Planning lessons backwards

Wiggins and McTighe propose that lesson and curricular planning should follow a ‘backwards’ methodology. In doing so, they predict we will have “results in more clearly defined and wisely blended short-term and long-term goals, more appropriate assessments, and more purposeful teaching than typical planning”.

They describe their framework as ‘backwards’ because it opposes “conventional habits”, where teachers choose to start with textbooks or other materials to formulate their tasks.

Instead, they suggest we derive our tasks from “targeted goals or standards” (i.e. curriculum objectives), as the reason such objectives are initially formed is to guide the design of instruction and task.

This backward design process entails three steps:

  1. Identify desired results
  2. Determine acceptable evidence
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction

1. Identify desired results: considering the end goal of our instruction and doing so with the expectations of the curriculum in mind. In the simplest terms, what is it you want pupils to know or do?

Questions to ask ourselves during stage 1:

  • “What long-term transfer goals are targeted?
  • What meanings should students make to arrive at important understandings?
  • What essential questions will students keep considering?
  • What knowledge and skill will students acquire?
  • What established goals/standards are targeted?”

2. Determine acceptable evidence: we must consider how we will know pupils have achieved the ‘desired results’. This stage encourages us to think as an ‘assessor’ and places assessment at the heart of planning, prompting us to consider “the collected assessment evidence needed to document and validate that the desired learning has been achieved”.

Questions to ask ourselves during stage 2:

  • “What performances and products will reveal evidence of meaning-making and transfer?
  • By what criteria will performance be assessed, in light of Stage 1 desired results?
  • What additional evidence will be collected for all Stage 1 desired results?
  • Are the assessments aligned to all Stage 1 elements?”

3. Plan learning experiences and instruction: with both the results and acceptable evidence now established, we can now consider the instruction we will use to guide pupils towards them. It is in this stage things like lesson sequencing would be considered.

Questions to ask ourselves during stage 3:

  • “What activities, experiences, and lessons will lead to achievement of the desired results and success at the assessments?
  • How will the learning plan help students achieve transfer, and meaning and acquisition, with increasing independence?
  • How will progress be monitored?
  • How will the unit be sequenced and differentiated to optimize achievement for all learners?
  • Are the learning events in Stage 3 aligned with Stage 1 goals and Stage 2 assessments?”

Wiggins and McTighe also posit that this framework should be used with the intention of avoiding the ‘twin sins’ of learning design.

The first sin refers to activity-based lessons. In such lessons, the activity is usually fun or interesting but does not present meaningful learning opportunities.

The second sin refers to content coverage lessons. In these lessons, we aimlessly cover the curriculum within a timeframe just to make sure it is taught without careful consideration of our overarching aims.


The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units by Wiggins and McTighe.

The Understanding by Design Handbook by Wiggins and McTighe.

How can a teacher’s view of learning influence the tasks they design?

This is the third blog in this series. The first can be found here and the second here.

The design of a task can require significant thought and devotion of time, as it must marry up multiple factors: the subject content that is learnt; the pedagogy of the teacher; the disciplinary practice of the subject; and the cognitive theories that support learning, to name but a few. 

Despite the many contributing factors, I would argue that task design is influenced most by a teacher’s view of learning. For example, this could be influenced by whether a teacher views knowledge as something that needs to be constructed or as something that is simply transmitted or interpreted (I appreciate this may be a false dichotomy but please indulge me for the sake of the argument).  

A teacher’s view could dictate not only the design of their tasks and their instruction, but also how they implement tasks in the classroom. To exemplify this point, let’s consider two famous theories of learning: Behaviourism and Constructivism.  

Behaviourism outlines that learning must focus on observable behaviour and actively discounts activity centred around the mind or mental state. In this theory, there must be observable change in behaviour for learning to have occurred.  

The task purpose from a behaviourist standpoint would therefore be centred on how the task can reinforce desired behaviours, while avoiding undesirable behavioural responses. Thus, tasks that promote memorisation and repetition of knowledge (rote learning) could be prevalent in a classroom with a behaviourist approach. The learner would be undertaking tasks that demonstrate knowledge is transmitted. 

The constructivist theory of learning would promote an entirely different type of task. Constructivism believes that the learner ‘constructs’ their own understanding of the world and therefore that the purpose of a task is for the learner to generate knowledge through their experiences.  

