Backward Chaining

I’ve been shamed into writing this by my nomination in the Edublog Awards. This will be brief, as I strongly suspect that I’m the last teacher in the world to hear of Backward Chaining.

One of the things I love about teaching is how many other aspects of life inform my teaching practice. A parenting book (which is currently in an occupied bedroom, so I’m not going to get it and find the title) recently appeared in our house, I suspect thanks to one of any number of horrific tantrums by our three-year old. She is lovely, but she has a serious temper. Anyway, in a rare, quiet moment I picked it up and came across the idea of Backward Chaining. The idea is that when you teach a new skill you teach the last step first. You then do everything but the last step and let the child complete the task.

The tantrumer holding a festive backward chain.

Once the last step is mastered you teach the second-last step. You then do everything but the second-last step and let the child complete the task.

Eventually, the child has learned all the steps and is capable of completing the entire task for themselves.

The important thing about this is the recognition that learning is a very emotional process. When we get something wrong we (at least I) feel stupid, and we aren’t all that keen to try again. When we get something right, we’re keen for another go.

I teach quite a few lessons a year on software packages. I don’t teach them as ends in themselves, but as necessary tools for completion of bigger tasks. However, the fact is that a few times a year I teach a class the basics of Adobe Illustrator (for example). And the first lesson is always how to start. It’s the same when I teach HTML coding (which I do poorly), and the same when I teach Flash (which I do extremely poorly).

From now on, I’m teaching the last step first, because when I finish the task off for a student, the message they’re getting isn’t “You got step 1 right”, it’s “You aren’t up to steps 2-15 which I just made look easy”. And the emotional impact of this is, if not debilitating, at least negative.

Unfortunately I only have 48 minutes of teaching left this year to put my plan into practice. Never mind. 2015 will be the year of Backward Chaining.