A “Backward Design” Approach to the Integration of Faith and Learning (Part 1)

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Osborn_109x163A “Backward Design” Approach to the Integration of Faith and Learning (Part 1)

Jeremy Osborn, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication, Cornerstone University ([email protected])

When the CCSN first talked to me about the possibility of contributing to the blog, I was both excited and a bit intimidated.  It seems fitting that my posts follow those of Naaman Wood, last month’s guest blogger, as he highlights the broad range of approaches and backgrounds that characterize Christian Communication Studies scholars.  Unlike Naaman, my educational path did not take me through Christian institutions.  My journey included six years in graduate school at large, public, research-intensive universities, eight years as faculty at small, liberal arts institutions, and three years as a faculty development director for an urban community college, before accepting my current position at Cornerstone University.

This path has shaped my approach to integration in a variety of ways, and my hope is that you can glean some useful insights and practices from the reflections I share in my guest blog posts.  I will offer both general observations and specific examples that are applicable to a variety of courses in a variety of contexts.  In this first post, I begin at the most general level–how does one think about and get started with faith and learning integration?  As I wrestled with how to answer that question myself, my faculty development experience led me straight to one place—outcomes and goals. After using this first post to unpack what it looks like to begin with outcomes at a general level, I will take a particular communication topic about which I am particularly passionate, the “dark side” of communication, and drill down into how I integrate faith with instruction for “dark side” topics, both within the context of an introductory class in which the topics play a comparatively small role and in the context of an upper-division seminar in which those topics are the focal point.

Backward Design

I am an ardent proponent of backward design.  If the term is new to you, the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching offers a succinct discussion here. [1]

In essence, backward design involves designing courses and instruction by beginning with your goals and outcomes, then working “backwards” to the actual methods, assignments, learning objects, and strategies.

Typically, we think of backward design in the context of designing instruction around clearly identified student learning outcomes, usually tied to discipline-specific knowledge, attitudes, and skills.  Ideally, thinking about backward design as a philosophy that runs from the broad curricular level through the level of individual courses, we would be constantly aware of a “cascading” set of outcomes and goals that begin with core institutional outcomes and cascade down through program-level outcomes and into course-level outcomes.

Backward Design and Faith-Based Outcomes

At Christian institutions, our institution-level outcomes involve many of the same things we would see at “secular” institutions (for example, critical thinking, oral and written expression), but we also have outcomes that reflect our Christian mission.  In approaching course design with an eye toward effective faith and learning integration, we must begin by thinking about outcomes that capture both our discipline-specific elements and the faith-based elements of our Christian mission.

At Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I teach, our mission statement says, “We exist to empower men and women to excel as influencers in our world for Christ by offering a student-focused learning community where Jesus Christ is central.” [2] If we are truly committed to that mission as an institution, then each of our majors and the courses that constitute them should be designed with an eye toward how we are equipping and empowering our students to be influencers for Christ, wherever they may go following graduation.  In other words, when we think of faith and learning integration, we must first consider how each course we design is equipping students to be both competent in disciplinary knowledge and skills and to impact the world for Christ.  That seems straightforward and simple in principle, but in practice it involves a significant shift in orientation.  Rather than approaching integration at the level of the individual assignment and asking questions like, “How do I bring Jesus into this assignment?” we shift to asking, “How do I reinforce and advance mission in each element of this course?”  That eventually brings us to the individual assignment level, but it is no longer our starting point.

Considering the implications of adopting this backward design approach, it becomes clear that the exact nature of integration in any individual course will be driven by the place of that course in contributing to both institutional mission and programmatic outcomes.  In other words, the integration strategies that would be the most effective in a senior-level, theory-driven, capstone course for Communication majors would likely look very different from the strategies one would adopt in an introductory, skills-based, core course required of all students.  For the sake of added clarity, I will expand on those two examples.

Examples of Backward Design Application

In the first example, I will consider an upper-division Communication Theory course. In many institutions, the overarching Communication Theory course serves as a capstone course with disciplinary goals and outcomes focused on ensuring that students understand the various theoretical traditions that comprise the discipline and can use theories to explain and predict communication behaviors.  Teaching Communication Theory at Cornerstone, I have the added responsibility of ensuring that we are approaching those disciplinary goals in a context that equips students to influence the world for Christ.  In order to address both those goals, I draw on the concept of Creation-Fall-Redemption in our discussions of theories.  Emmanuel Ayee offers a clear discussion of the Creation-Fall-Redemption motif within the context of Communication Studies in his 2013 article, “Human Communication Revisited–A Biblical Perspective.”[3]  As we discuss theories in class (and students write about them), the focus is on analyzing the core ideas of each theory through the lens of 1) God’s original plan for communication in that area, 2) how that area was corrupted by the Fall, and 3) what it might look like for us to be agents of redemption in that area.  For example, applying this model to Social Exchange Theory we can discuss the inherent human selfishness in a model of relationships that is built around perceived costs and rewards, and how we as Christians are called to love one another.  As a result, students learn the same theoretical ideas as students attending secular institutions, but understand those ideas and potential action steps through a different lens.  In this case, utilizing the Creation-Fall-Redemption motif as an analytical lens is an effective integration strategy that advances the larger, institutional mission in a way that is highly compatible with the theory-focused disciplinary goals of the course.