As this theory believes learning is a search for meaning and understanding, the constructivist classroom would more likely include tasks of a discovery or inquiry-based nature. The learner would be undertaking tasks that demonstrate that knowledge is constructed. 

Of course, it is not as black and white as that. But, while there are many theories of learning we can discuss, this shows how task design, and the purpose of tasks, are contingent on a teacher’s view of learning and their pedagogy that arises from that view.  

The next blog will look at approaches to task design.

What is the purpose of a learning task?

This is the second blog in this task design series. The first defined task design and discussed why it is an important part of practice – find it here. 

From a functionalist perspective, the purpose of a task is the application of knowledge learnt. Following instruction from a more knowledgeable other, a learner undertakes a task to demonstrate what they have understood, and indeed, not understood.  

The teacher has communicated knowledge to the learner; the task provides the opportunity for the learner to communicate their understanding of that same knowledge. Task design should therefore be predicated on ensuring that taught knowledge can be applied. 

Tasks are the means through which a shared notion of knowledge can be built. Although this shared notion is also developed during the instructional phase, tasks are arguably more effective in establishing it. This is because a task always includes the same result for a learner to work towards – an understanding of the taught content through application. 

If the learner arrives at this desired result, it is assumed that they have correctly understood the knowledge that was imparted (of course, as experience tells us, we know this is not necessarily the case). However, in arriving at the correct result, we can determine that the shared notion of knowledge has been successfully built. 

Above, I posited that the purpose of tasks is to apply what has been learnt. While this may sound straightforward, this can be influenced quite drastically by a teacher’s view of learning.  

What is Task Design and why is it important?

This is the first blog in a series on Task Design.

What is task design?

Task Design may sound unfamiliar to you, but it is rather self-explanatory. While I have defined it in the past as the ‘thoughtful ideation of tasks that learners will engage with’ or ‘the process that refers to the principles and procedures by which tasks are designed’, put simply, it refers to the designing of learning tasks.

Although the concept is rarely referred to explicitly, task design usually occurs during the time spent planning lessons or designing curricula. Despite its obvious reference to the part of a lesson where pupils apply knowledge or skill independently (i.e., the task), the term is best thought of as falling within the wider remit of instructional design.

While instruction and task can be considered distinctly separate entities, the line between them is often blurred. For example, ‘scaffolding’ is a technique we may use within our instruction, but could also easily factor into how a task is designed and approached.

Such ambiguity between the strategies employed during instruction and task perhaps travels some distance in explaining why there is limited literature on ‘task design’ specifically. Notwithstanding, the literature that does exist usually refers exclusively to the teaching of mathematics or languages.

Teaching and learning can be considered a linear process:

Instruction >>>>> task >>>>> assessment

However, as with any design process, the process is better thought of as ongoing and non-linear, as the triquetra below depicts:

Like any design process, tasks require an initial design (planning), a testing phase (classroom implementation) and a subsequent revision of the original design (re-planning: perhaps when that same lesson is next taught). While our initial designs are governed by our didactical inclinations, our revision of a task’s design is dictated by the success of its implementation, the learner’s interpretation of it and their approach towards it (these last two can also factor in the initial design). 

Why is task design important?

I believe the importance to, at least, be fourfold:

  1. Task design helps to facilitate the congruence between instruction, task and assessment as shown above in the triquetra.
  2. Without the careful deliberation into which task will be used and how it will be implemented, we run the risk of ineffective tasks and therefore unsuccessful learning opportunities.
  3. Considering the task design process during lesson or curriculum planning may facilitate better discussion between departments, year groups, schools in a trust etc. This, in turn, leads to more effective tasks.
  4. At its heart, task design encourages advocacy of the learner. It demands that we consider the learner’s perspective (e.g., of prior knowledge, how the learner may attempt the task itself, what the learner should or will think about during the task attempt etc).

The next blog in this task design series looks at the purpose of a task.

Is commenting on ‘pace’ useful observation feedback?

‘You need to improve upon the pace of your lessons.’

Feedback many of us will have received or delivered throughout our career. I heard it just today, in fact – in feedback to a trainee. Maybe, we notice it as observers because it is more readily apparent from the outside looking in?

