Last January, I got a golden opportunity to participate in Fulbright TEA Fellowship administered by IREX and funded by the Department of State, US. As part of the fellowship, I was placed at California State University, Chico, the cultural, economic, and educational centre of the northern Sacramento Valley and home to both California State University, Chico and Bidwell Park, the country's 26th largest municipal park and the 13th largest municipally-owned park. During the fellowship, we reaped countless benefits from academic as well as personal tours across California. Observing classes in some local schools and their academic calendars, I asked myself a question ‘What is the commonest challenge that is faced by teachers everywhere?’ The simple answer is a syllabus.

An overload of content
In the case of California, the problem is magnified in certain subjects like science, history, maths, where the knowledge base continuously expands. This problem of content ‘overload’ requires teachers to make choices constantly regarding what content to include and what content to rule out. So, The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social  Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects (hereafter referred to as “the Standards”) are the result of an extended, broad-based effort to fulfil the charge issued by the states to create the next generation of standards in kindergarten to grade 12 to help ensure that all students are literate and college and career ready no later than the end of high school. This describes what a student typically has to know and be able to do at each performance level.

Very highly ambitious content demands can seem daunting to teachers to teach and achieve targeted results. Apart from the amount of content identified, some objectives are stated in a way that makes them difficult to address. Some objectives are too big. For example, look at this one from a grade 10 textbook of Social Studies ‘At the end of the lesson, students will be able to identify the causes of girl trafficking in Nepal.’ But how many causes? What about the solutions? Such a statement is simply too broad to provide goal clarity and guidance to instruction and assessment. To make the matter worse, teachers at Nepal’s institutional schools are compelled to teach three English textbooks: English communicative course, English grammar and English literature. Each of these contains at least 25 lessons. In total, 75 lessons have to be taught once a year. How feasible is it? Some states of America have endeavoured to address this problem by publishing and identifying more specific grade-level benchmarks and specifying performance indicators. Nevertheless, the challenges of content overload persist. Grant Wiggins and Jay Mc Tighe propose that learning results be considered in terms of understanding the “big ideas” and core process within the content standards. More specific facts and skills are then taught in the context of the larger ideas and questions. This approach provides a means of managing large quantities of content knowledge. It is a relief to teachers.

Planning Backward [Flipped planning]
Being a teacher, we want our pupils to explore essential and sensible questions and come to understand important ideas contained in content standards, then we have to make plans accordingly. Success can be derived only from perfect planning. If a student fails an exam, it isn’t student but the teacher’s plan has failed. Hence, curriculum designers are recommended a three-stage background design process for curriculum planning. The concept of planning backward from desired results is no longer new. We’re all well aware that successful people in the world are result-driven. They’ve plan A and plan B with the end in mind. It’s like deductive and inductive methods. Backward planning asks teachers or curriculum designers to consider these stages—identifying desired results, determining acceptable evidence and planning learning experiences and instruction.

For backward design, teacher planning is focused on classroom activities. And activities should be engaging, hands-on, and child-friendly. Although this approach is old, studies have shown that the use of backward design for planning courses, units and individual lessons on purpose leads to more specific and clearly defined goal, more appropriate assessments, and much more purposeful teaching in class. It’s true many teachers believe their job is to cover the course. Contrary to this, a true teacher’s job is to teach for learning of important things out of the content, to ensure students’ clear understanding and make necessary adjustment to cater to the need of each student based on his or her results. Textbooks make a good resource but it shouldn’t constitute the syllabus any more. This sort of planning drags teachers out of their comfort zone.

“Big ideas”
A ‘big idea’ is directly linked with fundamental concepts, principles, theories, and processes that should serve as the major part of curricula, instruction, and assessment. Big ideas mirror expert understanding and anchor the discourse, inquiries, discoveries, and arguments in a field of study. They provide a basis for setting curriculum priorities to focus on the most essential content.
Big ideas work as the “conceptual Velcro for a topic of study. Big ideas integrate discrete knowledge and skills into a larger intellectual frame and bridges the gulf existing between specific facts and skills. Concentration on these larger ideas helps students see the purpose and relevance of content.
Isolated facts don’t transfer. Big ideas are so powerful that they embody transferable ideas, applicable to other topics, inquiries, contexts, issues and problems. Since we are humans, we can never impart all the knowledge on a given topic, a focus on the ‘big ideas’ helps to manage information overload. Big ideas provide the conceptual thought lines that give a solid foundation to a coherent curriculum.
A ‘big idea’ is inherently abstract. Its meaning isn’t always obvious to students, and simply covering a book or a syllabus won’t guarantee student understanding. “Coverage” is unlikely to cause genuine insight; understanding must be earned. Thus, the idea must be uncovered – its meaning discovered, constructed or inferred by the learners, with the support of the teacher and well-designed learning experiences.

Knowledge versus Understanding
When we plan backward, we’ve to know clear differences between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’. They’re frequently used as synonyms. Knowledge just refers to the ability to recognise or identify something; for example, a new word in a text passage of an article or a book, which you “know”, probably from the standpoint of having seen it before, but you don’t know how to use it.
Understanding goes deeper about something. To understand something you’ve to gain knowledge and put it into practice. ‘Knowledge’ is more inclined to theory, whereas ‘understanding’ is more inclined to practice.
Understanding also is revealed when students autonomously make sense of and transfer their learning through authentic performance. Six facets of understanding—the capacities to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathise, and self-assess—serve as indicators of understanding. It has many different connotations. Many aren’t aware that Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues avoided using the term in their taxonomy of the cognitive domain because it was seen as imprecise.

Responsive teaching
As a teacher, it’s our sole responsibility to offer our learners flexibility in the response mode. The more flexible were, the more confidently students become and they show how better they have understood what we’ve taught them. Some pupils are better spoken. Some students may have limited writing skill. And if we document student response in writing for evaluation, our judgement won’t be fair.
It’s important to note that although we may offer students options to demonstrate what their knowledge is and what their understanding is, our evaluation rubric has to be same. Responsible teachers need to work hard to find a balanced approach between individualised assessments and standardised, ‘one-size-fits-all’ measures.
Yes, there is an urgent need for balance between student construction of meaning and teacher guidance. A teacher has to plan for all three types of learners—visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. In addition, a teacher has to be adept at choosing instructional strategies that address the needs of all types of learners, manage classroom for conducive environment and create an atmosphere of democracy in the classrooms.

A final thought
We have to change the stereotype that we cannot teach old dogs a new trick. Teachers always have to be receptive to new ideas. They’ve to reflect on their teaching. We once were students. We’ve to put ourselves in their shoes to better teach. There’re many reasons to keep up with the old habits. So the first step is to determine whether we’ve the willpower to do better?  There should be a principle of substitution at work not one of addition. We shouldn’t eat junk food and then take medicine later.