As a second example, I will consider a course on the other end of the curriculum–the introductory Public Speaking course.  In contrast to the complex theoretical nature of an upper division Communication Theory course, most public speaking courses are 100-level courses focused on skill development rather than critical analysis.  Given that difference in both level and in disciplinary goals, the exact nature of integration will look very different.  In Public Speaking, the contribution to the mission of equipping students to be influencers for Christ is tied to their understanding of the power of their words and cultivating their abilities to use words for Kingdom-focused purposes.  As a result, before I cover any of the speech assignments, we discuss the first chapter of Quentin J. Schultze’s seminal introductory text, Communicating for Life.[4]  The focus of that discussion is on the power of words to bring both life and death and our responsibility to be “symbolic stewards.”  That sets a foundation that impacts how we discuss their approach to the speech assignments, as well as the topics they choose.  Students achieve the same learning outcomes around speaking and listening competency as their peers at secular institutions but view the source, power, and purpose of those skills differently.  Furthermore, I intentionally cultivate an environment in which they are encouraged to speak on topics such as reaching unreached people groups and the importance of cultivating a vibrant prayer life.

In each example, the “face” of integration is different, but the courses share a common consideration of the intersection between institutional Christian mission and disciplinary competence.  The outcomes, both faith-based and discipline-specific, lead, and the instructional strategies follow.  If we were to zoom out even further, each of those courses is situated in a larger departmental curriculum that includes both missional and disciplinary goals, and the structure of each course reflects its place in that curriculum. Integration of backward design, faith, and learning requires us to think developmentally about our students in terms of both their disciplinary knowledge and their faith journeys.  Students are able to analyze ideas through a Creation-Fall-Redemption lens as seniors in Communication Theory, in part, because they began learning about symbolic stewardship as first-year students and have been growing in their understanding of both communication and faith throughout their four years.

As you think about what it would look like to apply this information to your own course design and teaching, my goal is not for you to simply adopt the specific strategies I discussed.  Each institution, department, and course is different.  What I would encourage you to do is to consider your course content and strategies through a backward design lens.  In terms of both disciplinary and faith-based outcomes, do you have a clear idea what you want your graduates to know, value, and be able to do?  If not, take some time to flesh out those outcomes and use those outcomes to evaluate your courses and assignments.  You should be able to clearly point to how each course and assignment contributes to the overall spiritual and disciplinary development of your students.  Ideally, you should also be able to point to how the coursework as a whole collectively achieves both disciplinary and spiritual development outcomes as a curriculum.  The core end goal is to ensure we are doing everything in our power to create learning environments that equip our students to be both communication scholars/practitioners and Christian influencers in a fallen world.  Beginning with outcomes gives us a clearer path to determining how well we are actually accomplishing that goal.

In my future guest blogs for the CCSN, I will shift from the general course design framework of backward design to a discussion of the specific process of integrating faith and learning in the teaching of one, topic—the dark side of communication.  In those posts I will discuss both how those topics can be integrated into other courses in the Communication Studies curriculum, and how I created a stand-alone dark side course here at Cornerstone University.  Topics that fall into the dark side camp offer important opportunities for us to discuss the effects of sin in our world and how we might bring light and redemption through our behaviors.  If you are not currently addressing those topics in your courses, I hope these posts are helpful in getting you started.  If you are currently teaching dark side content, I hope my discussion of some of the specific strategies I utilize, both in terms of general approach and specific assignments, when I teach the dark side of communication will be useful to you.

In the meantime, I would love to see your comments on this post or on the ways you are using backward design in the integration of faith and learning in your own courses.


[1] Understanding by Design, accessed April 29, 2016, https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/understanding-by-design/.

[2] Cornerstone University, Identity, Mission and Vision, accessed April 29, 2016, https://www.cornerstone.edu/why-cornerstone-university/identity-mission-and-vision/.

[3] Emmanuel S. A. Ayee, “Human Communication Revisited–A Biblical Perspective,” Koers – Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 78, no. 1 (2013), accessed April 29, 2016, doi: 10.4102/koers.v78i1.549.

[4] Quentin J. Schultze, Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000).

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