Such feedback is perhaps less prevalent now than it once was, yet it pervades, nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong. Pacing is important – it can even to reduce misbehaviour, for example.

We can view pace from two sides of the same coin:

  • The speed at which students can travel through a sequence of activities
  • The speed at which a teacher takes students through that sequence

In observation feedback, it is almost exclusively referring to the latter.

Why is this an issue?

Well, some lessons require a slower pace, while others can be shorter. Reading a challenging text will require time to read it and soak it in, whereas explaining the difference between radius and diameter, perhaps not so much.

A pace too slow or too fast could have an adverse effect on the learner. Instead, then, we should think of ‘pace’ as knowing when to speed up and when to slow down. A small, but necessary distinction here, as using the word ‘pacing’ may be more beneficial than the word ‘pace’. The latter tends to imply going quicker, whereas the former refers to slowing down and speeding up.

Generally, giving the impression of good pace is useful. We want learners to remain engaged and moving through content at an appropriately quick speed can foster such engagement. From this perspective though, pacing should be about appearing to be quick, but ultimately moving at just the right pace for the students, rather than moving quickly for the sake of their attention.

At times, this will require us to abandon our independent task and to elaborate further on the input, because it was too challenging. In contrast, it may also require us to cut the input short and start the independent task early, because students have grasped the content quickly.

In pursuing greater pace, we often pick the same students to answer our questions – at the expense of those who are less likely to put their hand up. This may help the lesson move on, but it doesn’t allow us to check for the understanding of all (this was the subject of my recent blogs here and here).

What are we actually thinking about when we tell teachers to improve their pace?

Among many other things, I believe the principal thoughts are these:

  • that teachers should not focus on an individual area for any longer than is needed
  • that teachers are losing the attention of their students
  • that teachers are unnecessarily elaborating on content that is already well understood
  • that the speed at which the teacher transitions between different elements of the lesson may be too slow (e.g. between modelling and independent task)
  • that teachers do not have their resources or thinking prepared in a carefully sequenced manner

So, what should we say instead of, ‘You need to improve the pace of the lesson’?

  • Break content down into smaller, more manageable chunks
  • Maintain the attention of students by making them think they are moving at speed by using shorter activities
  • Check for understanding more regularly, so that you know when can and can’t move on
  • Make transitions explicit for students, so they know when they are moving on
  • Have all resources prepared ahead of the lesson and sequence them, so that each small chunk follows or builds on the previous chunk

How do we achieve instant feedback for all?

After writing my previous blog on the best method for checking understanding, I carried on thinking about how we can check for understanding effectively. We know we want to check all pupils during a lesson, but we realise that this can be a rather challenging task. At best, we get a cursory glance of everyone’s work, as we frantically scuttle around the room.

The solution? Enable pupils to check their own understanding through instant feedback. As a profession, we regularly commend ‘instant feedback’, because it can provide immediacy in correcting misunderstanding. So, how can we deliver instant feedback to all, if we can’t get round to every pupil during the lesson?

This blog was inspired in part by Peps McCrea’s researchED national talk on ‘Developing Expert Teaching’. Peps spoke of how playing darts provides you with instant feedback. He said, and I am paraphrasing loosely here, “If you aim for a bullseye and you miss, you know straight away that you have not hit the bullseye. You have instant feedback”. Know what failure looks like.

So, if we provide pupils with the general idea of what failure looks like, they can tell if they have gone wrong and therefore actively seek out teacher help sooner. Seems a far more economic and efficient way of getting to the children that need help, doesn’t it? Now, I admit this may not be possible in every lesson in every subject, but it can travel some distance in helping us occasionally.

What does this actually look like in the classroom?

Here is an example I have used in maths recently, while teaching long multiplication to a group of struggling year 6 children. In particular, they struggled with remembering to put a placeholder in the second row of multiplication. I would give them a question like 64 x 23 and I would say to them, “Your answer must end in a 2”. I wouldn’t tell them how I knew this, because I wanted them to think for themselves how I knew this to be the case without solving the question. Yet, with me telling them the parameters their answer must fall within, they had instant feedback when they got an answer wrong.

