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CPD, Outstanding Lessons, Redesigning Classrooms

Lesson Planning: Start At the End

Teaching is an unusual profession in so much as you need to be both the architect of the learning and its builder.  Architects start with a vision or concept of what a house or building should be whereas builders start with the foundations and build upwards from this solid ground. 

I started this set of blog posts with Lesson Planning: To Plan or Not to Plan looking at the need to planning learning flows and series of lessons rather than individual ones.  It is that theme I wish to build on here.

Lesson planning and lesson plans shouldn’t be confused.  The first is the learning design process the latter is the learning product that will be delivered in the classroom.  The two are clearly related but planning starts with the end point whereas plans end at the starting point.

Link between Planning & Teaching


I’m beginning to wonder whether we all too often design learning as builders, from the bottom up, rather than as architects.

Lesson Planning

Lesson planning needs to start with the big idea, the key concept or the major works that you want to expose your students to?  What would you consider as excellence from your students and how could they evidence this for you?

Whilst it is not possible to live life backwards there would be certain advantages in being able to look back from the end point of a journey before planning your route.  You can see the smoother paths, more reasonable terrain and also look to dodge as many pitfalls, cul-de-sacs and brick walls that will needlessly disrupt the journey with no positive impact or outcome for the traveller.

Planning a child’s education is potentially one of those times when you want to plan backwards.  Lesson planning should start with the end point and then determine the paths to be taken to reach it.  I’m wondering whether we actually do the opposite more often than not.

In seeking to develop students in your subject what would you expect her or him to know or be able to do and how would you seek to evidence this level of competence? 

So What’s In Your Curriculum?

If you are not clear about this then lessons are likely to be meandering wanderings to nowhere in particular and everywhere in general.  You simply don’t have time for these aimless journeys.  The potential content and habits of mind in every subject area are so vast there are hard choices to be made – these can be made either explicitly or haphazardly.  Starting with then end in mind is key to making good decisions about what should be in your subject’s curriculum, schemes of learning and ultimately your lesson plans.

In short, what is “the best that has been thought and said” (Matthew Arnold) in your particular subject or discipline that is worthy of passing onto the next generation.  Determining the cultural capital we wish to share with the next generation is always a challenge.  Cultural capital is not fixed and we all tend to have our own views on what constitutes the best.  It might be a bit of a challenge in Science of Mathematics but by the time you hit Art or Literature you could spend ages actually debating what the best is and never actually agree.

As the national curriculum becomes slimmed down, not available in your subject or no longer compulsory what would you identify as the core concepts, big ideas and best works that constitute your subject and would withstand the passage of time as well as the inevitable changes to the national curriculum or examination syllabi.

You cannot teach everything, so teach what is central and important not what is superfluous and peripheral.

The Big Ideas

The following is taken from the Principles and Big Ideas of Science Education edited by Wynne Harlen.  It identifies big ideas of science (though seems a bit light on Chemistry to me) and the big ideas about science.  Both are important – factual & conceptual knowledge pertinent to Science and the scientific way of thinking or habits of mind that scientists have.

Understanding the Big Ideas of a subject, planning from them and then teaching towards them is critical. 

Principles & Ideas of Science Education (2010). Edited by Wynne Harlen, Gosport: Ashford Colour Press Ltd

Principles & Ideas of Science Education (2010). Edited by Wynne Harlen, Gosport: Ashford Colour Press Ltd

Take number 4 as an example.

Many people complain that we are running out of energy and I’ve heard reporters on news programmes stating as much.  From a scientist’s point of view this type of comment breaks a fundamental law of Science, energy cannot be created or destroyed though it can change from one form to another.  This gives a different perspective to our current problems as we have enough energy, in fact as much as we have always had, it’s just not in a particularly useful form at the moment.  This reframes the issue from a scientist’s perspective.  Students’ knowledge about energy, energy changes and the energy we use in our daily lives needs to be leading them towards fundamentally understanding the law of conservation of energy.  If the components of this conceptual framework are the starting point of our planning and the end point of our teaching what are the bits in the middle?

What are the big ideas of and about your subject that students should learn?

A Planning Framework

I’m just playing around with a few ideas as a potential planning framework but I wonder what you think about the stages below?

