For Purpose-Driven Learning, Design Backwards

By starting with a clear understanding of what you want the learner to understand and do at the end of the learning experience, you can work backwards to design authentic assessments of learning and intentionally curate content and learning activities that support the intended outcome.

Innovation requires intentionality, and intentionality requires purpose. Establishing shared purpose in an organization that is meaningfully connected to the lives of workers and the needs of the community is essential to the emergence of a workplace culture that supports innovation for the greater good. However, innovation in an organization is not just a set of skills. Instead, it’s a mindset that brings workers together to systematically meet the needs of customers; connect workers to each other, the organization, and the community; and collaborate to make the world a better place.

The need for purpose has never been greater. Organizations and individuals alike are digging deep to understand what is important in life. Successive crises of the global COVID-19 pandemic and widespread awareness of social injustice have shattered the mental models that seemed just fine to many before 2020. As the economy now starts to reopen, organizations are challenged to innovate and grow in ways that serve the broader community while following through on commitments made after recent social unrest.

For Learning professionals, the challenges can feel overwhelming. The scope is massive: Changing cultures, mindsets, and behaviors is never easy, even at the best of times. Time is compressed: Initiatives that might have been rolled out over years now are expected within months, if not weeks or days. And, there’s always the issue of resources: how to deliver impact at scale while controlling financial and human resource costs.

Challenges beget opportunities, however, and the biggest opportunity right now is that organizations and workers alike are motivated to learn how to do things differently. Training teams can take advantage of the moment and demonstrate individual and organizational impact by delivering new training programs that meet the needs of learners and demonstrate impact on the organization. An effective way to do this is to adopt a backward-design methodology.

What Is Backward Design?

The core idea of backward design in learning is that you start with the end in mind. By starting with a clear understanding of what you want the learner to understand and do at the end of the learning experience, you can work backwards to design authentic assessments of learning and intentionally curate content and learning activities that support the intended outcome.

The origins of backward design for learning date back to 1949, but the methodology is most closely associated with the work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. In “Understanding by Design (1998, 2005), they describe the method as a form of “purposeful task analysis: Given a task to be accomplished, how do we get there?” Their approach differs from traditional instructional design in two significant ways: first, by abandoning the traditional content-first approach, and second, by operationalizing learning goals in terms of acceptable evidence at the beginning of the design process. The end result is more coherence around goals, key performance, and streamlined learning experiences where learners have better understanding of what the target is.

How Do You Design Backwards?

The backward design process for corporate learning provides a planning sequence for learning, adapted from the original Wiggins-McTighe model. It involves three distinct stages:

1. Identify specific outcomes.

In this phase, you identify specific goals and link them to business outcomes. This requires an intimate understanding of both learner needs and the objectives of the organization. This phase involves engagement with business owners to understand exactly what changes in knowledge, mindsets, and behavior are required to achieve the desired results. The core idea is to drill down into the specifics of what the organization needs to succeed. The first time out, this stage may be a substantial lift in generating alignment, but once you have a good understanding of where both the organization and the learners are and where they want to go, subsequent projects will be substantially easier.

2. Design authentic assessments.

This is where creativity kicks in. The idea here is to establish what is acceptable evidence of learning. In the work environment, you want learning to be transferable to the job, and learners and organizations alike want to know how the learning is going to create impact. Sometimes, knowledge checks might be fine. More broadly, you can design a range of assessments that might range from reflections on content to role-plays to team projects, depending on the context. Again, you’ll need to engage with your business unit collaborators to ensure that what happens in the learning experience can be easily transferred to on-the-job performance.

3. Plan the learning experience.

Now that you have clearly identified results and appropriate evidence of understanding, you build out the learning experience. At this stage you need to consider what knowledge and skills are needed to meet the objectives, what activities will equip your learners with the needed knowledge and skills, and what resources are best suited to meet the goals. In some cases––for example, hard skills––instructional content followed by knowledge checks and competency assessments will work fine. For soft skills and capability building, you may need more reflection, discussion, and application activities around specific pieces of content. There is always going to be more content available than can be reasonably addressed, so focus is required here. However, having gone through stages 1 and 2, stage 3 can be remarkably simple.

All learners are unique, and all organizations are different. One of the essential acts of the learning design profession is to create learning experiences that meet specific purposes. By creating tight alignment with business owners and having deep understanding of learners, L&D professionals can eliminate much of the fluff and focus on learning that empowers employees and drives performance.

Drew Remiker is the head of Learning Experience Design at NovoEd. NovoEd is a team of dedicated professionals brought together by a common passion for helping the modern workforce develop and retain the skills critical for success.