How teachers plan – This is one of the more interesting ‘black boxes’ in education. There are few studies of it, yet it is clearly one of the most vital elements of the enterprise.
Winging it is sometimes fun, but it’s a bad way to run a family, a business, or a classroom.
Marzano reports that a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” is the key factor in academic achievement in schools, regardless of how flexible plans have to be. As General Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
How do you plan? I invite readers to respond to this question with as much detail as they can provide. i also encourage school leaders to ask staff to participate in a survey of the question since it would make for helpful information and a lively staff meeting discussion. Here are some of the questions that I think we need better answers to:

  1. Do you plan each day? Weekly? By the unit?
  2. How often do you adjust your future plans based on formative results?
  3. How often is a textbook the source of the plan? What % of the time do you use the textbook as the source of your plan?
  4. How free are you to plan your own course/units/lessons?
  5. How often is district curriculum and/or course map referenced in your own planning?
  6. How detailed are your plans?
  7. How do you think, ideally, you should plan for optimal preparation and good results?
  8. What’s the role of templates and checklists in your planning?
  9. How much of the planning process should be mandated or at least recommended vs. left up to the individual teacher?

These are surprisingly difficult questions to answer, especially once you spend years looking at how people do (and don’t) plan, as we have via Understanding by Design.
A reader tipped me off to this instructive post on the topic by a math teacher.
Typical plans. Typical plans focus too much on fragmented day-to-day lessons and activities on discrete topics instead of deriving coherent plans ‘backward’ from long-term performance, leading to excessive ‘coverage’; many plans focus far too much on what the teacher and students will be doing instead of mapping out a plan for causing specific results; a surprising number of plans do not make student engagement a central design consideration; many plans have no Plan B ready when Plan A doesn’t work. And most teachers still do not plan mindful of key student transfer deficits, misconceptions, and predictable rough spots related to student diversity.
It was for all these reasons and more that Jay McTighe and I wrote Understanding by Design 14 years ago. We clearly struck a chord. The book is in its 2nd edition, over a million copies have been sold and used in countries all over the world, and over 150 schools of education use the book to train teachers in unit writing. Over the years, countless people have thanked us for helping them become more thoughtful and disciplined in their planning.
Do not fixate on a template and make it a rigid unhelpful tool. Never did Jay and I intend for our template to be a mandatory act of pointless drudgery, a required piece of busywork required by thoughtless supervisors. Never did Jay and I intend people to fixate on filling in boxes. Never did Jay and I advocate using the UbD Unit Template as a lesson planner. Indeed, in our latest books on unit planning we stress this point in an entire module. You can download an excerpt here:  Mod O – on lesson plans (excerpt).
Rather, as with any tool, we hoped that people would use our template as a helpful aid, as a mental check. The idea of a good checklist is what’s key.  Atul Gawande has written extensively on how the “pre-flight” checklist in medicine, modeled on the one used in every airplane cockpit, has saved lives. Here is an article on its power to save lives.
An instructional planning template can save intellectual lives. By having to think of the big ideas; by focusing on transfer as a goal; by worrying about whether goals and assessments align, the Template keeps key design questions front and center that tend to get lost in typical planning, where teachers too easily think about content to be covered instead of minds to be engaged.
Years ago, in working with college professors as part of Lee Shulman’s Scholarship of Teaching program, a History Professor from Notre Dame said: I can’t use a template. It’s so, so, so – schoolish! I replied: Do you like the planning questions in the boxes? Yes, he said. Then, ignore the template and consider the questions, I said. Oh, he said, I can do THAT. Precisely.
Here are the current template elements framed as questions, for idea-generation and double-checking one’s draft plan:

  • What content standards and program- or mission-related goal(s) will this unit address?
  • What kinds of long-term, independent accomplishments are desired (transfer goals)?
  • What thought-provoking questions will foster inquiry, meaning-making, and transfer?
  • What specifically do you want students to understand? What important ideas do you want them to grasp? What inferences should they make? What misconceptions are predictable and will need overcoming?
  • What facts and basic concepts should students know and be able to recall?
  • What discrete skills and processes should be able to use?
  • What criteria will be used in each assessment to evaluate attainment of the desired results?
  • What assessments will provide valid evidence of transfer and understanding (and other Stage 1 goals)?
  • What other evidence will you collect to determine whether Stage 1 goals were achieved?
  • Are all three types of goals (acquisition, meaning, and transfer) addressed in the learning plan?
  • How will you pre-assess and formatively assess? How will you adjust, if needed (as suggested by feedback)?
  • Does the learning plan reflect principles of learning and best practices?
  • Have you considered how to fully engage everyone and hold their interest throughout?
  • Is there tight alignment across all three stages?