This was providing them with an idea of what failure looks like. If they don’t get an answer ending in 2, then they must have made a mistake. They could then put their hand up and seek out my help more quickly. You’ll notice that I was giving them just enough information to focus on what it was I was trying to teach them about: the placeholder. The learners were provided with something to check their understanding against – “I didn’t get an answer ending in 2. Why not? What have I missed? And why must it end in 2?”

Through telling students what failure looked like, it enabled them to focus more readily on how to avoid it.

Above: the answer to the question with the placeholder explicitly shown, so that students understand why the answer had to end with a 2. As the placeholder is 0, the answer will always end in the same amount of ones as the product of the two ones digits in the question multiplied together. In this case, 3 x 4 made 12, so the final answer must end in 2.

The #1 method for checking understanding

We know checking for understanding is an essential part of instruction and effective practice. Without it, we cannot accurately assess where pupils are now and where to go next. Understanding can falter easily when pupils have a lack of prior knowledge or fail to attend to the necessary information. While factors like these can be outside of our control, we can control when and how we check for understanding. We know the best teachers spend more time questioning and that they use a variety of methods for doing so: cold calling, probing deeper, getting pupils to emulate what has been shown and so on, but what is the best method for doing so?

I believe the best method for checking understanding is ‘getting it wrong’. What I mean by this is the teacher getting it intentionally wrong, presenting a contrasting example with what has just been taught. In maths, this is often referred to as a ‘non-example’.

Put simply, a non-example is something that is not an example of what has been taught, and therefore seeks to secure understanding through direct contrast. It is proof by contradiction. By saying what isn’t, we can say what is. Aristotle once intimated that, “A real definition will give you the necessary and sufficient conditions for an object to be an instance of the concept”. Without those conditions, we have a non-example.

Imagine children have just been taught what a square is. The teacher then presents the children with a picture of a triangle. “So, is this a square?” the teacher asks. The same could be done with democracy, photosynthesis, singing in harmony – as long as something has a definition or necessary conditions, this method can be used.

Presenting something that contrasts provokes the learner into thought: ‘Is this the same as what I have just been taught? Yes or no? If not, what makes it different?’

This cognitive conflict is something we should seek to embed within our instruction. It helps the learner to clarify their understanding and present it in a coherent manner – “This isn’t….. because……”. Pupils sometimes find it easier to define what something isn’t, rather than what something is.

Non-examples intentionally lack certain characteristics and this is what helps to clarify the boundaries for the learner.

So, ‘getting it wrong’ helps the learner to secure their understanding and it helps the teacher to ascertain what, and if, the learner has understood.

Why ‘Early Reading’ is problematic

The phrase ‘early reading’ encompasses an awful lot. We perhaps think of the phrase as strictly referring to children in either reception, year one or year two. However, in my experience, this is where the problem lies. ‘Early reading’ does not refer solely to those who are the youngest; it refers to anyone who is in the formative stages of their reading development, regardless of age.

Why is this problematic, you ask?

Well, without considering who is in the early stages of their reading journey, we end up with children in year 5 or 6 doing independent, silent reading with the rest of the class, when they cannot decode efficiently. This occurs simply because these children are deemed to be beyond the stage of ‘early reading’, because they are older than the age we normally attribute to early reading.

Some children need extra help from the start. Sufficient time must be given to ensuring these children undertake the school’s phonics programme. They will need extra practice. Without this necessary support, these children will go in to key stage two without being able to read in line with their peers. They fall by the wayside and the gap between them and their peers widens.

Consequently, these pupils travel through the key stage two curriculum being unable to read and therefore unable to access the curriculum (at least in part). They begin to dislike reading and see it as a chore, because they are being forced to look at something everyday that is unknown and insurmountable. They read less as a result and the gap continues to grow. I saw this countless times as a year 6 teacher. As I told my school leadership at the time, we had failed these children.

So, what is the solution?

These pupils need intensive 1:1 or small group interventions throughout EYFS, KS1 and throughout KS2, until they are confident enough to read alone. They absolutely must not be left to read independently with the rest of the class when they cannot access it. Treat these children as if they are in the stages of ‘early reading’. Give them the support they need and deserve. The same principle applies for those in KS3 or KS4 who struggle to read (e.g. a new pupil who has joined from another country).

For greater insight into how to achieve this, I highly recommend you buy ‘The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading’ by Christopher Such – be you a primary or secondary teacher.