The 3 Questions That Will Cut Your Lesson Planning Time In Half


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Key takeaways

  1. Don’t look for activities to fill your lessons. This ‘forward’ model of planning is not going to help you or your students succeed
  2. Plan like all effective leaders. Plan ‘backwards’ beginning with the end in mind
  3. Ask yourself three questions. Where do I want my students to ‘be’ by the end of this sequence of work? How will I know whether they’ve gotten there? What are the best strategies to support students on this journey?



The 3 Questions That Will Cut Your Lesson Planning Time In Half

Lesson planning can be time consuming. It’s easy to find yourself 20 minutes into a YouTube or Pinterest spiral late at night trying to find the perfect video or activity for a lesson the next day. The problem is, it often feels as though this time isn’t productive. It’s easy to spend hours planning that in the end, doesn’t deliver the student learning you hoped for.

A few excellent resources and frameworks exist to improve the way you plan. Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe is an excellent and widely used framework for planning. In his fantastic practical guide Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teachers Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap, Stephen Farr of Teach for America draws on Wiggins & McTighe’s work (along with that of others) to provide practical and effective steps to support teachers. Let’s look at some things that highly effective teachers do when planning.

Don’t look for activities to fill your lessons

One of the most common mistakes teachers make, particularly early in their careers, is to obsess over finding activities for lessons. In this way of planning, teachers look at the topic they’re covering and then create, find or adapt engaging activities that fit this focus. The thinking here is that if you keep students engaged, interested and busy, they will learn something.

From Teaching as Leadership:

When I began teaching, I was overwhelmed by all the subjects and students I was expected to teach… I was staying up into the early hours of the morning just trying to figure out how I was going to get through the next day. There was no way I could look further down the road than tomorrow… I was picking activities that I thought would interest my students and that somehow through that interest, they would learn.

Reflections of Rachel Meiklejohn, then sixth-grade teacher in New Mexico

Although it’s well intended and occasionally effective, this sort of forward planning actually has things the wrong way around.

Plan like all effective leaders

In every endeavor involving long term planning towards meaningful and measurable outcomes, leaders plan ‘backwards’. Instead of beginning with what you need to do next, start with where you want to be. Writing about general leadership in organisations, James Kouzes and Barry Posner point out that in all endeavours, successful leaders think in reverse.

From The Leadership Challenge:

In some ways, leaders live their lives backwards… They see pictures in their mind’s eye of what results will look like even before they’ve started their project, much as an architect draws a blueprint or an engineer builds a model

Teachers shouldn’t be any different. The most successful teachers don’t start planning lessons with activities, video clips or textbooks. Instead, they think carefully about what they want students to achieve at the end of a learning sequence.

From Teaching as Leadership:

Highly effective teachers, like all successful leaders, insist that their desired outcomes drive their choice and design of strategies. Less effective teachers, by contrast choose strategies before they know exactly where they want to end up. Sometimes we find it easier to take the action we are familiar with, in hopes of achieving goals, instead of clearly looking at the goal and asking “what actions among all the many options, will be most effective at reaching that aim

Ask yourself three questions

So good leaders plan backwards, good teachers need to do the same. Wiggins and McTighe’s prolific Understanding by Design model is a great guide to these planning principles.

From Understanding by Design:

As the old adage reminds us, in the best design, form follows function. In other words, all the methods and materials we use are shaped by a clear conception of the vision and desired results. That means we must be able to state with clarity what the student should understand and be able to do as a result of any plan…

This might seem self-evident, but most times when teachers find themselves frustrated with lesson planning, it’s because they are planning forwards and not backwards.

Three questions can help teachers with a backward planning approach

  1. Where do I want my students to ‘be’ by the end of this sequence of work?
  2. How will I know whether they’ve gotten there?
  3. What are the best strategies to support students on this journey?

The first question is about defining a vision for success. Effective teachers think carefully about what it will look like for students to succeed in a unit of work. Often this means drilling into curriculum standards, reviewing or developing exemplar work samples or working backwards from the skills you want students to have by the end of the year or the end of their schooling.

The second question is really about assessment. Ineffective planning sees assessments designed after a unit has been taught, not before. Designing assessment before teaching allows it to play a crucial role in how you design and deliver lessons. Doing so holds teachers and students more accountable for achieving relevant learning, not just completing activities.

From Teaching as Leadership:

This is a consistent pattern among highly effective teachers: they put the goalposts in the ground before they create the gameplan, not after. They hold themselves and their students accountable to their vision of success, no whatever material they happened to have covered.

If you start your planning process by writing the final year exam, or major assessment task first – you’ll be much better placed to plan and deliver effective lessons.

The final question brings us back to the more ‘forward’ idea of lesson planning. Now, with your destination in mind and a clear understanding of how you’ll assess the achievement of that vision, you can think about the best way to support students to get there.

From Teaching as Leadership:

Once you have a vision of success and know how you will determine you have reached that vision, you can begin developing a plan to reach it. Mapping that path is an exercise in alignment – ensuring that each step is contributing meaningfully to getting to the destination.

You’re still going to spend time lesson planning, but it’s going to be much easier than trying do so without clear direction.


Key takeaways

  1. Don’t look for activities to fill your lessons. This ‘forward’ model of planning is not going to help you or your students succeed
  2. Plan like all effective leaders. Plan ‘backwards’ beginning with the end in mind
  3. Ask yourself three questions. Where do I want my students to ‘be’ by the end of this sequence of work? How will I know whether they’ve gotten there? What are the best strategies to support students on this journey

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