own the consequences of their actions.
Let us help our students develop wisdom because the world will need them to be far more wise than we have been. Let us help them to see that action without reflection, that invention without forethought has not led us to a sustainable world, and that they will have to be wise beyond their years to solve the problems they face.
Let us help our students develop their passions. Let us help them to see that care begets care, and that by being willing to fully engage in the world instead of ironically holding it at arm’s-length, they will live an enriching life and they will enrich the lives of those who come in contact with them.
And let us help them to be kind. Our students will live in a time where their community will be more broadly defined – more global, more diverse and more inclusive than any other time in human history. If our students learn empathy and kindness, they will have the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from more people than we could have ever dreamed.
The challenge is to backward map the schools that chase those goals. But it is a challenge worth taking.