The post below is a greatly revised version of a 2-year-old post. I thought it worth doing in light of a recent comment to the previous post on the teacher job description. Here is the comment:

For myself, I haven’t ever been a slave to a textbook, and go through the process you describe every time I get a new course, constantly revisiting as I move through the year. I always find that I still go too fast the first year, then slow it way back the second, and then pull in subjects slowly as I get better at designing the course. I encourage all other teachers to do the same. My coworkers are always taken aback when they ask me what chapter I’m on and I say, I don’t do chapters.

The commenter was responding to this section of my post:

Once the goals are clear, intelligent decisions about the textbook can be made:

• Which chapters in the textbook are central to my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?

• Which chapters are not vital, relating only somewhat to my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?

• Which chapters can be skipped since they are irrelevant to my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?

• What must I do to supplement the text in order to achieve my goals, course goals, Mission, and standards?

Just how common is this? I’d like to know. More generally, I would like to know – and I think we all need to know more – about how people plan, whether or not they use a textbook.

Winging it is sometimes fun, but it’s a bad way to run a railroad or a class. Marzano reports that a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” is the key factor in academic achievement in schools, regardless of how flexible plans have to be. As General Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” And almost all teachers have “planning time” even if planning gets short shrift in the face of kid needs or team discussions.

Oddly enough, this important subject is remarkably little studied. After an exhaustive Google search and an email exchange with one of the few people to study it at length in the 70s and 80s, I learned that it is a rare topic of research, with most of the better research done 20+ years ago which is surely not germane in the era of standards and accountability. (All the interesting citations and sources I could find and obtain from him are listed at the end of the post.) How people plan is surely one of the more interesting ‘black boxes’ in education, then. It’s almost like inquiring about our (intellectual) private life.  There are few studies of what teachers actually do, moment by moment, as they plan. Yet it is clearly one of the most vital elements of the educational enterprise.

Yesterday as part of a workshop in a HS district in NJ I asked the question about textbook use, and asked the assembled people – a mix of teachers and supervisors – to put a % on how much of planning was taken from the textbooks. The answer was 80% – 90%. As for other current info. on planning, a reader tipped me off to this instructive post on the topic by a math teacher. The comments from math teachers are rich – a hint of what we might learn from a more formal study.

But I would like to get more accurate data. To that end, I am going to develop an online survey and ask readers to answer it and ask others to do so as well. (I’ll have the survey link for you in the next post).

So, how do you plan?  Here are some of the questions that I think we need better answers to:

  1. Do you plan each day? Weekly? By the unit?
  2. How often do you adjust your future plans based on formative results?
  3. How often is a textbook the source of the plan? What % of the plan is directly from a textbook?
  4. How free are you to plan your own course/units/lessons?
  5. How often is district curriculum and/or course map referenced in your own planning?
  6. How detailed are your plans?
  7. What’s the role of templates and checklists in your planning?
  8. How do you think, ideally, you should plan for optimal preparation and good results?
  9. How much of the planning process, ideally, should be mandated or at least recommended?

Typical plans focus too much on fragmented day-to-day lessons and activities on discrete topics instead of deriving coherent plans ‘backward’ from long-term performance. The result is the beast called “coverage”. More subtly, many plans focus far too much on what the teacher and students will be doing instead of mapping out a plan for causing specific results and changes in ability, attitude, and behavior.  A surprising number of plans do not make student engagement a central design consideration. And most plans do not explicitly design in a plan B many plans have no Plan B when Plan A doesn’t work. And even larger number do not plan mindful of predictable misconceptions and rough spots.

The value of a template – with cautions. It was for these reasons and more that Jay McTighe and I wrote Understanding by Design 14 years ago. We clearly struck a chord. The book is in its 2nd edition, over a million copies have been sold and used in countries all over the world, and over 150 schools of education use the book to train teachers in unit writing. Over the years, countless people have thanked us for helping them become more thoughtful and disciplined in their planning.


Never did Jay and I intend for our template to be a mandatory act of pointless drudgery, a required piece of busywork required by thoughtless supervisors. Never did Jay and I intend people to fixate on filling in boxes. Never did Jay and I advocate using the UbD Unit Template as a lesson planner. Indeed, in our latest books on unit planning we stress this point in an entire module. You can download an excerpt here:  Mod O – on lesson plans (excerpt).

We have hardly treated our own Template as a sacred untouchable icon. We have changed it 4 different times over the past 14 years, and we have provided examples in which various features of the Template were highlighted or left out. In short, we had zero intent of putting teachers in a planning straitjacket. Alas, some mandate-minded supervisors are currently fitting all their teachers for one.

Rather, as with any tool, the template is meant to be a helpful aid, a mental check. The idea of a good checklist is what’s key.  Atul Gawande has written extensively on how the “pre-flight” checklist in medicine, modeled on the one used in every airplane cockpit, has saved lives. Here is an article on its power to save lives.

An instructional planning template can save intellectual lives, we think. By having to think of the big ideas; by focusing on transfer as a goal; by worrying about whether goals and assessments align, by being asked to predict misconceptions and rough spots in the learning, the Template keeps key design questions front and center that tend to get lost in typical planning, where teachers too easily think about content to be covered.

Years ago, in working with college professors as part of Lee Shulman’s Scholarship of Teaching program, a History Professor from Notre Dame said: I can’t use a template. It’s so, so, so – schoolish! I replied: Do you like the planning questions in the boxes? Yes, he said. Then, ignore the template and consider the questions, I said. Oh, he said, I can do THAT.


Planning questions. Here are the current UbD template elements framed as questions, for idea-generation and double-checking one’s draft plan:

  • Bottom line, what should learners be able to do with the content?
  • What content standards and program- or mission-related goal(s) will this unit address?
  • What thought-provoking questions will foster inquiry, meaning-making, and transfer?
  • What specifically do you want students to understand? What inferences should they make? What misconceptions are predictable and will need overcoming?
  • What facts and basic concepts should students know and be able to recall and use long-term?
  • What discrete skills and processes should they be able to use, with good judgment and on their own?
  • What criteria will be used in each assessment to evaluate attainment of the desired results?
  • What assessments will provide valid evidence of the goals?
  • What other evidence will you collect to determine whether goals were achieved?
  • How will you pre-assess and formatively assess? How will you adjust, if needed (as suggested by feedback)?
  • Does the learning plan reflect principles of learning and best practices?
  • How will you fully engage everyone and hold their interest throughout the unit?
  • How must the plan be tweaked, in light of recent results (and based on ongoing student needs and interests)?
  • Is there tight alignment across goals, assessments, and learning?


Please let us know how you plan. So, please let us know how you plan, in as much detail as you can provide, in the Comments Section. And for those of you who are interested – either as admins., supervisors, or Dept. Heads and Coaches, I will have an online version of a survey ready to use by August 8th. (ideas for questions in the survey also welcome)

Happy Summer Planning!

links on research on planning:

Links to templates for lessons and units:

Draft Templates Nov 2012.v2

UbD Brief Prompted Template 2011-12