Decide content for each episode

When planning a lesson as a series of episodes, the following considerations will support decision-making about the lesson's learning experiences and the resources needed.

The backward design model is a useful guide ensuring that the learning goal/ intention, success criteria and the learning experiences and resources are in sync and work together. The logical steps are:

  1. If the desired result is for learners to … (the learning goal/ intention)
  2. then what evidence can show the students’ learning and ability … (the success criteria)
  3. and the learning experiences need to … (decide what needs to be taught/ coached, and how it is best taught, in light of the learning intention/goal)
  4. and this sequence of activities best suits the learning intention/goal (how will learning be both engaging and effective, given the learning intention/goal and success criteria?).

Teachers have to plan the most appropriate learning activities to help students acquire knowledge and skills, and come to understand important ideas and processes, and transfer their learning in meaningful ways. Wiggins and McTighe (1998)

1. Use backward design

The backward design model is a useful guide ensuring that the learning goal/ intention, success criteria and the learning experiences and resources are in sync and work together. The logical steps are:

  1. If the desired result is for learners to … (the learning goal/ intention)
  2. then what evidence can show the students’ learning and ability … (the success criteria)
  3. and the learning experiences need to … (decide what needs to be taught/ coached, and how it is best taught, in light of the learning goal/ intention)
  4. and this sequence of activities best suits the learning goal/ intention (how will learning be both engaging and effective, given the learning intention/goal and success criteria?).

The backward design model encourages teachers to consider:

  • How can I support learners in coming to an understanding of important ideas and processes?
  • How can I prepare them to autonomously transfer learning?
  • What enabling knowledge and skills will students need in order to perform effectively and achieve the desired results?
  • Which activities, sequence, and resources are best suited to accomplish these goals?

The W.H.E.R.E.T.O. framework

This framework supports teachers in thinking about the learning experiences and the set of instructional principles. Each element is presented as a question to consider:

Questions: Where are the students coming from? Where are they headed? How will I help students know what they will be learning? Why is this worth learning? What evidence will show their learning? How will their performance be evaluated?

Learners of all ages are more likely to put forth effort and meet with success when they understand the learning goals and see them as meaningful and personally relevant. The W reminds teachers to clearly communicate the goals and help students see their relevance. In addition, learners need to know the performance expectations and assessments through which they will demonstrate their learning so that they have clear learning targets and the basis for monitoring their progress toward them.

Questions: How will I hook and engage the learners? How will I keep them engaged?

There is wisdom in the old adage, 'Before you try to teach them, you’ve got to get their attention.' The best teachers have always recognised the value of 'hooking' learners through introductory activities that tease the mind and engage the heart in the learning process. Teachers are encouraged to deliberately plan ways of hooking their learners to the topics they teach. Examples of effective hooks include provocative questions, counter-intuitive phenomena, controversial issues, authentic problems and challenges, emotional encounters, and humour. One must be mindful, of course, of not just coming up with interesting introductory activities that have no carry-over value. The intent is to match the hook with the content and the experiences of the learners - by design - as a means of drawing them into a productive learning experience.

Questions: How will I equip students to master identified standards and succeed with the transfer performances? What learning experiences will help develop and deepen the understanding of important ideas?

Understanding cannot be simply transferred like a load of freight from one mind to another. Coming to understand requires active intellectual engagement on the part of the learner. Therefore, instead of merely covering the content, effective educators 'uncover' the most enduring ideas and processes in ways that engage students in constructing meaning for themselves. To this end, teachers select an appropriate balance of constructivist learning experiences, structured activities, and direct instruction for helping students acquire the desired knowledge, skill, and understanding. While there is certainly a place for direct instruction and modelling, teaching for understanding asks teachers to also adopt a facilitative role, that is, to engage learners in making meaning through active inquiry and diverse experience with the content.

Questions: How will I encourage the learners to rethink previous learning? How will I encourage ongoing revision and refinement?

Few learners develop a complete understanding of abstract ideas on the first encounter. Over time, learners develop and deepen their understanding by thinking and re-thinking, by examining ideas from different points of view, from examining underlying assumptions, and by receiving feedback and revising. Just as the quality of a piece of writing benefits from the iterative process of drafting and revising, so too do understandings become more mature. The R encourages teachers to explicitly include such opportunities.

Question: How will I promote students’ self-evaluation and reflection?

Capable and independent learners are distinguished by their capacity to set goals, self-assess their progress, and adjust as needed. Yet one of the most frequently overlooked aspects of the instructional process involves helping students to develop the meta-cognitive skills of self-evaluation, self-regulation, and reflection. The second E reminds teachers to build in time and expectations for students to regularly self-assess, reflect on the meaning of their learning, and set goals for future performance.

Questions: How will I tailor the learning experiences to the nature of the learners I serve? How might I differentiate instruction to respond to the varied needs of students?

