Starting with the End in Mind

Dave Orphal’s mantra for lesson planning is “start with the end in mind.”

In this blog article, Orphal walks us through “backward planning” as a viable way to increase student engagement and enhance their learning outcomes.

Starting with the end in mind has become a mantra for lesson planning. Sometimes called “Backward Planning,” or “Lesson Design,” this technique is being exposed to teachers in professional development sessions for years. I first read about backward planning through Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s work.

This is how I like to plan my units and lessons, too. I start by thinking about the skills and information I want my students to learn. I ask myself, “When this unit is over, what do I want my kids to know (information) and be able to do(skills) that they didn’t know and couldn’t do before?”

Then I design an assessment that will let my students show me that they have learned those skills and knowledge. After that, I design ways my students can practice the skills and use their new knowledge. Finally, I think about how I will introduce the information, teach the skills, and write the lesson plan.

For the past several years, backward planning has moved from a behind-the-scenes process that I used to design my lessons. Before, I would backward plan, then guide my students through the lesson from start to finish.

Today, I realize that not only is backward planning a good way for me to think about my lessons, it’s also a good way for my students to think about their own work.

When I introduce a new project to my class, I start with the end. I tell them what I expect that they will be able to do at the end of the project. For example, last winter, I kicked off a project with this slide on my PowerPoint.

And, freak out they did! They had no idea how they would accomplish this lofty task. The idea that they would present to an audience that wasn’t comprised of their classmates or me was scary. They didn’t know what reforms they might want to see at our school. They didn’t know how they might organize their presentation, or how they would convince their audience to take their reform idea seriously.

As the students talked, I sat at the front of the room, writing down the myriad questions they had. As the list grew, my students began to settle down. They started to realize that they could accomplish this project, but there were a lot of things that they were going to have to learn first.

Once my class wound down their questions, I said, “Fantastic! So now I know what I need to teach you over the next few weeks. We’ve got a lot of knowledge we need to get, we’ve got some skills we need to learn, and we’ve got some work that we need to do. Tomorrow, we’ll map out time over the next several weeks how we’ll get the knowledge and learn the skills we’ll need to be awesome when you present.

In about thirty minutes, my students went from panic to plan; from fear to feeling like, “We’ve got this!”

It works so much better than starting with the beginning.

I could have launched with a series of lectures and activities designed to give them the knowledge they would need for their presentation.  Then, I could have trained them in the skills they would need for their presentations.  If I had done this, I would have had to periodically stop my lessons to answer the question, “Why are we learning this?”

Starting with the end in mind lets my students hold the answer to that question throughout the unit.  Each day, as I start a lecture or teach a skill, I refer back to their list of questions and point out how today we are going to answer some of them.

My kids stayed motivated and energized throughout the weeks as they prepared their presentations.  One student remarked, “It feels like every day we’re learning something real, not just doing stuff because the teacher told us to.”

If you’re interested in how their projects turned out, you can check out my students’ school-reform proposals here, here, and here.

Starting with the end in mind: it’s not just a good idea for lesson planning. It’s good for my students as well.

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  • LaurenHill

    Doyle Nicholson shared this

    Doyle Nicholson shared this quote and picture at a webinar last night.  I always appreciate the serendipidous confluence of ideas the Collaboratory brings.  Enjoy:

    “If you want to build a ship, you don’t drum up people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them how to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

    ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery


    • DaveOrphal

      So Bummed!

      Hi Lauren,

      I can’t see the quote/pict you shared.  What a bummer!  I bet it just rocks!  I had the same trouble trying to share the “Freak Out” slide on a discussion from Marsha.  



      • LaurenHill


        Check it out now.  I used the picture icon do-hickey this time.

        • DaveOrphal


          Thanks for the quote!

    • Fran Chadwick

      Backward Design

      Love the quote – and how terrific to encourage teachers to keep their students in the “loop” with their own plans and wise thinking!

  • Brian Parmley

    Begin with the End in Mind

    This is what good teachers do already.  As a principal I’ve been saying this for years.

    Great quote and pic Ms. Nicholson

  • Dave Orphal

    To share your expertise and learn from other teachers…

    Join the CTQ Collaboratory!

  • Grant Wiggins

    my co-author

    Thanks for the mention, Dave, but you should also mention my co-author and colleague Jay McTighe. We developed ‘backward’ planning in Understanding by Design (UbD) and continue to improve the work as a team. Also: funny typo: you say you learned about lesson panning from my work. Gee, I hope not!!


    Nice post; great to see the kids’ work!

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you!

      Sometimes it is so hard to see the type-o’s in my own writing.  I just gloss right over them.  Thanks for pointing out “panning” instead of “planning!”

      I’ve also fixed my neglect for Jay McTighe. You two did great work!  Thank you!

  • Dave

    Backwards planning

    Yes, students want to see what is beyond the forest; but throw a few flowers along the path. Nice piece.  some topics easier than others of course but can always have a goal and key points on the board as a guide.

  • The Curly Classroom

    What a Great Reminder

    That final, culminating product is the evidence of student learning.  It is important to have this closure piece in each lesson, no matter how small.  Our district has pushed the Fundamental 5 this year, and lesson framing has been a primary focus.  Here teachers name the learning objective and closing task at the beginning of the learning cycle so that students are aware of what is being taught and how they must demonstrate this knowledge.

  • Randy Sinisi

    Dave, so good to see your

    Dave, so good to see your blog highlighted in NCSS SmartBriefs.  You are giving students a voice in school reform and helping teachers improve project-based learning.   Thanks for passing on your ideas and experiences from Finland on a Phi Delta Kappa International – EF Education First  Professional Development Tour.

  • SusanGraham

    Backwards learning about Backward Design

    I find discusstions of Backwards Planning fascinating because I did not realize, for the longest time, that there was any other way to plan a lesson. This was probably the result of beginning my career teaching an elective in a system where I was an “only” in my content area. I spent the first semester trying to teach everything I learn in college and I was a hideous failure and a physical, intellectual, and emtional wreck from the effort. I learn, of necessity to make these my most important planning questions:

    • What do I want them to know at the end of the lesson?
    • What will they be able to do with this learning that has value to them?
    • How does this connect to the rest of what they know, can do, or want to do?

    It was a lot later that I got around to asking myself “How will I know whether or not they learned it?”  I taught for years before discovering the power of rubrics. But utimately the best measurement I ever came up with were these: 

    • How  have you used something you learned in the last month?
    • What do you think you will remember ten years from now?
    • Did you learn something that you think you might try to teach someone else to do? 

    My question to myself became:

    Is this a justifable use of an hour of my students’ lives? 



  • sharonwright

    Backwards is Best

    Thank you so much, Dave for this great look into “the end.” Like Susan, I too never thought about planning any other way. I was dropped into an ELA classroom during the middle of first semester 17 years ago, and tried to teach the way I had been taught in high school. Of course, that was a miserable failure and my students and I were bored to tears by the end of the semester. I re-vamped, re-booted, and re-laxed over the winter break and “began with the end in mind.”

    What a difference!

    Now, a PBL veteran, it seems natural to plan this way.


    I love the questions that Susan asks her students:

    • How  have you used something you learned in the last month?
    • What do you think you will remember ten years from now?
    • Did you learn something that you think you might try to teach someone else to do?

    What are some other ideas for student questions to guide their learning and encourage them to “begin with the end in mind?”