We have hardly treated our own Template as a sacred untouchable icon. We have changed it 4 different times over the past 14 years, and we have provided examples in which various features of the Template were highlighted or left out. In short, we had zero intent of putting teachers in a mental and physical planning straitjacket. Alas, some mandate-minded and unimaginative supervisors are still fitting all their teachers for one.
So, I am not unhappy that Chicago schools recently decided to stop mandating a template for planning. The use of planning tools should involve some freedom, based not only on personal planning style and preferences but track record as a teacher-planner. On the other hand, allowing teachers to plan any old way just doesn’t work out well. The middle ground is to ensure that key design questions are considered in any specific planner.
In retrospect, though, I think a mistake we made was to present one template instead of two or three. That would have perhaps better made the point that, while there needs to be a protocol and checklist to ensure that easily-overlooked elements are considered, there are none the less different yet acceptable ways of accomplishing this.
In that spirit, I offer today variations on our current Template, and hundreds of unit and lesson templates, found in a quick Google search.
Happy Planning!
Draft Templates Nov 2012.v2
UbD Brief Prompted Template 2011-12


11 Responses

  1. As our district moves to an electronic version to house unit and daily plans that will lead to the curriculum mapping process occurring as close to the delivery of instruction as possible, what I find is the dicotomy of what I believe is best practice, as you have outlined here, and the proverbial compliance question of “When are we required to have all this in the template?” – I hold my breath, count to 10, exhale, and remind the person that it’s the THINKING and COLLABORATION about what the desired results are, what concepts, standards, relationships, skills, etc. are we aiming for, how will we know when students arrive, and then think about the best learning experiences and instructional strategies to use.
    We are shifting our thinking from ‘me teaching’ to ‘students learning’, but it is quite a 2-step dance getting there!

    • Indeed it is! Welcome to my world! I think the work we have done over the past 15 years has made a difference. i think people now ‘get’ that you design backward from outcomes not topics; I think that people now get that the designer anticipates the attempts to learn not just the teaching. But it is a difficult challenge, for sure – I am still amazed at the number of teachers who do not plan for the predictable rough spots…

  2. This situation is compounded by the use of online planning systems (ie. Rubicon Atlas) which have the purpose of allowing educators to share their practice, possibly with educators who will take over their course in future years. It seems to me that this is another system backwards designed from “good” rather than from “great.”
    If you find a group of “great” educators, it would be an interesting thing to find out how they conduct their day to day practice, and see if that makes no sense as a scalable system, or if it would be sustainable.
    This article an interesting difference between average and excellent violin players, although I think it goes too far when it draws conclusions about how average violin players can become excellent violin players:
    Simply taking on the actions of a great educator won’t make you one; you also need to be in their mindset and understand why they’ve chosen to privilege some tasks they do over others. It may be that some people are great at what they do because they view the work they do much differently than other people do, and one wonders if you can teach this type of mindset or if it just has to be discovered. I can talk until I’m blue in the face about how I think mathematics should be taught, but until people are in the right mindset themselves and have set aside their pre-conceived notions of what mathematics is, I don’t think they will change their practice significantly.

    • Right you are. I have seen hundreds of maps in Rubicon. Most of them are useless and lead to significant teacher pushback (with good reason) because the mapping categories end up solidifying a coverage mentality, and the teachers have to do a lot of annoying data entry. The limited value of mapping as it plays out in schools is another issue for another day…

  3. You don’t touch on the idea of planning to meet the needs of diverse learners. Universal Design for Learning is based on the premise that meeting the needs of a range of learners through flexible and multiple means of engagement, representation, and expression must be done from the start–and not just after kids have not gotten it. I would suggest that you consider adding a questions such as “Are there flexible and mulitple options for presentation of information to students?’ and “Do my assessments provide choice and flexible means of evaluating student proficiency?”

    • Actually, I did reference the need to consider diversity. And we have long collaborated with Carol Tomlinson to infuse DI in UbD. I think UDL is another fine framework for so thinking.

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