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The Design-Down Process

Section Tab 1
Traditional curriculum design:  
Section Tab 2
Designing Down – A 4-Step Process
Section Tab 3
The Result: The Program Outcome Guide (POG):  
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A)  Traditional curriculum design:

Traditionally, curriculum has been designed by experts who are SME’s, subject matter experts. We have all been SME’s at one time or another. Ask us what should be in a curriculum or course that teaches reading, and we immediately think of all those competencies such as decoding skills, oral fluency, using inference and context clues for comprehension, to name a few. These past models focused on pouring vast amounts of information into the empty vessels of the learners. Content and competencies were identified within the context of the academic setting--the classroom. By filling up the learner with content, he/she could espouse many facts, figures, and knowledge. But for what reason? To get an “A” or “B”! But how important is this in real life situations? Does a better grade guarantee proficiency? The SCANS Report (1991) has reminded us that learning must be connected to real-life applications.

So with the emphasis of the SCANS Report (See Overview) in the early 1990’s and more recently Equipped for the Future (1994) and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, educators are now being asked to look beyond the classroom. We as teachers are asked to think “outside of the traditional classroom box.”  

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 B)  Designing Down – A 4-Step Process*:

With an outcomes-based design, we are asked to gain a broader perspective on learners’ real-life roles. We need to examine the roles of our learners and ask: “What is it they need to do and/or will do in real life, as a parent and/or family member, community member, or worker?” It is from this perspective that we can redesign curricula, that is, “design-down” a curriculum that focuses on real-life outcomes of learners.

 Step 1: Identifying Intended Outcomes

The “design-down” process initially looks at the intended outcomes of our learners with a view far beyond the classroom. We carefully examine in what real-life contexts learning needs to occur. In traditional curriculum design, this is often the last step. Not here! We are working backwards or downward

We design down by examining those processes, tasks and activities that require learners to be engaged in personally meaningful and real-life experiences. This process involves collecting information, asking questions of our learners, and assessing their needs. We talk to employers, community representatives, and other parents. We create brown-bag lunches and dialogue with other colleagues and students. We help them set their own goals and take an active part in their learning. 

In this initial step of this design process, it comes down to one basic question:

What do my students need to be able to DO “out there in the real world” that we are responsible for “in here” (in the classroom)?

* Stiehl, R. (2000). The Outcomes Primer: Reconstructing the College Curriculum. Corvallis, OR: The Learning Organization.

Step 2: Setting Performance Tasks

Once you have identified the intended outcomes, the next 3 steps may not follow in order. Again, what distinguishes this type of curriculum design is that it is not linear, and at times is rather messy. You often find yourself going back to one step or another, adding detail, refining, and reconstructing.

This step is all about determining what kinds of authentic assessments are needed to demonstrate that the intended outcome is achieved. The key word here is authentic, something that is meaningful to the learner, and that demonstrates proficiency in a real-world task or activity.  

In this step of the design process, it comes down to one basic question:  

            What can my students do “in here” to demonstrate a level of proficiency in the outcome?

Step 3: Determining Skills To Be Learned

One myth about outcomes-based instruction is that content is lost because of the emphasis on process. Actually, this is not true. Content can be of many kinds. We are interested here in the skills that must be learned. Content here centers on the skills to be learned in the context of what the learner must master and understand in order to achieve the intended outcomes. For example, in order to be a cashier, I need to be able to make change and use the register, but another important skill is the ability to think critically and working under pressure (for example, when there are 10 customers waiting).

In this step of the design process, it comes down to one basic question:

            What skills must be learned?  

Step 4: Analyzing Content Further

Content here is viewed across three types of understanding: concepts, themes, and issues.

Concepts often consist of the core vocabulary, and the ability to integrate other vocabulary for meaning. The concepts allow meaning to be constructed. Without this understanding, learning does not take place. Themes are like threads. To learn English across three roles of parent, community member, and worker is an example of themes. Issues refer more to the pros and cons or the benefits and disadvantages of situations, for example, the pros and cons of childcare.

  In this step of the design process, it comes down to one basic question:

            What concepts, themes, and issues must be understood?  

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C)      The Result: The Program Outcome Guide (POG):

The “design-down process” results in various templates, known as outcome guides, that assist you in meeting the intended outcomes for instruction of our learners. As in our icon of a roadmap across the world, these guides serve as your roadmaps for teaching your learners. There are three levels:  

·        Program Level: The Program Outcomes Guide (POG) gives you the “big picture” of the intended outcomes for the entire program. The Program Outcomes Guide (POG) for this Family Literacy curriculum is explained below in greater detail.


·        Course Level: The Course Outcomes Guides (COGs) gives you a “close-up” view, a more detailed roadmap for teaching literacy skills across each of the themes of parent and/or family member, community member, and worker. (See Section: Using This Manual, under “Using Course Outcomes Guides”)


·        Instructional Level: Instead of outcomes guides, here you will find examples of lesson plans showing the processes and activities for meeting the intended outcomes. (See Section: Lessons)  

The Program Outcomes Guide (POG) looks like a table with 4 columns or sections. These four sections are the result of the four-steps in the “design-down process” explained earlier. 

When examining it, read it backwards or from right to left.                                                                                                             

Themes, Concepts & Issues    


Process Skills 


    Performance Tasks (Assessment)


Intended Outcomes  


This column gives you an idea of the various concepts that need to be taught, along with those themes and issues that work together and that must be understood to achieve the intended outcomes

This column consists of the skills that must be learned in order for the learner to complete the performance tasks. If a learner is required to compare two situations, he must learn how to analyze and evaluate. This is a skill that must be learned in order to meet an intended outcome.

This section identifies how the learner will show evidence of proficiency in the intended outcomes. These tasks take the place of traditional tests and exams. In the Program Outcomes Guide only, the performance tasks represent the highest level of proficiency across all language literacy levels and the three roles.

This section identifies what we want the learner to be able to DO in the real world and across his/her lifespan. These outcomes becomes the focus of our teaching efforts.

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Now, proceed to the next section. See beginning of Program Outcomes Section for the Program Outcomes Guide (POG).