Lesson Planning Header

The Best That Has ….

I’m going to take Particle Theory as my example as it is a key scientific concept which every student should know.

Defining Excellence ….

“Lingard (2007) and his team observed 1,000 classroom lessons and noted the low levels of intellectual demand, and there are many observational studies that highlight the overpowering presence of teachers talking and students sitting passively waiting … teachers must have the mind frame to foster intellectual demand, challenge, and learning, because these are the powerful predictors of interest, engagement, and higher level and conceptual thinking that make students want to reinvest in learning.”

Hattie (2012), Visible Learning for Teachers, p. 35

Please note the underlining above is mine.  This is all about challenging students and making sure they know what is expected of them.  It needs to sit at the beginning of the planning process so we ensure that we build excellence not mediocrity into our expectations of students.

For example, I would consider any Year 7 student who could explain the difference in properties between a solid, liquid and gas in terms of the size, proximity, movement and attraction between the particles in the three states of matter as a sign of excellence.  Even better if they could then hypothesise about why substances have different melting and boiling points.

Evidence ….

At this stage consideration needs to be given as to how students can evidence this excellence.  What is most appropriate in your subject and in this particular instance?  I often say to young teachers starting out “you have pictures in your head about your subject.  How will you help students develop these pictures in theirs?”

We have mental models and conceptual frameworks of how our own subjects actually work.  For this topic I would want students to evidence their learning through a series of annotated diagrams and written descriptions of the three states of matter.

Learning Structure ….

To structure the learning I would rely on the SOLO Taxonomy.  Whilst I’ve heard some people knocking the SOLO Taxonomy, on occasion, I’ve not yet heard anyone offer a better way of structuring the learning.

Produced by Pam Hook (@arti_choke) http://pamhook.com/wiki/The_Learning_Process

Produced by Pam Hook (@arti_choke) http://pamhook.com/wiki/The_Learning_Process

There are other taxonomies – use what you feel is best but an idiosyncratic “I think this” type of approach doesn’t often stand up to scrutiny or allow a structured discussion to take place with a colleague.

Learning Sequence (Learning Structure in brackets) ….

  1. List the three states of matter and the processes of changing state (Multistructural)
  2. Compare and contrast the physical properties of the three states of matter (Relational)
  3. Describe the size, proximity, movement of and relative attraction between the particles in the three states of matter (Multistructural)
  4. Explain the different physical properties of the three states of matter based on the size, proximity, movement of and relative attraction between the particles (Relational)
  5. Hypothesise about why substances have different melting and boiling points (Extended Abstract)

Simplistic Beauty

The beauty of planning schemes of learning in this way is that syllabi may come and go and so may the National Curriculum but the scheme of learning is still good Science and remains in place.  The learning is now planned, will be retained as the core learning expected by the teacher and the fun part of deciding a delivery strategy can begin.

I would suggest that one of the biggest reasons for poor lessons and a lack of progress is that the teacher hasn’t planned the learning and instead has planned activities.  The learning becomes haphazard, disconnected or missing even if the students are still looking busy.

If you start at the end, should you end at the start.  

Next week’s blog post with the anyway up lesson planning and lesson plan page?


Hattie, J (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. London: Routledge

Principles & Ideas of Science Education (2010). Edited by Wynne Harlen, Gosport: Ashford Colour Press Ltd

Robinson, M (2013) Trivium 21c Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past, Independent Thinking Press



18 thoughts on “Lesson Planning: Start At the End

  1. Nicely summarised with some key concepts I will take away. Thanks!

    Posted by careerschap | May 10, 2014, 8:30 am
  2. You state “one of the biggest reasons for poor lessons and a lack of progress is that the teacher hasn’t planned the learning and instead has planned activities” and I absolutely agree.

