Backwards (Life) Design

The educational world is changing. For the past six months, in the Education Innovation Fellowship, I’ve seen innovation everywhere—from Los Angeles up to Seattle across Chicago and back to D.C. In every school building I entered, innovation seemed to be happening in four places: math class, English class, science class, and history class. I teach physical and health education—two subjects that still seemed to be being taught the same way they always were. So I had to ask: Can innovation happen in PE and health?

I think so. And here’s why.

Even though innovation tends to be heavy on tech and devices that kids can use easily in the core subjects, innovation isn’t actually about tech at all. It’s about design. And I realized that, as teachers, we’ve been taught to design for our entire careers: Every year, before kids arrive at school in the fall, we engage in backwards design—a technique that asks educators to begin with what students are expected to learn and be able to do, then create learning opportunities that achieve the desired goal. So before we teach, we:

  1. Define the desired results
  2. Decide on exactly what is acceptable evidence for these desired results
  3. Design activities to reach the desired results

As I wondered what the place of innovation was in my P.E. and health classes, I started applying backwards design to life beyond school. Our desired result is a long, healthy and fruitful life. Acceptable evidence would include eating well, being active, staying fit, having low blood pressure, avoiding diseases and other health risks, etc. Activities to reach these results could include playing a sport or making healthy eating and habitual exercise a priority. So why don’t we emphasize these tactics more for children? Most people agree that health and wellness is crucial…when they are old.  But why not develop the skills that will sustain a long, fruitful and healthy existence at any early age?

I’m putting these thoughts into practice.  My students live in Washington, D.C.—where we have the third-highest obesity rate in the United States, and about 13% of two-to-four-year-olds from low-income families are already obese (2011). For about one in five 10-to-17-year-olds, obesity is already shortening the long lives that he or she wants to live (2011; source). If our desired results are to live a long, healthy and fruitful life, my students are already playing catch-up. And if their parents, teachers, and administrators are only focused on reading, writing, and math, they will continue to play catch-up.

I’ve created a program where health and wellness have seats at the table. Each student in my 5th grade class works with me to set goals based on the government’s recommendations for a healthy activity level. They wear fitness bands that measure their activity level; when they reach their goals, they receive money toward college in a secure account. And after only 21 days piloting this program, my kids aren’t just meeting their goals—they’re doubling and even tripling them.

Because of this program, my kids know the statistics. My kids are making their health and wellness a priority. They see their results instantly, they learn ways to exercise in all environments, and they learn where to find and how to cook healthy foods. They are learning about healthy eating habits and healthy exercise habits. When they are old, they will be able to say that they lived a long, healthy and fruitful life. My students will not be the one in five.

Please visit our Crowdrise page to support my students on their journeys to long, healthy, and fruitful lives!


David Gesualdi, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
The Walker Jones Education Campus


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