Backwards Design for Post Secondary Experiences

There is definitely tension between teachers who lean more toward the “habits of mind” side of the spectrum, those on the discrete learning outcome side of the spectrum, and those who are somewhere in between. I struggle with the balance as well. I feel pretty confident that the mindsets are what students most need to know (embody?), but I feel pressure to not pass on science students to another teacher who might expect certain discipline specific prerequisites.


In the end, the pressure to add learning outcomes stems from what feels like an academic arms race. At some point, which I think is soon, the addition of more standards/APs/tests becomes unsustainable. Innovation is part analytical thinking and part intuition. The analytics may say APs and test scores make for a collegiate “minimum viable product”, but intuition and experience tell me that these figure little into the overall success and happiness of a person.


I wonder what it would look like if our focus was not only to prepare students for post secondary acceptance, but really pushed to guide students toward the best possible post secondary experience. In UbD fashion, if we want the best and most personalized post secondary experience for students, than we should start with an imagined student future beyond college. I guess my point is – there is a broader definition for “college ready” than just checking boxes next to learning outcomes and test scores.


My hypothesis is that the university does not make a person. Rather, those who have the foresight, and sometimes bravery, to seek out the absolute best fit post secondary experience will be more successful (how ever they define it), and more importantly happier and self fulfilled.


So, here are some hopefully disruptive HM-dubs.

How Might We….
  • weave career exploration into core classes?
  • prep students for alternative post secondary experiences like tech schools, trade schools, culinary schools, 30 weeks, or Singularity University?
  • repurpose books like “what color is your parachute”  for academic way-finding in addition to career considerations?
  • get students involved in career and technical student organizations (CTSOs)?
  • loop parents into the conversation of a more personalized education and career path for their child?
  • make an optional track – outside of “school” – for consultation, networking, and building of entrepreneurial spirit)

5 Comments on “Backwards Design for Post Secondary Experiences”

  1. Lisa says:

    Hi TJ, long reflection on your piece with a few questions back. If it’s too much to digest, please just resond to anything that strikes you. I am following this UbD vs DT dialogue on Twitter and appreciate your writing and apt analogies.

    First thought — I’m wondering what you thought of the “Stanford 2025” collaboration. I found the Axis Flip model to be a simple way to reorganize our thoughts around discipline and assessment. Could this work in K-12?

    How do you envision assessment in the current DT world? Or how do you see teachers working it out in practice?

    Do you think a standard set of “skill maps” (like in Axis Flip) could portray students’ (academic, social-emotional, thinking) skills (along with traditional standardized style assessments) as a way of bundling student past ability and predicting future capacity for growth, excellence, success in the job market or university entrance? (Would people accept this… ?)

    The Common Ground Curriculum has been a good thinking piece: Any thoughts on this model of triple helices and opening up beyond content/ disciplines to focusing on skills/ competencies and character?

    What is your vision for the foundational content that all students should know? (A question that keeps coming up in family education debates.)

    Will next stage iteration of CC-like standards morph into something more open ended like the Common Ground Curr model proposed above or something else entirely?

    Is Project Based Education or Design Thinking meant to overtake and serve as the delivery of the full curriculum?

    Even if UbD and DT are offered in a marriage of teaching methods and thinking processes, won’t we stop using traditional, UbD style lesson/ unit planning design and move towards more self-paced, personalized, and collaborative (PBL, DT style) discovery? Any thoughts here? At what point (age/ grade level, skill level, autonomy level, year to come) does this shift begin?

    How do you count Blended/ Personalized Learning into the current or future classroom context? Is the future classroom 1:1 and using tech more fluidly than now? Do you believe that the edtech world is going to create adequate carriers for K-12 educational inquiry/ discovery in the classroom? WIll exceptional self-paced learning platforms be created K-12?

    How does Blended Learning intersect with DT?

    What role does generational difference (between Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y/Millennials) play in vastly different expectations for visioning the future changes within education? Who should be responsible for redesigning education, in your opinion?

    Thanks for any response,

    • Lisa says:

      *respond not resond

    • TJE says:

      Lisa, these are such the right questions! I really have been thinking about these as I’ve been reading and planning (and vacationing) for the up coming school year. I must thank you, too, as I had not previously seen the Stanford 2025 and Common ground resources yet. I LOVE the 2025 piece. I think it puts most of my own Edu-philosophy into a much more concise and a beautifully designed package. My thoughts are below and are mine alone. I’m not an expert…this is simply by preference on what education of the future might look like. Full disclaimer – my personality tends to be of on idealism and strategic forward thinking. So the responses below reflect that mode of thinking…..short term implementation is much tougher. I suppose if we can envision the long term, then we can UbD the ideas backwards to chip away at an ideal.

      Assessment and DT:

      In short I think that if we have to assess DT then one way to do it is with a set of deliverables similar to what you would do with PBL. In my classes for instance, might have to journal about interviews and observations (empathy), create group norms and roles (collaboration), pitch a design proposal (communication), create a pugh matrix that compares prototypes and ideas (critical & analytical thinking), etc. You can see that these are weighted heavily toward the “skill map” side of things rather than content. I guess that would be my preference with the assumption that the problem addressed in the design challenge has some “content” build in.

