2. Planning backwards from learning goals

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Chloe Wardle

Behind every good lesson is a really good plan. The better teachers know what they’re teaching before they step into the classroom, the more effective they can be. But identifying what to teach can feel daunting. So where should teachers start? A good approach to planning is to start at the end. Teachers need to identify ambitious learning goals for their pupils, and understand what they’re made up of. Planning backwards from ambitious learning goals can lead to success in school and beyond.

Presenter main

Teachers need to deliver a rich and carefully sequenced curriculum. In order to deliver a curriculum well, teachers need a detailed understanding of it. This will include a solid understanding of what the topic is, the best order in which to teach it and where pupils are likely to go wrong. Planning backwards is a technique that can help teachers to develop this knowledge. In particular, planning backwards helps teachers to know what they are teaching in depth.

Planning backwards begins with:

  1. Identifying learning goals and
  2. Unpicking learning goals to see what they are made up of.

There are several strategies that teachers can use to identify learning goals. Firstly, the unit of work that they’re teaching will often set out the most important content. So highlighting learning goals in a unit of work is a good place to start. Most school curricula are influenced by the national curriculum. Reading the relevant section of the national curriculum is another way to identify learning goals. Some units of work will include an end of unit assessment. Whilst this will not assess everything that the unit of work covers, it should assess a sample of the most important content. Completing the end of unit task can help teachers to identify learning goals because it gives them a concrete example of what success may look like at the end of the unit. Finally, teachers can draw on their own subject knowledge to identify learning goals for pupils. They can ask themselves, what do I know about this content? Or, what does a good example of this content look like?

The next key step in planning backwards is to unpick what the learning goals consist of. Learning goals needs to be broken down into specific content to make them more manageable for pupils. To do this, answering these two questions can help. What knowledge sits within this goal? What skills are required to achieve this goal? Unpicking learning goals gives teachers the detailed understanding that they need to teach. It’s best to do this thinking with someone else. It takes time to identify learning goals and unpick what they consist of. Also, things that appear easy to do can often be tricky to teach. A teacher may be brilliant at writing a persuasive essay but not be able to identify what makes it so good, at least not yet. We all know how to tell the time from an analogue clock but working out what knowledge this draws on and why pupils often go wrong is really hard. Instead of doing this on your own, work with someone who knows the subject, and knows how to teach it.

Once teachers have identified learning goals and unpicked them, they can use this knowledge to make decisions about what content to prioritize, the best order in which to teach it and the best way to share it. Teachers need to break learning goals down so that they can piece this content back together in a way that will make sense for their pupils.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you’re going to watch part of a coaching session with an early career teacher. The aim of the coaching session is to identify the learning goals of the following year three topic: rainforests. As you watch pay particular attention to how the coach and the teacher do the following:

  • Identify the essential concepts, knowledge and skills

Exemplification: Sarah Cottingham and Paula Delaney

COACH (SARAH COTTINGHAM): So by the end of this unit on rain orests, what do we want our pupils to know and be able to do?

ECT (PAULA DELANEY): Here is the list of knowledge that I identified from looking at the scheme of work.


  • To know what rainforests are
  • To know what an ecosystem is
  • To know what the equator is and that it is warmer because it is closer to the sun
  • To know that a continent is a mass of land
  • To know that South America is a continent and that it is surrounded by the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean
  • To know what deforestation is and what impact it has

COACH: Great, this is all important content specifically mentioned in the scheme of work. Let’s see if we can break it down further. So it’d be good to do this with some of the items on your list of knowledge. So we can be more specific. If you’re more specific in your thinking now, you’ll save a lot of time later when you use this content in your lessons. For example, instead of “to know what rain forests are”, it would be better to say “to know that rain forests are ecosystems filled with mostly evergreen trees, and typically receive high amounts of rainfall.” And then go further and say that rainforests are made up of a canopy layer, the understory and the forest floor. You need to change those ‘know what’ statements to ‘know that’ statements. So as part of my planning for the unit, I did some of this thinking, by completing the end of unit assessment and coming up with a list of knowledge and skills, which I think it’d be really helpful for you to see. Let’s have a look:


  • To know that a continent is an area of the world that contains different countries.
  • To know that there are seven different continents: Africa, Antartica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America.
  • To know that rainforests lie between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn (invisible lines).
  • To know that rainforests are found near the equator with high average temperatures and humidity
  • To know that around two-thirds of the world’s species live in rainforests.
  • To know that rainforests are home to thousands of different animal species.
  • To know that birds mainly live in the emergent layer of rainforests.
  • To know that larger mammals live on the forest floor.
  • To know that some arboreal mammals live in trees, like monkeys and sloths.
  • To know that deforestation is when a wide area of trees is cleared for non-forest use.
  • To know that it is estimated that an area of rainforest the size of a football pitch is cut down every single second.
  • To know that rainforests play an important role in absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.