'One size fits all' teaching is rarely optimal. Learners differ significantly in terms of prior knowledge, skill levels, interests, talents, and preferred ways of learning. Accordingly, the most effective teachers get to know their students and tailor their teaching and learning experiences so as to connect the material with the students. A variety of strategies may be employed to differentiate content (how the subject matter is presented), process (how students work), and product (how students demonstrate their learning). The logic of backward design offers a cautionary note here: the content standards and understandings should not be differentiated (except for students with Individual Education Plans). In other words, we differentiate ‘the means’ while keeping ‘the ends’ in mind for all.

Questions: How will I organise the learning experiences for maximum engagement and effectiveness? What sequence will be optimal given the understanding and transfer goals?

When the primary educational goals involve helping students acquire basic knowledge and skills, teachers may be comfortable 'covering' the content by telling and modelling. However, when we include understanding and transfer as desired results, teachers are encouraged to give careful attention to how the content is organised and sequenced. Just as effective storytellers and filmmakers often don’t always begin at the 'beginning' teachers can consider alternatives to sequential content coverage. For example, methods such as the Case Method, Problem or Project-Based Learning, and Socratic Seminars immerse students in challenging situations, even before they may have acquired all of the basics. They actively engage students in trying to make meaning and apply their learning in demanding circumstances without single 'correct' answers. It is through such attempts to apply learning in a context that one develops expertise and strategic skill.

2. Plan teaching strategies

It's important to plan the teaching strategies to lead the students from dependent learners to independent learners of the new learning.

The introduction should start with the hook and move through these components:

  1. The 'hook' - the hook sets the scene for what is to come. It's vital to 'hook' the student’s attention and set the stage for the rest of the lesson. This is a time to be creative and use a variety of approaches to catch the student’s interest and lay a foundation for the lesson. Consider using music, video clips, photographs, keyword cards on desks, a provocative question on the whiteboard, a prop, a story, a personal anecdote, an analogy, and so forth, associated with the learning to come, as students enter the room or begin a new lesson. Keep this component brief but stimulating.
  2. Review previous material - review of any previous material taught which the new lesson might build upon - this component could include word games, puzzles, mind maps, etc. to review the learning to date. It could also involve a link to future learning in the next lesson. This component helps students put what they already know about the topic in context.
  3. Lesson purpose, learning goal and success criteria - all students need to know exactly what they will be learning and what they will be held accountable for. Even very young students need to know what to expect from a lesson, what they will be able to do as a result of the lesson, and why it is important. Clarify the purpose and relevance - relate the learning to the overall syllabus; share with students how the learning fits into the bigger picture of learning; use mind-maps to show students how the lesson fits into the wider course they are studying.
  4. Share and clarify the learning intention/goal - explain assessment tasks and expectations; introduce/negotiate success criteria.
  5. Provide a lesson outline - an overview of the lesson prepares the students for the main teaching and learning that will follow and the activities that will be involved. An outline of timeframes within the lesson helps students to remain focused and to see how the lesson will be paced.

Depending on the lesson location within the learning sequence/unit plan, decide how the learning will be introduced, practised and applied. This part of the lesson involves the main teaching and learning. During this time:

  • Students might work in groups, pairs, individually, or in a mixture of all three, depending on how you have decided is best to meet the learning intentions/goals.
  • All students should be set work which is of an appropriate level of challenge.
  • Allow choice over how students carry out tasks.
  • Learning should be broken down into achievable chunks.
  • Find plenty of opportunities to develop thinking skills.
  • Decisions about when to use modelled, guided or independent teaching will vary according to the lesson's purpose.

For example, the purpose of the lesson may be to practise and apply knowledge, skills and understandings that have been previously modelled or where students have had guided support. Provide ample time for guided support, both from the teacher and by working collaboratively with other students.

  • Use modelled, guided and independent teaching strategies
  • Use modelled, guided and independent teaching strategies and group students according to their targets/ needs.

1. During modelled teaching:

  • emphasise and reiterate key points without glossing over ideas or overwhelming students in detail
  • use multiple approaches
  • target potential misunderstandings.

2. During guided teaching:

  • use multiple opportunities for practice
  • scaffold practice exercises from easy to hard
  • ensure that all students have an opportunity to practise.

3. During independent teaching:

  • include opportunities to practise and apply learning in ‘real’ contexts
  • encourage students to make the new learning their own, by applying it or re-stating it
  • ensure that the activity reflects the achievement of the learning intention/goal.

Decide how students will reflect on their learning. This is often a neglected lesson episode. Too often the lesson concludes when the bell sounds and students pack up and leave.

Although teachers intend to conclude or wrap up the lesson, lack of time continually impacts on this episode. Therefore a combination of seeing the lesson reflection as important and effective planning to incorporate this episode into every lesson is essential.

A 10-minute plenary provides time for students to discuss current learning and write a couple of sentences about their learning experiences. During this time, teachers can guide student reflection with structured questioning and encourage students to record their learning or future action.

