Start at the End - A Case for Backwards Planning

June 13, 2018

Chris Read

Manager, Learning Design

Chris Read talks curriculum, and why backwards planning (and planning backwards) makes sense for your school.

What goes into a curriculum?

At the Institute for Teaching we think a lot about good teaching (obviously!) and we think teaching is a performance profession which you can get better at with practice. However, good planning is a crucial element of what drives effective teaching – just as a brilliant actor deserves a great script to showcase their skills, so a brilliant teacher needs great lesson content to showcase theirs. As Doug Lemov says in Teach Like a Champion, “planning is critical to effective teaching – as critical as execution in many cases.”

So how do we write the script that will allow our best teachers to demonstrate their teaching chops? Deciding what to put in a curriculum is hard. Deciding what to then put in a unit of work, or in an individual lesson, is hard too. The good news is, there’s a way of approaching planning which is both more effective and requires less effort than many teachers and schools are currently putting in.

Start with the end and work backwards

Say you want to plan a unit of work on Weimar Germany for year 10. Or on multiplication for year 2. Rather than starting with the topic, and the huge choice of things you could cover, and then thinking of all the things you could do each lesson to cram in more topic material, think about your end point. This means considering what an end of unit assessment would look like, and completing it as if you were the most proficient pupil in the class you’re teaching, before carefully teasing out all the knowledge and skills you needed to be able to complete that assessment as well as you did. This list of knowledge and skills – the learning objectives in your unit of work – will form the basis of your planning.

This is why we refer to this technique as backwards planning. In terms of what happens from a pupil perspective, yes, they are taught and then they (hopefully) learn, but when we plan backwards, we reverse this. We think about what they’ll learn first, and when they’ll learn it (the sequence) later. It’s only after these stages that we think about how they’ll learn – what they’ll actually get up to in the classroom.

Isn’t backwards planning from an assessment just teaching to the test?

In short – no! A test is just a measurement of what someone knows – and a test can only assess a small sample of the overall domain which you’re teaching. You’ll be teaching your pupils more than enough to do well in their end of unit assessment, not just the content of your end of unit assessment. Importantly, sometimes ‘teaching to the test’ means teaching exam technique and format rather than content, and this certainly won’t be what you’re doing!

Could you design a whole curriculum like this?

Absolutely! Reach Academy Feltham, one of the founding schools of the IfT, plan their entire curriculum for each subject in their all-through school backwards from what a pupil needs to know to get an A* at A-level.

"Importantly, sometimes ‘teaching to the test’ means teaching exam technique and format rather than content, and this certainly won’t be what you’re doing!"

Backwards makes sense

At the Institute for Teaching, we believe amazing teaching can make all the difference. An amazing actor can bring a script to life, and an amazing musician can transform a musical score into something beautiful and profound. Similarly, an amazing teacher can do phenomenal things with a great lesson. But just as the actor or musician wouldn’t begin performing in front of an audience until they knew their script or score, so a teacher should only step in front of a class once they know what they’re trying to teach, and the overall aims of the lesson. By backwards planning, we’re putting the ‘what’ right at the start of the process.

This article originally appeared on the website of the Institute for Teaching. In March 2019 the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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