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Planning for Learning Sets Up Students and Teachers for Success

By December 6, 2022No Comments

By Kristin Rouleau and Tonia Gibson

Do you plan for teaching or plan for learning? Or asked another way, when you look at your planning document, who do you see? Your students or yourself?

While teaching and learning may seem like two sides of the same coin, when it comes to lesson planning, your intent and focus matters a great deal. Planning for teaching highlights the actions the teacher must take, whereas planning for learning focuses on defining what success looks like for students. When teachers are clear about what successful learning looks like and explicitly plan to emphasize students’ work and their successes, the outcomes for student learning are greatly improved.

The traditional planning model that focuses on teaching defines what the teacher needs to do and when it should be done. This strategy may prompt (or even require) teachers to ensure that their lessons are delivered in a specific way, often emphasizing the assessment that students will have to take to earn their grade. This approach too often leads teachers to dive straight into a lesson by introducing new facts, concepts, and other knowledge without first activating their students’ curiosity and motivation to learn.

Based on our research, highlighted in The New Classroom Instruction That Works, learning is most effective when students are supported across the six phases of learning:

  1. Become interested
  2. Commit to learning
  3. Focus on new learning
  4. Make sense of learning
  5. Practice and reflect
  6. Extend and apply

Planning for learning incorporates each of these phases to ensure equitable outcomes for all students. To do so, it’s often helpful to start with the end in mind and ask yourself: What does student success look like for this sequence of learning?

When using our best first instruction six-phase model to plan for learning, shown below, lesson sequences become learning focused and student centered. Students understand the what and the why of the lesson as well as what successful learning looks and feels like from the outset. Planning for learning highlights that learning is valuable beyond simply achieving a specific letter grade and places a greater emphasis on student growth. It also encourages students to engage with their curiosity about concepts and topics as well as reflect on their own growth and development over time. When teachers are intentional in their selection and integration of research-based, high-leverage strategies, they position students as partners in learning, equally responsible for their growth and achievement.

So, let’s see it in action. A state math standard requires 7th graders to solve real-life problems involving measurement of angles, surface area, and volume. Following the planning for learning approach, we first need to define what student success looks like: Students will learn how to calculate a variety of geometric measurements.

How can they do this, and why should they want to? This is where there’s an opportunity to create a learning objective that will engage the students and make it applicable to real life. We task them with creating a scaled design for a garden in a community park—a design that they will submit to the city at the end of the unit.

We start the conversation by talking about their favorite things to do at a park. From there, we present them with a 2-D picture of a local park and explain it needs to be redesigned, incorporating several of their favorite park elements—a walking path, a series of raised garden beds, a pond, and a seating area. At this point, we have engaged their interest and curiosity, given them a clear goal that goes beyond a letter grade, and connected it to life outside of the classroom.  

The lessons are then sequenced and designed in a way to support how their brains input, store, and retrieve information. Vocabulary instruction, visualizations and concrete examples, and strategy instruction and modeling are incorporated into the lesson plan to focus on new learning. In this example, we get out of the classroom and tour the school grounds, looking at planter boxes, paths, and the grassy areas. Each element presents opportunities to discuss the vocabulary of the lesson and the math formulas used to create the elements.

Back in the classroom, students can get to work, applying those conversations to the math problems at hand as they process their new information, while incorporating time for formative feedback and opportunities to pause and process the new learning. This activity encourages students to engage with their curiosity about concepts and topics by revisiting and reflecting on their initial and evolving designs. They are supported to adjust, change, and improve their park designs based on their reflections so that their elements are more accurate in their measurements and placement to scale. This reflection and repetition aids in processing, retrieval, and retention.

As students finalize their design projects, a written proposal for the city to explain their design helps cement the learning, while the math skills and knowledge can be further applied by asking them more questions about their project, such as how much soil they will need to fill the garden beds or how often the pond will need to be re-filled to maintain optimum health of the water and plants.

By developing a clear, student-centered goal for the learning and intentionally sequencing and balancing learning, reflection, and application, we have transformed what might have been a rather pedestrian sequence of lessons about geometry into something real and relevant for students. The intentional integration of research-based instructional strategies aligned to the flow of learning through the six phases also illustrates a thoughtful approach to teaching and learning by aligning the practice with what we know about best first instruction.

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Kristin (Kris) Rouleau, Ed.D., Vice President of Learning Services at McREL International, works with schools, districts, and state departments of education, both domestically and internationally, as they navigate change and implement practices and structures to reduce variability and increase student achievement. In addition to consulting, coaching, and facilitation of professional learning, Dr. Rouleau has co-authored several McREL books, including Learning that Sticks and The New Classroom Instruction That Works.


Tonia Gibson, M.S.L., a senior consultant at McREL International, works with teachers, schools, districts, and other stakeholders to develop sustainable plans for improving the professional practices of teachers and school leaders. Through consulting and coaching for individuals and groups, she works with partners to develop strategic pathways to improve educator capacities and provides technical assistance to support teachers and leaders in developing effective practices, ensuring student needs are at the heart of all decisions made. She is a co-author of several McREL books, including Learning that Sticks and The New Classroom Instruction That Works.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.