  • To be able to use compass points to locate a place on a map.

COACH: Are any of these statements ones we think pupils will already have? Let’s put a star next to the ones where we think pupils will have relevant prior knowledge.

ECT: So to know that a continent is an area of the world that contains different countries, to know that there are seven different continents, and to be able to use compass points to locate a place in the map.

COACH: How do we know that pupils will know what a continent is?

 ECT: Well, I know what pupils were told what a continent is in year two in the topic our amazing world, and I’ve looked at some of my class assessments from this topic, and majority include the correct definition of continent. I’ll also make sure that I recall this knowledge at the start of the unit, and at key points throughout to make sure that it’s really secure.

 COACH: Great. Let’s think now about the key misconceptions. So where do you think pupils might typically go wrong?

 ECT: I think that they might get confused about why it rains in a hot place.

COACH: Yes, that’s definitely a misconception. They associate heat with the sun not the rain. We’ll need to correct it because it will get in the way of them understanding about rainforests, and the process of precipitation, which they learn next year when they study the water cycle. Another misconception that pupils hold is thinking that trees in the rainforest are a similar height to tall trees that they have come across, like an oak tree. They find it really hard to understand the difference in scale, but again, this needs correcting. If it isn’t they’ll find it hard to understand why such a large range of animals can live in the rainforests together. They wonder why jaguars roam around the forest floor and don’t eat monkeys who live in the canopy. They won’t understand that they’re such a huge distance apart. We’ve done some really detailed thinking here. You’ll be able to use this when you’re preparing individual lessons and when you’re delivering the lessons themselves. The next step is to think about how we sequence this content, what pupils will need to know at the beginning so that they can build on it throughout the unit.

Presenter exemplification analysis

In this example, the coach and the early career teacher focused primarily on identifying the essential concepts, knowledge and skills that pupils need to learn about rainforests. They drew on a range of sources to identify this content: the school’s units of work, a completed end of unit task and their own subject knowledge. They broke big statements into detail, changing big ‘know what’ statements into smaller ‘know that’ statements. And then they considered their list from the pupils’ point of view, asking themselves which of the content pupils already knew, and what common misconceptions they would be likely to hold.

They didn’t think about the best order to teach it in yet. Just like identifying the learning content of the lesson in detail before you plot out the activities, it is really important to identify the learning content of a unit of work, before you decide the order in which to teach it. That comes next.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we have explored why it is important to plan backwards from end goals and given some practical strategies that you can use during your own planning. Before we finish, take a moment to read over the key ideas. Which of these ideas do you think that the example illustrates the best?

  • Identify possible misconceptions and plan how to prevent these forming
  • Be aware of common misconceptions
  • Discuss with experienced colleagues how to help pupils master important concepts

Presenter summary

Getting to know your curriculum and what you want pupils to learn takes time, and it’s an ongoing process. But this is an essential part of what teachers do. The better that teachers understand the learning goals of their unit, the more likely they will be to ensure that pupils achieve them.

Download this module (PDF)

Teaching challenge

Ms Andrews is increasingly confident in managing behaviour and motivating students to participate in lessons. This gives her more time to think about lessons. She wants to ensure she is making the best use of the limited time she has with pupils: how can her planning best ensure pupils learn?

Key idea

Effective teaching is planned backwards, breaking down and communicating ambitious learning goals set out in the curriculum.

Evidence summary

Basing learning on the curriculum

Ms Andrews’ planning begins with the curriculum. The curriculum sets out the learning to which all pupils are entitled (Wiliam, 2016). It determines the ideas pupils should encounter and the knowledge and skills they should acquire (Wiliam, 2018). This guides teachers to teach the most important knowledge, skills and values effectively. For example, a carefully designed maths curriculum (alongside effective teaching methods) appears to increase pupil learning (Jerrim & Vignoles, 2016).

