First Steps: Planning for Learning

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.  Wayne Dyer

What if we change the way we look at planning learning?

What if we spend some time visioning and asking ourselves, what are students expected to know, do and be able to communicate throughout the year and then plan backwards? What if we continually ask ourselves, how do we know students are learning? What would this learning look like and sound like?

If we shift our focus to designing a learning plan, that seamlessly combines assessment and instruction, what changes in our thinking? Let’s work through a series of visioning questions to start constructing a learning plan. Follow the photo samples from a grade 6 educator to show what it could look like – not what it should look like! View the completed sample learning plan.

Getting Ready: Grab a piece of paper or open up a document on your computer. Choose a landscape format and create a grid – 2 rows by 3 columns. You may choose to download this template  (formatted landscape 17 x 11”).  Focus on one subject or course and one overall expectation.

Note to Administrators: How might you use the series of questions below with staff members to build common understanding in order to highlight a process of planning where assessment and instruction are combined?

Note to Educators: 1) It would be great if you could find a thought partner to work through this process with you – someone who teaches the same grade or course as you. 2) This process of visioning may feel overwhelming. We ask that you give it a try in order to pinpoint your purpose. The learning plan will actually translate into narrowing your focus by revealing small, intentional steps to implement within your classroom. It becomes a blueprint for reporting purposes.

1. Anticipating Learning Goals

1a. What are my students expected to learn? What should students understand?  Focus on an overall expectation found in one content area or strand.

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1b. What should students know and be able to do? Break down the overall expectation into smaller chunks of thinking, skills or processes. Consider clustering related specific expectations in support of the concept. Think about it this way: the overall expectation is the destination; the grouping of steps supports students through the learning journey (i.e. learning goals).

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1c. What is the big idea? What key learning should learners take from this experience?  Think BIG. List ideas or concepts students will remember over time – not the minutia of skill sets or procedures. Remember, some big ideas live across strands or transcend grade levels and content areas. You may want to consider big ideas that connect with other disciplines or connect with authentic and relevant student experiences. Also, think beyond the academic curriculum to learning competencies (i.e. learning skills and work habits). What will support students throughout the process of learning?  

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Throughout the learning, never be surprised that students will surprise you! Be open to incorporating ideas you hadn’t considered. 

2. Anticipating Success Criteria

What does learning look like/sound like? How will we recognize learning? Throughout the learning process, everything a student says, does or creates is feedback to the educator (i.e assessment for learning). This valuable information is used as a way to document learning – or non-learning! It’s not the quiz or the test at the end of a period of time, but the everyday observations and conversations with students that highlight where students are in their thinking and where they need to go next.

Begin to brainstorm a list of criteria that describes what success might look like based on what you entered in the first row.  Make connections to the categories of the Achievement Chart* (i.e. Knowledge and Understanding, Thinking, Communication and Application)

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3. Aligning Instruction with Learning Goals

What learning experiences will provoke thinking and learning? This question is asking you to relate instruction to learning goals. It is not meant to become a detailed, sequential plan for instruction, but rather to support reflection on what effective pedagogy might look like to support the attainment of the desired goals demonstrated through success criteria. You may wish to consider connections: to other content areas; to relevant student experiences; to ways of knowing, such as the use of media or learning tools.

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4. Integrating Assessment with Instruction

Where are the opportunities to gather and document thinking and learning? Consider how you might monitor and gather documentation of thinking.  How might you involve students in the process? How will you leverage technology to support the process?

Record comments or questions you have, acknowledging that, based on the needs of the students, you may be learning alongside students. 

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Looking Back at the Learning Plan: (It may be messy! And that’s alright!) 

These questions are suggested not only as a visioning tool but also as a way to anchor both assessment and instructional decisions over a period of time. Here’s what you have accomplished! You have:

  • anchored both assessment and instruction on an overall expectation/big idea so you know this learning is important and worthwhile, (Question 1a, c);
  • narrowed the focus into manageable chunks of learning, (Question 1b);  
  • defined, for yourself, in broad terms, what success looks like and sounds like, beginning the process of identifying success criteria, providing feedback and engaging students in peer and self assessment, (Question 2);
  • visualized what intentional instructional moves will support the learning (Question 3);
  • considered how to involve students in learning experiences where assessment and instruction are seamlessly integrated throughout the learning phase (Question 4).

By working through this process before school starts (or for that matter any time during the year) you have proactively set yourself up for analysing and interpreting documentation in preparation for reporting! A time saver and a stress buster.

Coming soon: Changing how we think about assessment – Being Intentional about What and Why 

*In Ontario, all assessment and evaluation is conducted within a framework called the Achievement Chart. For more information, see Ontario’s policy, Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. First Edition, Covering Grades 1 to 12, 2010. 



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