In his seminal 1990s text, Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins introduced backward design. The idea was that students learn best when teachers identify learning outcomes and work backwards to plan lessons that support those outcomes. This approach has influenced countless educators to be more deliberate in choosing and sequencing instructional activities.
While we appreciate the value in setting learning goals, we believe that effective education requires more than identifying outcomes. The 3-Bridges Design for Learning was developed to help schools address expected outcomes while also considering students’ starting points. Each of the three bridges provides a different approach to helping students move from point A to B. By combining all three bridges, schools can support significant growth for diverse groups of learners.
Backward Design and the 3-Bridges Approach
Education leaders have long promoted differentiation as a solution to the problems of one-size-fits-all education, but teachers are left to figure out how to cover grade level content while still meeting the needs of each student. The 3-Bridges Design for Learning was developed for just such challenges. Our unique approach helps schools provide students the education they deserve, while still working within the structure of the current school system.
Bridge 1 – Personalized Learning: Instruction targets students’ starting points and moves forward from there. Students progress toward grade-level standards at their own pace.
Bridge 2 – Inquiry-Based Learning: Students engage in hands-on activities that develop creative problem solving and interpersonal skills. Content standards may be addressed, but each student gains something unique from the activity.
Bridge 3 – Content Coverage: This is the traditional approach to schooling. The teacher or administrator sets the pace at which each standard is covered. All students progress at the same rate, regardless of readiness.
Bridge 1: Personalized Learning
With a personalized approach, students begin their learning journey at their ability level. Generally, an online platform is used to assess student readiness and provide targeted instruction.
Personalized learning has direct benefits for students but also serves as a support for the other two bridges. Platforms provide teachers and administrators with data on student productivity and progress, which can be used to inform planning. The time saved on grading can be invested in planning inquiry-based lessons. While students are working on a personalized platform, teachers can conduct small group lessons or one-on-one conferences.
Getting Started with Personalized Learning
Once personalized learning has been put into place, it requires little maintenance. However, you might need some help to get started. Students will need devices with internet access, as well as login information. Teachers unaccustomed to using technology in their classroom may need training, and picking the right platform is crucial. Teachers may benefit from training on technology use, digital citizenship, and managing digital classrooms.
Bridge 2: Inquiry-Based Learning
Many progressive educators have embraced learning through inquiry. Rather than delivering information to students, we craft scenarios that push students to explore and interpret information. Good hands-on tasks allow each student to get different benefits from the same activity. These tasks include projects, creative problem-solving, and games. Students engage in collaborative learning and higher order thinking, while being highly engaged in the process.
This is the most complex of the three bridges, but potentially the most rewarding. Inquiry-learning more closely mirrors the way we learn in the real world, and students build skills that will serve them in a variety of real-world contexts.
Make Learning Active
In theory, hands-on activities meet students where they are, while pushing them to meet grade-level standards. It can be hard to measure the impact of this approach, though. Hands-on learning also requires a high level of teacher expertise. Teachers must be comfortable with facilitation and be able to support collaborative learning and productive discourse.
Since students use various strategies with open tasks, teachers must also be able to assess work without relying on a teacher’s manual. Instructors must be fluent in standards across several grade levels. Personalized learning can be a good first step before implementing an inquiry-based approach. The data generated will help you choose tasks appropriate for students’ abilities. Supporting students while they work on a platform can also be a good introduction to facilitative teaching.
Many schools have a curriculum that “covers” grade-level standards but falls short in terms of student engagement and non-academic outcomes. Worksheets and textbooks rarely support students in developing social-emotional skills, higher-order thinking, and real-world application.
In addition, covering content means moving all students through material at a uniform pace. This involves a teacher-centered approach to instruction and makes it difficult to differentiate instruction. At the same time, this is the approach that many teachers are most comfortable with, and the predominant mode of instruction in schools today.
Cover More Content in Less Instructional Time
Rather than asking teachers to abandon a content coverage approach entirely, we focus on making content coverage more efficient. Many textbooks and pacing guides treat each standard as a disconnected topic, whereas in reality, standards intertwine to support larger concepts. By applying a conceptual lens to curriculum and pacing guides, it is possible to reduce the amount of teacher-talk necessary to cover content.
Professional development on classroom management and high-impact instructional strategies are also key to ensuring that teachers make the most of their allotted instructional time. When direct instruction is efficient, we can create time in the schedule for personalized and inquiry-based learning. The other bridges also support content coverage – as students build foundational and critical thinking skills, they are able to acquire new content more quickly, and better retain what they learn.