How many times have you sat down with your leadership team to plan a program and the first question posed is, What’s our theme? This is usually where the program planning conversation begins, with questions of content: How are we going to fill this time? What are we going to have folks do?
While questions of content may seem like the most important questions to begin with, they are, in fact, some of the last questions we should ask. In what follows, you’ll learn the four steps to creating impactful congregational programming with measurable results through Backward Design.
Step 1: Get Clear About Context
Instead of beginning with the content question, “What should we teach?,” backward design begins by asking, “What is our context?” You and your leadership team will begin your program planning by identifying your relevant contextual realities:
- “Who are our learners?” Are they adults, children, youth, families, singles, retirees, empty nesters, couples, alternatively-abled, working class; as a group, are they intergenerational, diverse, or homogenous?
- “Who are our facilitators?” Are they clergy, lay leaders, experts in the congregation, community leaders from outside the congregation?
- “What is the learning environment?” Consider both place and time. Will the program be held in the sanctuary, parish hall, basement, outside, hybrid in-person/online, or entirely remote? How much time will we have? 30 mins of an adult forum, one hour per week for 4 weeks, two and a half days of a retreat?
- “What are our constraints?” Are there community scheduling conflicts, directives from clergy, budget limitations, or other relevant considerations?
- “What are our opportunities?” What gifts, hopes, and expectations are our learners likely to bring to the table? What possibilities are open for satisfying, or perhaps sensitively disrupting learners’ expectations? What special partnerships might be developed through this program? Who might be served within and without the community of learners?
By starting your process by looking at your contextual realities, you begin to focus your energy. Instead of sifting through limitless programming possibilities, you narrow your scope to what is actually possible in your specific situation.
Step 2: Discern Your Objectives
What are you hoping to get out of this program? What are your goals? I know that early on in my ministry career, program objectives usually went unarticulated. If our leadership time had been pushed to say what our goal was, we might have said: “Getting people to show up.” But, of course, if we had heard ourselves say that aloud we would have noticed the problem: That objective doesn’t serve, and in fact has nothing to do with, our mission of forming disciples of Christ! Thinking about what you want your learners to gain in knowledge, insight, skills, deepened relationships, and/or spiritual growth will help you focus your program and make sure it aligns with your broader mission.
Discerning objectives and drafting desired outcomes will also foster buy-in from parishioners, donors, staff, volunteers, and most importantly, the learners themselves. An example might be: “During Vacation Bible School, students will come to see that they are all beloved children of God so that by the end of the week they are able to meaningfully participate in beloved community.” Sharing this outcome broadly will go a long way in promoting the program.
Sharing outcomes is important for children’s programming, and it is essential for adult programming. Adults often have many demands on their time and attention. They need to know that their time and attention is being directed toward some end; and they need to know exactly what that end is!
Step 3: Plan To Assess Your Outcomes
The third step in the Backward Design process is to make a plan for assessment. Assessment is the step leadership teams are most likely to skip. It’s scary to open yourself up to the possibility that your program didn’t work and to then name that failure. Unfortunately, skipping this step doesn’t protect you or your leadership team from failing, it just protects you from the admitting that you’ve failed.
I want to encourage you to have the courage to ask plainly: What are the learning outcomes of this program? Are we achieving our goals? Did we achieve our objective? If you aren’t meeting your goals while your program is in process, you have the opportunity to either make course corrections and get back on track, or perhaps to collaborate with your learners and come up with new, more appropriate goals. If the program is over and you didn’t achieve your objectives, you are in a position to ask why and to make a better plan for next time. If your learning outcomes are the ones you desired, you can analyze what went right. In all of these cases, you need a plan for how you will measure whether your goals/objectives/outcomes are being met.
True assessment provides essential feedback to guide future ministry efforts. It provides you with information so that you and your team can be good stewards of your resources.
Note that it is tempting to imagine that taking attendance is assessment; it is not!. To reap the benefits of Backward Design, it is imperative that your leadership team go beyond attendance in evaluating the overall impact of your program. Look at who attended, not just how many. Did you reach your target audience? Ask for qualitative feedback about why people attended. Look at your program objectives and determine what information you need to assess whether or not you achieved them.
Step 4: Determine Content / Theme / Topic
So now you have your contextual realities, objectives, and assessment plan laid out, the time has finally come to create or curate your content! Does this feel backward? Hang with me and trust the process. Having focused your program through the three previous steps, you are now in a position to choose a theme and develop a curriculum that will contribute to a cohesive and purpose-driven program.
Example of a program NOT using Backward Design:
- We are going to teach 4 weeks of mindfulness practices during Advent in the Adult Forum; the Christian Education Director will lead.
- An average of 12 adults showed up per week
- Unanswered questions: Was the Advent series a success? Did those who attended learn practices about mindfulness? Did people attend because of the topic, the facilitator, or because that is just what they do after service on a Sunday? Should we repeat, expand, or revise the program again next year?
Example of a program using Backward Design:
- We are gearing this 4-week Advent series towards working adults and retirees. Each session will be 35 minutes long, on-site, after the 9 AM service, in a conference room. We have a therapist, pastoral associate, and the Christian Education Director as possible facilitators.
- Goals of the Advent Series: Learners will . . .
- Explore 4 different mindfulness practices so that they experience a wide range of practices from different sources
- Experiment with each mindfulness practice throughout the week so that they get a feel for how the practice might integrate into their life.
- Reflect on their experience using the different practices to better discern which practice to integrate into their lives long term
- Assessment Plan
- Provide a reflection sheet at the beginning of each session to gather feedback on the previous practice.
- Do a guided exercise of each practice, where learners are taught about the practice by actually doing it within the session.
- Send out a 4-question form by email to learners after the last session asking them to reflect on why they attended, what they were hoping to get out of the program, what they learned, and how they will use what they learned going forward.
- We gave the goals and assessments to the three facilitators so they could build their learning activities.
- An average of 16 adults showed up per week. Most were the “usual suspects” and retirees, but some surprising participants came from the targeted audience of working adults.
- The survey reflected that half came because of the variety of facilitators and 4 came specifically because of the topic. 9 learners shared that they plan to use one of the shared practices on an ongoing basis. 4 learners shared that none of the practices met their needs and that they are interested in learning other options.
If the overall goal for your Christian Formation program is to form disciples of Christ, which program most fully contributes to that mission? Which program gives you a full enough picture of your impact to go forward making strategic adjustments in good faith?
Want to learn more about Backward Design?
The Design + Deliver: Intensive from Learning Forte (June 17-August 5, 2022) will deepen your understanding of instructional design and increase your confidence to apply proven practices in your teaching. Learning Forte’s Stacy Williams-Duncan and Kyle Oliver will guide you through applying proven pedagogical practices in your course design and provide you with personalized feedback in this six-week course through facilitated sessions plus asynchronous content and learning activities. Register here.