Most schools base their curriculum on the national curriculum, with adaptations to suit pupils’ needs and the school’s vision. Individual teachers are not responsible for setting the curriculum: what they do, which no curriculum designer can do, is make the curriculum comprehensible. They do this by connecting what pupils are to learn with their existing knowledge and experience (Young et al, 2014). Ms Andrews’ success relies on secure knowledge of the curriculum and her pupils in order to motivate and teach them effectively.

What teachers need to know about what they teach

A challenge intrinsic to teaching is making complicated ideas in the curriculum comprehensible to pupils (Kennedy, 2015). In doing this, Ms Andrews must balance making ideas simple enough to understand, whilst remaining meaningful, and true to the curriculum. Ms Andrews’ skill in doing this rests on her developing understanding of the knowledge, skills and values she teaches. As well as being guided by the school curriculum, she can use colleagues and shared resources to build this knowledge. When she does so, to translate curriculum goals into effective learning experiences, Ms Andrews needs to know:

  • The topic: What a non-specialist, but well-informed adult might know about it.
  • Ways to introduce and sequence ideas: In what order to introduce key ideas, and how best to explain them.
  • Where pupils will struggle and what they might get wrong: Allowing her to anticipate and overcome pupils’ misunderstandings.
  • Potential links: How the current topic connects to past and future topics (Ball, Thames & Phelps, 2008).

Ms Andrews needs more than a knowledge of the topic: she needs to know how students learn it and how to make it comprehensible to them.

Breaking learning down

This knowledge — of curricular goals and how pupils learn them – allows Ms Andrews to plan lessons which work towards her goals in logical, carefully-pitched steps. Ms Andrews is aware of the need to break complicated ideas down to make them comprehensible: she designs tasks so that they do not provide too much new or complicated information at once.

However, she recognises a broader point about breaking learning down when she plans lessons which work towards learning goals. Rather than designing isolated tasks and fitting them into a lesson, she seeks to link tasks to form a sequence of meaningful steps towards learning goals across multiple lessons. To succeed she needs to make explicit links to what has been previously studied and learned as she goes. For example, when she introduces a new idea with concrete examples and highlights the underlying principles and offers practice, each activity is a step towards achieving the learning goal, building on previous study.

This approach allows her to organise her lessons around a narrative structure of steps towards understanding and achieving a learning goal: this approach is both more comprehensible and more memorable for pupils (Willingham, 2009, pp.66-9).

Nuances and caveats 

While schools establish what they will teach informed by the National Curriculum, teachers are always doing curricular thinking, as they find new and better ways to teach the school’s curriculum. Their thinking then informs future revisions of the curriculum. Gaining this knowledge of how pupils learn a subject takes time. A new teacher would not be expected to achieve this depth immediately: the usefulness of these categories is in knowing what to think about in planning, and what to ask colleagues. High-quality curricular resources may also embody these forms of knowledge, for example textbooks or colleagues’ shared resources aligned to the school curriculum.

Key takeaways

Ms Andrews can begin to make a difference to pupils by:

  • Planning backwards from specific, ambitious goals for knowledge, skills and values: the learning goals set out in the curriculum.
  • Using her knowledge of the subject and topic and how pupils learn it to break big goals into smaller, more manageable ones and to sequence these goals.
  • Organising the lesson into a sequence of meaningful steps towards her learning.

Further reading 

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching: Review of the underpinning research. Durham University.


Ball, D. L., Thames, M. H., & Phelps, G. (2008). Content knowledge for teachers: What makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education.

Jerrim, J., & Vignoles, A. (2016). The link between East Asian “mastery” teaching methods and English children’s mathematics skills. Economics of Education Review, 50, 29-44.

Kennedy, M. (2015). Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 67(1), 6-17.

Wiliam, D. (2016). Leadership for Teacher Learning: Creating a Culture Where All Teachers Improve So That All Students Succeed. Learning Sciences International.

Wiliam, D. (2018). Creating the schools our children need: Why what we’re doing right now won’t help much and what we can do instead. Learning Sciences International.

Willingham, D. T. (2009) Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Young, M., Lambert, D., Roberts, C. & Roberts, M. (2014). Knowledge and the Future School: curriculum and social justice. London: Bloomsbury.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

Take the quiz


Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Andrews can begin to make a difference to pupils by:

  • Planning backwards from specific, ambitious goals for knowledge, skills and values: the learning goals set out in the curriculum.
  • Using her knowledge of the subject and topic and how pupils learn it to break big goals into smaller, more manageable ones and to sequence these goals.
  • Organising the lesson into a sequence of meaningful steps towards her learning.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?