Lesson planning? That’s teaching 101!

After all, it’s pretty hard to graduate to the classroom without knowing how to plan enriching lessons that allow students to learn effectively. So you would assume there is consensus on what makes a good lesson plan. And yet, there is considerable debate in the teaching world regarding how we plan our lessons. And it seems, at least for now, there are two behemoth contenders at the forefront of the competition for the best planning strategy: traditional vs. backward planning.

In some ways, it feels like a battle between the old guard and the new, with experienced teachers having been taught to plan “traditionally” and newer teachers being taught to explore backward planning instead. And there lies the million-dollar question. Is there a better way to teach our children that veers away from traditional lesson-planning techniques?

In this article, we will look at traditional and modern backward planning models and see which reigns supreme.

Education resources


What is traditional lesson planning?

Traditional planning in teaching is a method of lesson planning that typically involves organizing a lesson into a set of objectives and activities designed to lead students to meet those objectives.

It often involves identifying the content to be taught, developing learning objectives, sequencing it, and selecting activities and materials supporting student learning. Oftentimes, it will overlook the means of measurement and focus more on content.

Traditional planning helps teachers plan and organize lessons to ensure students are provided with the best possible learning experience from class to class.

What is backward planning?

Backward planning is an approach to teaching that has become increasingly popular in recent years. This approach focuses on setting a clear goal for the student at the beginning of the lesson or unit and then working backward to create the necessary steps to meet this goal. This approach has proven to be an effective way to plan lessons and units that are focused, relevant, and engaging for students.

When using backward planning, the teacher considers the desired outcome for the lesson or unit. This outcome should be clearly stated in measurable terms. Once the goal is established, the teacher works backward to develop the steps needed to reach that goal. This may include selecting content, assigning readings, designing activities and assessments, and creating timelines.

Some people may refer to this method as “teaching to the exam,” but it’s a bit more complex than that. It’s about ensuring each unit’s curriculum goals are met by understanding the best way to test understanding and working backward to ensure students have the skills and knowledge needed to do just that.

For example, suppose you’re planning an 8th-grade French module on directions and locations instead of choosing random activities surrounding the topic. In that case, you’ll set clear objectives for what students will achieve and how and work backward.

Imagine the curriculum says that at the end of this module, students should be able to:

  • Give directions to another person from one street to another
  • Explain where they go during the week
  • Understand and explain where buildings are about another

Firstly, you’ll want to decide how to measure that they can do this. Perhaps you’ll give a plain map with various shops and get your students to write down instructions from two designated locations on said map. You may also ask your students to prepare a short oral presentation on the locations they frequent during their week. Then you will work backward to create lesson plans that deal with the vocabulary and grammar needed to achieve the goals and objectives you have set out.

In a traditional plan, you might only get students to learn set phrases, like “Oú est la supermarche?” (where is the food shop?) and hope they can remember them.

In a backward planning model, you may teach your students the grammar rules to manipulate the vocabulary instead. This could be playing match games to learn location names, turning your classroom into a “town,” and having students direct each other using directions learned in French. You may also get your students to create a video diary of their route at the weekend.

By using the backward planning model, teachers can create learning experiences that are focused, organized, and relevant to the students.

Why are so many teachers making the switch to backward planning?

Traditional planning is excellent. It takes subject units and tries to create fun and engaging material around the topic. The problem is some of that content may be more about a teacher’s preferences than student enjoyment and learning.

For example, a science teacher may have an experiment they love showing their students for fun, but their students don’t find it engaging and get nothing from it. The teacher feels they are contributing to the learning, but their students are entirely switched off. And if watching this experiment will not help your students fulfill their learning objectives and they find it unengaging, it’s essentially dead time.

Backward planning is about optimizing learning time to ensure your students get the most out of every lesson. You see, students know when they’re learning something important and when they are just filling a checkbox activity to fill time. And if they feel their time is wasted, they will disengage very quickly.

Backward planning also helps teachers become more precise in their teaching methods. By understanding what your objectives are and how you will ensure your students have achieved them, teachers gain better clarity on the type of learning that will help their pursuit. For example, imagine you are a history teacher teaching about the moon landing with the objective of students understanding what, where, and how the event occurred.

Based on the topic alone, you could explore a variety of angles, such as:

  • What is the moon made of?
  • What would it feel like to be on the moon?
  • How did they film the landing?
  • How were the astronauts picked?

However, if you decide that your measurement of understanding is about explaining the NASA timeline and why America was the first to put a man on the moon, some of these points may be …pointless. Instead, you may focus on the history of NASA and the global space race and maybe even show them Hidden Figures for good measure to delve deeper into the politics of NASA around that time.

As such, backward planning will allow teachers to “cut the fluff,” keep students engaged, and ensure the intended learning takes place.

Try backward planning in your classroom

If you’ve fallen into trying to fill lessons surrounding a topic instead of teaching clear, measurable objectives, it’s time to start incorporating backward lesson planning into your lessons.

Start with just one class, one unit, and go from there. And if you’re having trouble finding where to start, many online teachers’ forums discuss best teaching practices, including how to plan backward. You’ll also find plenty of teaching resources online that will help give you backward planning inspiration.