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Backwards Planning Takes Thinking Ahead

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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Start with the end, a veteran teacher told me my first year teaching. In my young, inexperienced teacher mind, that meant "fun project." And though there's not a thing wrong with fun, the end assessment needs to be about the learning and not about the product. Starting with the end means we need to put the skills, knowledge, and concepts students will learn first, then the product second.

In our daily lives, think of all the ways we imagine something first (the end) and then next do the planning. Here's an example:

You have vacation time coming up. Do you want The Experience to be a whirlwind, stimulating, possibly educational one, or maybe tranquil, low maintenance, and stress free? If you pick the latter, you're probably heading for the countryside or to a beach. If you are all about the first one, you are gearing up for a city trip with many sites, museums, galleries, and possibly even a little night clubbing. Either way, you will plan accordingly: the mode of travel, accommodations, food, and any outings. The desired end result, the experience, will influence your planning.

So how does this look when we plan for our students?

  1. Look at standard(s).
  2. Make a list of the skills, concepts, and knowledge kids need to learn.
  3. Next, design the final assessment/project where students will demonstrate understanding to mastery of these skills, concepts, knowledge.
  4. Then, create a set of lessons that lead up to that end.
  5. Once you've done this, reflect on the set of lessons, making sure all the skills, concepts, and knowledge for student success with the end assessment are being taught.

Summer is a great time, if you haven't yet, to dive into the Common Core Standards and do some backwards planning. It's also a time to develop some really enriching, fun projects that you can justify as standards-based and rigorous (a popular word right now in education). Because let's face it, once the new school year starts, speaking of whirlwind...

What exciting and inspiring projects are you planning for your students this school year?

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Natalie's picture

Thank you for sharing this information. As a beginning teacher, the planning can seem overwhelming. When I first read the title of the blog, it caught my attention. I wondered how could starting at the end be helpful. I often have big ideas, but do not know when or how to implement them. I now realize that the final result is the goal for all lessons. All of the standards can be intimidating, but I should recognize them as a guide. Your post provided me with an approach to planning that I intend to use!

Grant Lichtman's picture
Grant Lichtman
Chief Operating Officer, Francis Parker School, San Diego

Thanks, Rebecca. From the perspective of someone whose job for years has been the orchestration of change, I would only add or comment that the mindset and frame you start with will condition where you end up. I know the standards drive much of what you have to do, but hopefully not exactly how you get to do it. I always ask people when painting that picture of where you want to get to to take off absolutely every blinder and pre-condition you can. Dream of what you REALLY want. Later you may need to peel back, but maybe not as far as you think for fear!

Brittany Knapp's picture
Brittany Knapp
Substitute Teacher


Thank you so much for sharing your insights on being a beginning teacher. As you notice, I am just a substitute teacher and have had limited experience teaching. I was in a 4th grade classroom, as well as in a 9-12 grade emotional support classroom for my student teaching experiences before I graduated in December, 2010 with a bachelor's degree in both elementary and special education. I have been subbing in districts near my area since then.

I have been able to experience some long term substitute positions in a learning support classroom for grades K-6, as well as learning support classroom for grades 9-12, and even a life skills classroom for grades 9-12. It was not easy as first, getting to know the routines of the classrooms and even the students I would be working with. While going through all of the work the teacher left for me to do it seemed overwhelming at first because I did not know how I was going to manage to teach the students all of the skills they needed to know, which were not clearly written out for me. As a new teacher, I have not had the experience of getting to know the curriculum/standards and even the chance to identify what it was that the students needed individually. I did have the IEP's for each student, which was great because I could use them as my standards as to what each student had to know.

Not knowing which content area or grade level I will end up teaching, because I am open to any area, is a little scary because I am not sure where to start. Having this knowledge now gives me a place to start at least when planning my school year for the students. It also makes it a little less stressful knowing that most schools now, including the ones I was working in, have teams that work together and collaborate on what they will teach for the year and how they will get there. I have been learning about professional learning communities in my master's course and it has also given me a lot of different strategies when meeting with other professionals I work with. Communication and reflection are two essential components to have as a teacher, and I think I will definitely exercise this when I do become a teacher of my own classroom someday.


Lesa's picture

My team and I have been working very hard to revise our curriculum. We want to make sure that we are teaching the most important skills and concepts and getting rid of the fluff. We have begun the process of backwards planning by following steps 1 and 2, and we have found that some of the projects have become tradition, but aren't exactly teaching what we need to teach.
In the upcoming school year we need to figure out where to go from here, and I will definitely share this blog with them! Having common assessment based on the targets we have identified will be a great way to keep us on track. We can make sure that our lessons have a purpose and are not just too fun to give up. Thank you for providing this approach to planning!

JennyC's picture

Rebecca, I really enjoyed reading your blog. It was definately a different approach to how teachers normally teach. It makes sense to plan, and of course to start at the end because if we are at the end we are already looking at the results. My school recently implemented a reading series called Good Habit, Good Readers by Pearson. It is a good reading series, but all I've been doing is modeling, and the assessments after each lesson is all informal, so there is no concrete way for me to assess my children on the topic that I just did the mini lesson on. However, as I am going further into the reading series, and reading your blog it had made me to stop and think about thei mportance of assessments and what it would do for my children. The best solution I came up with is to just really spend time with my students when they are at centers. This would probably be my way of doing informal assessment because I will be able to see what they know since they are putting it into action. I do also plan on taking your advice of looking at the common core standards and trying to think of activities during the summer. The summer definately does gives us teachers more time to plan and like you stated once the year begin, it is very hard to stop from everything else that is happening and try to plan for new things. Thank you for a great post. I really enjoyed reading it.

Courtney T.'s picture
Courtney T.
Third Grade Teacher

Thank you for sharing your insight. I especially appreciated the outline you provided when planning for an upcoming year. While I sometimes want to begin a new approach with my students midyear, I fear that I might appear to lack good classroom management skills. This is a fear for many teachers. I agree that the summer is often the best time to plan and as you suggested "with the end in mind."

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