Planning Instruction Is Hard

21mapaPlanning instruction for any class, for any group of students, is hard. There are approximately a bazillion factors to consider, each requiring tremendous knowledge of your subject, your students, and yourself. How do we put these together into a cohesive, likely-to-get-them-to-the-destination plan?

I’m fortunate to work with a team of secondary teachers who think and talk about this stuff. We have spent a bunch of time looking at how to support our teachers in their planning and developed some tools (e.g. templates) for them to work from, whether the learning was face-to-face or online (or blended). That collaboration has really helped to refine and solidify my thinking about assessment and instruction, and so it’s starting to feel very natural to consider my own planning in the way I’ll outline below. It’s still not easy, though. Teaching is difficult; assessment is nuanced. It’s all very challenging, for everyone, although we can get good at it over time.

I didn’t come up with this stuff, and I don’t promise that it’s correct, useful, or research-based. It’s mostly just logical to me right now (until someone points out some flaws in my thinking, that is – please do!).

What Not To Do

Don’t just think of a “cool idea” and figure out how to bend your curriculum expectations to fit. Although you might have something that’s engaging, interesting, and even useful, does it really address the big ideas and goals for the course? Often when there’s a significant revision to the curriculum, or a new cohort of students in the class, people like to keep their “binders” of stuff that they’ve taught for a while. I’m not suggesting you throw everything away, but rather that you think through what you’re doing in a little different order, perhaps, to ensure you’re still on target.

Don’t stagnate; reflect.

What To Do

Identify Big Ideas

Start by digging out the curriculum document (not a textbook) and reading the description of the course and the overall expectations for each strand. What are the “big ideas” for the course? What do students really need to understand, especially years later? What’s the point?

You shouldn’t have tons of these; if you do, you’re probably being too specific. Forests and trees, I guess.

You might be looking at a couple of these big ideas in this instructional cycle, based on the overall expectations (see next paragraph)… which ones matter most right now?

Choose Curriculum Expectations

Which overall expectations are you trying to address? These are also the ones (and the only ones) you’re going to be assessing and evaluating later, so think pretty hard about this. From here, identify the key specific expectations that align with the overall expectations. Write all this stuff down.

Create Learning Goals

Take those expectations and break them up, making them accessible to students. Maybe you have one of those exceptionally long expectations, the kind that’s full of commas, the kind that has four sets of examples in parentheses because it’s so complicated. That’s manageable for us; that’s more or less impossible for students to navigate. Write things like “I will solve quadratic equations in any form” or “I will take pictures that show I understand the rule of thirds”. Give these goals to the students. You might need to dole them out as you go along; that depends on the course and how you wrote the goals.

It’s a great idea at this point to relate your learning goals to the categories of achievement (TACK – Thinking, Application, Communication, Knowledge for most subjects). The quadratics example above might be a Knowledge learning goal (using a procedure), while the photography one might be Application or Thinking. Sometimes they’re a little fuzzy, but working on this now will help later.

Think About The Learners

This is the part where the “binder” doesn’t help. Who are your students? What do they know? What can they do? What do they struggle with? What engages them? What disengages them? Write it down, and look at how each item might impact your approach with this cohort.

You’ll also need to figure out what skills and knowledge students need to have in place to be prepared to start the new learning. In the quadratics example, it’s no good to break out factoring and the quadratic equation if a bunch of students have very weak skills in manipulating equations. If you know this is an area they struggle in, you’ll have to “back up the plan” to start where they are, not where you might hope they would be when they come into your class. If they don’t have the prerequisite knowledge and skills, we need to help develop them. Here’s where you plan your diagnostic assessments, if necessary.

You have to do this before you plan the final task (next!) or the lessons. If you wait until your lessons are planned to think about the students you’re servicing, you’re not likely to meet their individual needs.

Describe The Summative Task

This is the part that took me a while to get my head around. I haven’t planned the lessons yet (at all!) and I need to figure out what the students will do at the end of the cycle to demonstrate their learning. The point is to define the destination: we have the big ideas and learning goals, and we’ll add in the nature of the performance. There are books about how to do this well, of course; a rich, authentic summative task that addresses a range of achievement chart categories while providing students multiple and varied opportunities to demonstrate their learning with creativity and innovation…. Okay, probably need another post to talk about this one. Anyway….

Outline the Success Criteria for the Summative Task

You know what the students will be doing to demonstrate their learning at the end of the cycle. What will that look like? How would you describe success to the students? These have to be connected to the learning goals and curriculum expectations, or else they’re not fair game for evaluating students. They need to know these criteria; they use success criteria to monitor their learning and make choices about what to work on. You should also be able to connect these criteria to the achievement chart; that’ll be helpful when you’re evaluating later, eh?

Success criteria are super-useful for assessment for learning (AfL) also – you can point to a criterion and explain to a student how they’ve met or not met it. Boom – instant individual learning goal. How sweet is that?

Plan the Lessons

Yup, now you can start figuring out what learning experiences (lessons) you’ll have the students engage in to prepare them for the summative task. If the task is the destination, the lessons make up the journey (and the route) to get there. Some students make take different paths from others, and they certainly begin in different places. The goal is to get them to perform to the best of their abilities on the summative task, demonstrating their learning. This part takes a long time, because you’ll need to carefully consider the needs of the students in front of you, and plan for them. You’ll need to ensure that you’re constantly monitoring the learning so that you can respond to the changing student needs. You’ll also need to build in explicit, structured opportunities for peer- and self-assessment for your students, so they can become self-directed, independent learners as well.

Look Back

Take a look over everything you’ve created. Does your summative task “match” the learning goals? Are the big ideas in line with the curriculum for the course? Do the lessons bring the students from their starting points? Is there variety, choice, collaboration? Will the students be able to read and understand the learning goals and success criteria?

Start Again

This is a cycle; you’ll have to do it again for the next chunk of learning. It’s pretty hard stuff, so you should probably work with someone else on it. Divide the labour, bounce ideas off each other, share your knowledge and experience, etc. We need to be intentional in our planning if we want our teaching to be effective. It’s tough, but it’s absolutely necessary and totally worth it.


I used to plan “units”. Now I plan “instructional cycles“. Same thing, maybe, but I like the new term better. I’m doing the same things in each cycle, and it’s pretty intentional.

Courses have “big ideas” – the important concepts, the enduring learnings, the things that make the content worth looking at…. the reason we bother with this stuff. Some (or all) of these are relevant in a particular instructional cycle.

Learning goals” are based on the curriculum expectations. They’re little snippets of the learning that takes place along the way, written in “student-friendly language”. They explain for students what they’ll know/understand/be able to do by the end of the cycle.

Success criteria” describe what success looks like. These are also written for students. (Side story: The other night my daughter told my wife and me that she wanted to write a letter to her favourite author, Ellen Miles. Before she got started, though, she asked my wife to give her some success criteria for writing letters. Cool, eh?)


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