Guiding reflection

To guide reflection, the following questions could be listed on posters, cards or exit slips:

  • What is it about learning to … that you need more help with?</li>
  • What pleased you most with your learning today?
  • What did you find challenging with your learning today?
  • What really made you think about learning to …?
  • What helped you when something became difficult about learning to …?
  • What helped you when you faced challenges with your learning today?
  • What new things have you learnt about …?
  • What inspired you with your learning today?
  • What do you need more help with in your learning?

During reflection

During reflection, students could:

  • record their learning and/or future action in a learning log. The learning log may also contain the learning intention/goal, success criteria and the assessment rubric
  • place a digital or hard copy work sample in a portfolio. The work is annotated to show progress, achievement and where to next
  • record progress and goal-setting against the assessment rubric on a goal-setting chart, with headings: what I can do well, what I need to learn, and what I need to do to get there.

3. Consider lesson tactics

Consider the lesson tactics you need to use to keep the lesson focused on the learning.

Tactics or techniques that teachers can use to ensure all students have the opportunity to achieve the learning goal/ intention include:

Chunking the learning

It is important to break the content into 'bite sized bits' or manageable chunks so that students are not overwhelmed with too much new information all at once. Extraneous information that doesn't support the learning intention/goal or assist students in areas of need is not useful. The manageable lesson chunks need to be sequenced so that the pieces of information flow in a logical, coherent sequence.

Checking for understanding

The following activities can help monitor understanding:

  • traffic lighting – use of red, green, amber cards:
    • red card = I don’t understand
    • an amber card = I sort of understand but can we go over this bit again
    • a green card = I’m ready to move on.
  • thumbs up, thumbs down, thumbs sideways – same as traffic lighting
  • hinge questions – questions based on important concepts within a lesson - the questions critical for students to understand before moving on
  • no hands up – instead the teacher selects students to respond
  • wait time - wait at least 30 seconds after asking a question.

Considering pacing, timing and transitions

  • Pacing is the rhythm and timing of classroom learning experiences or lesson parts and the process of deciding that it is the right moment to change to another experience or part of the lesson. It is knowing when to move briskly and when to slow down. It also involves mixing up the learning experiences, for example, reading silently can be followed by 'think, pair, share', a practical demonstration can be followed by recording a summarising statement or practising the demonstrated skill in pairs.
  • Timing refers to the way time is allocated to each experience or lesson part. It is important to plan the timing and as far as possible stick to this plan.
  • Transitions constitute the 'space between' individual experiences and /or lesson parts and even between lessons. Transitions provide cohesion to the lesson by wrapping up before moving to a new experience or lesson part. Transitions link and hold the learning experiences together and ensure that students understand how each experience/part build toward the learning intention.

Offering managed choice

Managed choice (not 'free choice') involves students making a choice from a range of familiar options - options that have been explicitly taught on previous occasions. This has been shown to lead to greater student ownership of and engagement with the work.

Choice can also be offered in the tasks or in the learning experiences. Within the limited choices offered, it is common to observe students working on similar but different tasks. Choices about how to present information can include:

  • a poster, video or poem
  • a mind map, PowerPoint presentation, or storyboard slideshow
  • an illustration, graphic organiser or podcast
  • a booklet, chart or speech.


Strategic questions can be used in two ways:

  • to assess students' understanding and find out what they know
  • to prompt students to seek further information and think more deeply.

Questions to find out what students know:

  • aim for questions that challenge the student and encourage higher-order thinking. Avoid too many literal, basic recall questions which don't require the students to make inferences or link prior learning or strategise and are concerned with low-level thinking
  • use Bloom's hierarchy of questions to help identify useful, challenging questions
  • consider asking questions that begin with How..? Why..? What if…?
  • invite elaboration: Tell me about your thinking on this?
  • echo to clarify: So you think…?
  • offer ideas: Did you know that…?
  • model and encourage wondering: I wonder if…?
  • transfer questions: Could you use this idea another way?
  • prompt evaluation: So, looking at the situation, what do you think?

Questions that are open-ended questions and can lead to higher-order thinking:

  • What might be a different viewpoint on that?
  • How could we find evidence to back up our information?
  • How do these two ideas connect?
  • What are some of the reasons for this happening?
  • What are some possible causes for this?
  • What might happen if …?

Feeding back to students

The emphasis of feedback should be on progress and achievement, pinpointing strengths and guiding students towards future learning. Simply saying 'Great work' is not giving quality feedback. More useful comments are encouraging, specific and focused on improvement. Feedback needs to:

  • relate specifically to the learning intention
  • be timely - preferably given during the lesson or very soon after (a week later is too late)
  • include specific prompts to encourage improvement
  • relate clearly to the success criteria so the student is fully aware of the steps needed to 'close the gaps' or improve their performance.

Feedback can be provided by other students as well as the teacher.


  • Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
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