Employing Backward Design Toward Movement-Relevant Teaching and Learning

By Lyndi Hewitt

Many of us began studying social movements, at least in part, because our own experiences with activism in one realm or another called us to develop a deeper understanding of how social change happens. Having found fulfillment in such pursuits, and recognizing the significance of both the theoretical and the political in our own journeys, we might hope to pay it forward by fostering the intellectual, political, and moral development of the students in our social movements courses. But are we thinking carefully enough about how to do this in the classroom?  While calls for greater attention to movement-relevant scholarship and “useable knowledge” have (re)intensified over the past decade (Bevington & Dixon 2005Croteau, Hoynes, & Ryan 2005CBSM workshop 2011), conversations about movement-relevant teaching have been less consistent.

In a CBSM section newsletter a few years back, Rob Benford shared the impetus behind his decision to revise the content of his upper level social movements course to reflect more applied goals rather than solely theoretical ones. He wrote that, “Students completing the course could identify, compare, and critically assess various social movement concepts, theories, and research. But I remained unconvinced that by semester’s end they could organize lunch, let alone a social movement” (Fall 2008: 1).  Benford’s subsequent course redesign resulted in students who were not only conversant in social movement theory but also proficient in a variety of skills necessary to launch and sustain an actual movement organization.

Earlier this month, Brian Obach echoed Benford’s sentiments and argued that social movements courses have the potential to provide valuable, even marketable, organizing skills.  Such training could benefit both the students and, ultimately, movement organizations and civil society more broadly.  In my view, this is the crux of movement-relevant teaching: when both students and the community, broadly defined, stand to gain.  But in order to achieve movement-relevant teaching, we need must first reflect carefully on the norms of course design and learning objectives in our social movements courses.

Through an examination of a non-random sample of publicly available social movements syllabi, including the excellent compilation edited by Lesley Wood, Paul Almeida, and Benita Roth (ASA 2008), I discovered two important things: 1) Course objectives often focus on understanding and evaluating movement theory, synthesizing arguments, writing effectively, etc., and 2) Reading lists tend to be quite long, while experiential learning is light or absent altogether.  While some courses include an applied element, such elements commonly appear on an ad hoc basis rather than as part of a coherent set of related experiences.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with such approaches to social movements courses, taking seriously the notion of movement-relevance in our teaching requires us to go further.

I’ve been contemplating in recent months what it might look like to strive for movement-relevant teaching and learning, and how that might affect course design.  One promising way of approaching this is to utilize Wiggins and McTighe’s notion of backward design (2005).  While classroom teaching commonly follows a “coverage” model in which we try to cram in as much material as possible, Wiggins and McTighe encourage instructors to ask first: What do I want my students to learn and be able to do by the end of this course? Once we’ve identified the desired results, we can then consider the type of evidence necessary to demonstrate that students have indeed achieved the learning goals.  Finally, we can make decisions about the learning experiences our course should include (which encompasses the text(s) students will read, but also goes well beyond reading).  Wiggins and McTighe further invite us to organize learning goals by priority, with “enduring understanding” as the most significant among desired outcomes.  In other words, enduring understandings represent what we hope students will retain even years after completing the course.

In a recent ProfHacker post on the topic, literature and media professor Mark Sample noted that he’s often, to his chagrin, preoccupied with what he wants his students to read rather than what he wants them to understand.  But instead of populating a syllabus with assignments and texts based on what we think students should read – the coverage model – Wiggins and McTighe encourage us to begin a course design or redesign by working backwards from our enduring understandings.  Although most of us probably relish the chance to teach movements courses, I have a hunch that we’re more likely to fall prey to the coverage model when we have strong connections to the material we’re teaching; we might be excited about too many “essential” readings and films.  Students, however, don’t necessarily benefit from having their brains stuffed full of endless concepts or even examples.  If we want a movement-relevant skill set to be an enduring understanding for our students, we’ll likely need to pull back on the amount of theoretical reading and increase opportunities for students to work with movement organizations (or launch their own) in order to develop proficiency in mobilizing participants, gaining media attention, and framing arguments, among other things.

I’m eager to know what others are thinking about these issues.  Are we reflecting adequately on our learning goals (and our efforts to meet them) in the social movements classroom? If we want to shift our goals to emphasize movement-relevant learning, how might our syllabi and instructional methods change?  If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, leave a comment or email me at lhewitt@unca.edu.  I hope to revisit these ideas in a future post, and would love to incorporate insights and data from other classes.


Bevington, Douglas and Chris Dixon. 2005. “Movement-Relevant Theory: Rethinking Social Movement Scholarship and Activism.” Social Movement Studies 4(3): 185-208.

Croteau, David, William Hoynes, and Charlotte Ryan. 2005. Rhyming Hope and History: Activists, Academics, and Social Movement Scholarship. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wiggins, Grant P. and Jay McTighe. 2005. Understanding By Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Pedagogy of Social Movements

One response to “Employing Backward Design Toward Movement-Relevant Teaching and Learning

  1. Pingback: Pedagogy of Social Movements: Round 2 | Mobilizing Ideas

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