      Foundational Content:

      My blog is titled planting T’s because I really like the T-shaped person imagery. For me, I would hope we could cultivate students with deep 21st century skills as the base of the T and a breadth of content knowledge as the top portion of the T. This helps me visualize the ideas that we should strive to always be learning…gaining more and more breadth along the way. To me specialization is relatively immaterial until you can apply it to a career or your own well being. In my experience this happens post secondary school and more often on the job, therefore deep specialization or mastery of content knowledge in high school (especially across many disciplines) is not as appropriate as learning how to think. Of course, this is widely debated with strong arguments against this ideas stemming from colleges specifically looking for applicants with AP credits, high test scores, and mastery of various course content. I don’t have the evidence to support it, but I see the college/university system in its current state as an unsustainable one. Student debt accrued to attend a 4yr university is at an all time high and only getting worse. As college becomes less affordable, more students will seek out alternatives like MOOCS, free education opportunities through jobs, and entrepreneurship. I see a major shift happening in higher education in the near future….in short I think the Stanford 2025 doc is pretty close to on the money. It is hard for teachers, but we should be preparing students for the long term game.

      PBL set to overtake full curriculum?:

      My preference….yes. To me PBL and DT are more meaningful and more engaging for students so long as they are sufficiently detoxed from status quo schooling. In reality, I can envision schools setting up a track system where students choose a more traditional track, or choose a “school within a school” where PBL is the focus.

      Blended learning and DT:

      This is a tough one to respond to because these are two edu-jargon terms that get increasingly bastardized. In short, these are both tools that can provide students with more choice and increase engagement. I think they can be combined where students front load with some content knowledge on their own time via a flipped class format (blended learning) then apply that knowledge in the classroom via DT challenges or PBL. In short, I think teachers should use whatever mechanism works best for them to increase engagement, allow for student choice, and make learning and assessment more authentic.

      WOW! …these are truly wicked problems. Thank you, Lisa for challenging me to think through some of this. I don’t feel like I have the answers at all, but I love the conversation!


      • Lisa says:

        Hi again. Apologies for the delay in responding while the school year launched down here in Brazil. Your new course looks fantastic. Congratulations on that.

        Please post more meandering thought pieces! If you do, tweet it to me.

        In reference to this piece, it was great to read your thoughts back. “School within a school” resonates as I’ve seen that in action within multiple places in the international circuit. That looks possible without too many deviations from the current context of most of what exists and seems attractive to risk-averse admin. who are still married to IB and other things.

        Assessment and DT response seems right too, what else could it be? Listened and participated in some great conversations around portfolio creation and DT/Making this summer, but that really requires shifts in higher ed acceptance in order for us to have more freedom in meaningful K-12 assessment overtaking the status quo, which I guess is part of the theme of this piece at large. Why can’t higher ed shape up their game? Higher ed is starting to look like a massive blog clot in the creative artery between K-12 and the creative adult working environment. Where is the innovative dialogue that mirrors ours happening in higher ed besides the various overlooked design school hubs (Stanford 2025)? I’m glad you enjoyed that piece and please forward me on to any small conversations that discuss larger shifts within higher ed that you find.

        Maybe this year will be more focused on the shifts they need to take in order to accept and take advantage of all the K-12 changes that are bubbling up.

        Foundational Content: I think we need to be careful that we still address and seek to define the type of undynamic jobs that exist in the States and world, that don’t require deep mental skills and cultivated creative capacities. Otherwise, I totally agree with you on this front. I’d say specialization of content is wasted on 85% of kids aged 15-16 or so, and those 15% who could start down a concrete content laden discipline or dynamic creative path at a young age could be accommodated by “school within a school,” magnet charter type schools, or accredited MOOC-like “choose your own adventure” opportunities for growing forward.

        PBL overtaking: I’ve been hearing about PBL trainings happening during first week in-services in unlikely, traditional places all over the USA. That is my only comment really. I don’t see it overtaking in K-6 at least, but it complements everything and increases engagement tenfold, so I’m sure everyone everywhere is just saying, why the heck not?

        I wonder what else is next… My brain hasn’t fully kicked into Twitter/ big ideas/ thinking dynamically/ responding to provoking emails and persons mode yet, but I can’t wait to see what unfolds this year at large in the collective conversations/ consciousness at play in regards to ed innovation in K-12 and beyond it.

        Wonder if you also feel a slowing down in your perspective towards ed innovations or if it’s just me not being fully back in the saddle yet. No need to respond to this, but I’m guessing it’s just summertime and conversations aren’t in full swing yet in the northern hemisphere.

        Just an aside, I can’t wait to read my Deep DT Playbook from MVP. Shoot any tips my way in terms of using it. Getting ready to try DT with my kids before the year’s end.

        Keeping your “T” model in mind. Good luck up there and can’t wait to hear more of your experience.

  2. Lisa says:

    And I agree we can’t adequately UbD without a thorough understanding of the job market or shifts in Higher Ed to come that we are backwards d-ing to. I liked your HMWs, and obviously my response questions are way way big, maybe too big, to answer. Maybe you can help refocus or narrow the Qs.

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