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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