Written by Lynne West, Founder Sunodia Educational Consulting and Former Teacher

As a new teacher, I struggled to hone in on what I really wanted my students to take away from each class. My textbook was long, detailed, and completely overwhelming. Luckily, I had excellent experienced colleagues to offer me guidance. I am grateful for a colleague who suggested to me that if I did not know what the student takeaways of a lesson were, there was little hope that the students did. This thought has stuck with me ever since and has guided both my curriculum planning and my implementation of the plan.

Backward Planning for Teacher and Student Clarity

The idea of determining the destination before beginning to teach is deceptively simple. It makes so much sense to start with the end in mind, but the end is not always where we find ourselves starting. Backward planning involves work in three major areas:

  • Bringing the desired goals into clear focus
  • Designing assessments aligned to these goals
  • Planning the learning experiences that will ensure that students achieve the goals

The backward planning process takes time and practice to internalize but it is really worth the investment. The focus and clarity that result from the backward planning process is of great benefit to both the teacher and the students. When teachers have clarity on the goals, they can better articulate the destination to students, and the benefits of the students’ knowledge of the goals of a unit or lesson are many: increased interest, a sense of purpose, and the ability to articulate the target.

What Is a Learning Map and Why Are They Helpful?

According to Jim Knight a learning map is “a graphic organizer that highlights the knowledge, skills, and big ideas that students should get from a lesson, unit, or course.” Learning maps are helpful for a variety of reasons:

  • They keep students and teachers focused on what is important
  • They offer a zoomed-out view of the unit
  • They show the relationship between components of a unit
  • They function as review guides and study tools

A teacher shares her process for involving students in instructional planning through an inductive teaching model >>

Creating a Learning Map in Three Steps

A teacher who has used the backward planning process for an instructional unit has already brought the knowledge, skills, and big ideas of a unit to the forefront, which makes the creation of a learning map a smooth integration into the third step of the planning process.

Step 1 – Write down all the discrete knowledge, skills, and big ideas for a unit. I like to do this using a single post-it note for each item.

Step 2 – Organize the notes into clusters of knowledge, skills, and big ideas that make sense to teach together or in sequence. Consider what should come first and then arrange the clusters in the sequence that flows for most effective learning.

Step 3 – Articulate the connections between the various elements using labels. Jim Knight’s book has a helpful list of suggested labels.

At the conclusion of this process, the teacher has a map of all the important knowledge, skills, and big ideas that students will achieve as a result of the unit. This map serves as the ending map, but it is also helpful to create a scaled down or basic version that contains only the major ideas and subtopics.

Using a Learning Map to Guide Instruction

Teachers can integrate a learning map into their practice in many different ways. They are effective visuals to introduce an instructional unit. Learning maps are particularly powerful tools for guiding day-to-day instruction.

By projecting a partially completed learning map as part of the opening routine, a teacher has the opportunity to review prior learning with the class and set the stage for what will be addressed in the current class. Similarly, having students add the day’s learning to their personal learning maps and then asking them to share out their takeaways offers an excellent wrap-up activity at the conclusion of the lesson.

A well-designed learning map has the ability to guide instruction by providing students with a clear visual of what they have learned and where there are gaps.

The use of learning maps and backward planning are inherently complementary. The two make a powerful team to provide context, promote inquiry and guide instruction.

Next, learn how to involve students in instructional planning. 

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Lynne West

Lynne West

Founder of Sunodia Educational Consulting

After spending 17 years both teaching and leading teachers in K-12 schools in San Jose, California, Lynne West founded Sunodia Educational Consulting to share her passion for teaching with her fellow educators. As a teacher, she used her foundation in backward curricular planning and cooperative learning to design creative and engaging lessons for her students. She brings the same enthusiasm to her work with educators to provide individualized professional development and instructional coaching.

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