    I think I would extend this slightly further because the other fundamental problem I see my trainees make is to have clear learning objectives/outcomes (or whatever we’re calling them this week) with all activities focused on these but without a sense of gradual progression through the lesson. Taking your example, if the first activity was a starter where pupils had to match words like ‘condensing’, ‘boiling’, ‘melting’ to arrows going from one state to another (step 1), where some made errors which they corrected with help, then the next activity really needs to re-inforce this – maybe some cloze sentences – so they start to feel confident with the terms. And then maybe they need to do some matching of opposites (e.g. boiling, condensing). Only then will they be ready for the next bit of learning (step 2). If this isn’t done then pupils will keep getting confused by, in this case, the vocabulary, as the concepts get more difficult. Probably the move from step 3 to step 4 is an even better example. I recently watched a trainee describe the three states of matter in terms of particles very clearly, with some diagrams, and do a thumbs up to check understanding (all pupils put their thumbs up – which nicely demonstrated why this doesn’t tell you much) and then they gave the pupils ice, water, and boiled a kettle at the front and asked them to pick a physical property of each and link it to the particle model to explain the property – most pupils just got totally lost at this point because (a) they weren’t sure what a physical property was, and (b) they weren’t at all sure about the particle model. Lots of answers like “the ice melts because the particles are spreading out” which showed they were starting to get the idea of the particle model but were well short of applying it to explain physical properties. The trainee did their best to run around correcting but the pupils left the lesson very confused about the whole concept. You couldn’t say the activities weren’t focused on the LOs but the steps were too big, and this is about planning the progression through the lesson so that application doesn’t come before the basic idea is solid. Possibly this idea is coming in your next post but, like the ideas in this one it is about sequencing of learning, just on more of a micro-scale.

    I like the big ideas in science (I’ve seen those before but had forgotten about them) but Harlen hasn’t read the new KS3 NC and all the IoP / Robin Millar work on teaching energy! I’m old skool and still struggle with this new way of working but think No. 4 needs to say “energy can be transferred from one energy store to another”. I think SCORE or someone did some work on these big ideas recently, which did include the idea that all substances are made either of atoms or combinations of atoms, of which there are only about 100 different types (or something along those lines). That might be a bit of a Google mission to track down. I’m thinking maybe this should be on the wall of every science classroom in the country.

    Thanks, as always, for thought-provoking blogging.

    Posted by dodiscimus | May 10, 2014, 8:45 am
    • Agree with everything you say here. I also hate the thumbs up stuff. Your thinking around the sequencing of the learning is really important. Keep working with your trainees they will learn such a lot. Thanks for the time you took to add to the post. Comments are worthy of a post in their own right 😊

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | May 10, 2014, 8:56 am
  3. Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

    Posted by Tim Taylor | May 11, 2014, 8:34 am
  4. Interesting and thought provoking. For me the design of learning experiences is a teacher’s key task and it is a thing I spend much of my time doing.

    I will read the blog a few more times, but on my first read I will give my thoughts based upon my practice.

    I believe you are attempting to design a simple single sequential model for something that is naturally not so. I think your use of analogies is useful but somewhat misleading. Teachers in my mind are both teacher and architect, not one or the other. That is what makes teaching a tough job.

    I suspect but I may be wrong (I often am…hopefully in a Dweckish sort of a way) that the need to simplify the process into a sequential process is so that it can be easily communicated, measured and evaluated.

    I believe the builder and the architect are one and the same, however the builder is highly skilled in what he/she does but he/she does not require a broad or deep conceptual understanding of design. In effect I think the builder is the nursing auxilliary of the building world.

    I believe buidlers work from the ground up de to the effects of gravity. Once the roof is on they tend to work at either the top or the bottom, but the walls need to be there to hold up the roof.

    For me the planning process is mutli process and iterative. I see a need to decide what I want learners to learn and I agree with you that whether to teach a narrow range of knowledge / understanding deeply or a broad range shallowly. I also need to consider thath the learners will take away from the learning transactions whatever they as individuals take away. I use all students will know, all students must know, all students should know, all students could know.

    I think about pupils, resources, theory of learning and what I have found to work in the past. As I play with activities, the need for repetition for consolidation I continually reconsider the learning outcomes. As I find new resources I am able to change activities and timings etc.

    As the process proceeds I find learners more interested in some aspects which results in higher motivation levels and more efficient learning and so the plan changes (and can change as it is flexible).

    I do however also believe that a single approach to planning in all subject domanins is probably not possible, therefore I like you idea of a framework. However a framework is not a sequential process. Just as an apprentice builder will tend to use a flowchart and a trainee chef will use a recipe, so that beginning teacher may use a sort of a sequential process. I see this as the trainee teacher gathering the “must know” of the teaching profession. I see this as the start of the teacher’s 10,000 hours.

