Solving Lesson-Planning Challenges with Backwards Unit Design
(Originally titled “Writing a Master Plan”)
“Writing a Master Plan” by Laura Varlas in Education Update, April 2016
(Vol. 57, #4, p. 1, 4-5), http://bit.ly/1DD4hut for ASCD members; Varlas
is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this Education Update article, Laura Varlas addresses five challenges teachers face as they plan lessons:
– Getting through the curriculum is an imperative, but if that’s the
main focus, teachers may lose sight of deeper goals. In an English
class, says Understanding by Design author Grant Wiggins, planning
shouldn’t be about what book is being read but “how students are
different when they’re finished reading it.” UbD co-author Jay McTighe
agrees: “Just like a coach plans with the game in mind, teach individual
skills and knowledge with the performance in mind, not as ends in
• The fun trap –
Many teachers plan cool, engaging activities that don’t necessarily push
toward understanding. “Activity-oriented lessons can be fun in the
short run, but they’re cotton candy,” says McTighe. “They don’t have any
deep nourishment.” Wiggins: “It’s possible to build a model of a
working roller coaster but not learn any physics.” He likes to ask
- What are you doing?
- Why are you doing it?
- What’s it helping you learn?
key: deciding on lesson strategies after formulating learning outcomes
and how they’ll be assessed. Activities should be a series of steps
leading students to being able to perform the objective and explain what
• Information overload
– “The wealth of free online lesson planning resources can become
tempting distractions as teachers sit down to design learning,” says
Varlas. The same is true of digital planning software that links a unit
to standards and spits out 40 objectives. Teachers need to take a deep
breath and (ideally with colleagues) think through the content and what
students should learn, focusing on the new standards being taught.
• Educator egocentrism
– It’s important for teachers to step out of their own mastery of the
material and imagine how students will experience it – in particular,
what misconceptions they may have and what rough spots they’ll hit. This
means working through the material in advance and preparing
during-lesson questions that probe for deeper understanding – and then
responding nimbly to students’ partial answers and errors.
• Lesson plans
– Wiggins and McTighe believe the smallest unit of curriculum planning
should be the unit plan. “I’m not saying ‘stop planning,’” says
instructional coach Mike Fisher. “I’m saying, ‘stop planning for the
isolated moment.’” Varlas adds: “Moving away from the potential myopia
of daily plans requires schools to shift from isolated teacher planning
to collaborative, integrative teams. It also begs principals to question
the merit of requiring teachers to submit daily plans. Instead, look
for a coherent unit plan with rich, well-aligned assessment tasks built
into it.” McTighe sums up: “Don’t micromanage day-to-day teaching.
Manage results on things that matter.”