    In the US I believe there is a thriving industry in instructional design, much more so that here. For me this is the teaching equivalent of the architect / builder model. The more complex design stuff is removed from the day to day delivery stuff. This can perhaps be seen as either deskilling the teacher in order to minimise costs and improve efficiency, the end result is maybe the DIRECT INSTRUCTION model. Learning is simply a series of facts that can be taught by anyone, no need for a specialist most of the time, you just need the script. The designer has done the work. I this is an American (Pearsonian/Taylorian) view of the world.

    I prefer planning and delivery of learning to be More Dweckian. For me it needs to be serendipitous while focused therefore flexible within the framework, not a simple sequential process.

    The teacher needs to be both architect and builder. Unlike construction there are not simple aspects that can be implemented once design is done. The delivery and management of learning is as complex (if not mor complex) than the design.

    For me, alignment of planning, delivery and assessment is key. I love the SOLO taxonomy because it allows me to do just this. I also use the Anderson and Krathwohl model to align the three. For me these are the building regulations, the link between design and delivery, design and building, planning and teaching. I don’t necessarily see the SOLO taxonomy as sequential as is implied in the diagram. I see it as a multi stranded, interleaved spiral.

    Learning must be child centred and depending on the subject, topic and presage variables largely teacher led (but again flexible).

    I don’t agree with the Traditionalist vs Progressive split when applied to teachers in the classroom. However for me, a simple, structured and sequential process of teaching arising from a simple, sequential, structured process of planning is not what the architect and builder of learning does.

    We must plan in a professional and flexible way. I love the idea of summarising the body of subject knowledge (big ideas) in planning teaching as it helps teachers to check their understanding of the facts and links between them.

    I think overall what I am trying to say is that trying to represent the “framework” as simple, sequential process quickly devalues profession generally. The idea of identifying key concepts and planning activities that allow learners to consider concepts and develop links is for me what I do.

    Don’t try to make it seem simple.

    Teaching is simply very short run planning.

    Posted by bt0558 | May 11, 2014, 10:29 am
    • Thanks for this – epic comment, really appreciated.

      In no way am I suggesting that teaching or lesson planning is simple, the exact opposite. The whole architect/builder analogy was to reinforce the multiple complex roles that teachers have.

      Planning needs to be a simple sequential model focussed on the expected learning but the decisional capital developed over 10,000 hours (or so) is what makes for the effective implementation of this planning in the classroom. It is around a simple plan, focussed on the learning, that teachers can manage the complexity of the classroom.

      It’s not for “easy communication, measurement or evaluation” but for effectiveness I’m trying to get a process and framework in place, at least in my head. The teacher’s clarity around the expected learning and success criteria are crucial if successful learning is to take place – the pedagogy, as long as it is effective, is for the teacher to determine. Hopefully this is what builds in the flexibility alongside “following the learner”.

      Agree with so much of what you have said. Thanks again for the time you took to add the comment. Others will read it with interest.

      Posted by ExecutiveHT | May 11, 2014, 8:57 pm
    • Serious question- how long does it take to plan one of your lessons? Very interesting response to an excellent blog.
      My worry is if we don’t help make planning a little easier how can a teacher plan 23 lessons in a week (and evaluate and assess etc)? Enjoyed reading the blog and the many responses.

      Posted by mrbenney | May 12, 2014, 8:49 pm
      • The question is posed to bt0558. ( apologies for any confusion)

        Posted by mrbenney | May 12, 2014, 8:51 pm
      • Hi Damian,

        Our lessons are 100 minutes but the issue you raise still applies. The key is to plan the learning across multiple lessons but in a very structured way. This is a collaborative process that should happen at a departmental level. The teacher is then armed with the learning flow and plans around that. Without this learning flow lessons often go awry.

        Posted by ExecutiveHT | May 12, 2014, 8:52 pm
      • I couldn’t agree with the above more strongly. Collaboratively planning schemes of work is do important (and because of time constraints underused). It helps with consistency and sharing best practice too. Teachers can still then plan their “own” lessons from that point.

        Posted by mrbenney | May 12, 2014, 9:02 pm


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