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Teaching Strategies: Begin with the End in Mind

Jordan Catapano

The advice to “Begin with the end in mind” comes from many different inspirational gurus, but it especially makes sense for students and teachers at the beginning of the school year. If we want to have a successful school year, we need to first picture the outcomes we want for our students and then build the teaching strategies along the way to make those outcomes a reality. 

Teaching Strategies: Use Your Imagination First

Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” makes this basic maxim his “Habit #2” and encourages readers to “Envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes.”

The notion of beginning at the end means that you must use your imagination. You have to construct in your mind what is not yet a reality, and then figure out what steps are needed to get from the present to the desired future. Covey compares this to builders creating and following a blueprint. So what’s your blueprint for the year?

Use your imagination to envision what students will say and do by the end of your school year. This takes more than writing a list of “Students will be able to …” statements. Imagine yourself standing in your classroom during the last weeks of school. What do you see and hear? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

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  • What are students saying to one another?
  • What do students do when they walk into the room?
  • What have students brought with them?
  • What am I doing when class begins?
  • How do students go about beginning a task?
  • What terms and techniques are students applying in their tasks?
  • What’s something surprising that has become normal?
  • What’s something normal that has become surprising?
  • What is hanging up around the room?
  • What is the atmosphere of the group interactions?
  • If students were to take a test, how would they do on it?
  • What other forms of assessment beyond a standard test could they master?

How to Imagine the End

Take one of your classroom education standards and think through what your classroom would look and sound like if students did in fact master it.

I don’t just think about how “Students should be able to use evidence to support a claim.” This is one of the learning standards in my classroom, and it’s a good one. But it is broad and undefined. It’s easy to write down, but difficult to imagine what exactly this means for students. So to help me plan more effectively, I imagine my “Perfect classroom” nine months from now.

I imagine how students talk to one another in a small group setting. They’re using terms we’ve covered related to evidence, such as “Hypothetical situation,” “Logical fallacy,” and “Expert opinion.” When one student talks, the others know what they mean. They can interpret the evidence used in non-fiction readings with details and accuracy, leading to compelling class conversations. When they write or discuss their own claims, they can determine which types of evidence are most effective. They’re thinking about their audience, considering the style and approach, assessing different structures and strategies. They write articulately, and they can explain and defend their thinking.

I try to imagine specific students and the specific statements or actions they make. The more detailed my imagination, the better my planning turns out to be! Spend some time walking around this imaginary future classroom and make careful observations about everything students are doing. Then the fun part begins … figuring out how to turn this room into a reality!

Build Your Beginning with Your End in Mind

Beginning with the end means that we take the outcomes we normally look for at the end of a given unit or school year and use them to guide curricular development from day one. The clearer we understand what and how students are expected to demonstrate proficiency, the better we can plan instruction.

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe write, “It reminds us to begin with the question, ‘What would we accept as evidence that students have attained the desired understandings and proficiencies?’ before proceeding to plan teaching and learning experiences?” When we picture what exactly students can do by the end, and how exactly they’re going to show it, we can better design our steps leading up to that outcome.

Here are some guiding questions that will help you transition from imagining the outcome to building the reality:

  • What background knowledge or skills will students need in order to achieve the desired outcomes?
  • What terms, knowledge, or skills will need to be directly introduced to students?
  • What materials are most useful in building the desired skills and knowledge?
  • What instructional methods are more likely to result in the desired outcomes?
  • How can I track student improvement along the way? What formative assessment tools can I include in the process?

The “Curriculum” is merely the set of resources and processes we use as a means to an end. Curriculum can be planned in advance, but it may also be adapted as the needs and skills of students change.

The desired outcomes, however, are unlikely to change. Consider how you can answer the questions above in a way that helps you stay focused on the outcomes and ready to mold your curriculum in a way that helps students achieve those outcomes.

This Works for Students, Too

Don’t feel like the outcomes or process need to be secrets. The “End” you’re keeping in mind is the growth of your students. So include them in the process!

Show your students directly what the intended outcomes are. Many times these will be determined by your state or district; however, let students consider what their own intended outcomes are, too! When students can contribute to forging their own goals, they are more likely to succeed in fulfilling them.

Also be up front with the curriculum and process for achieving those goals. Oftentimes students feel a lack of motivation because school just seems like “Work with no objective.” Students blandly know they are “Learning,” but have little idea what or why. Show them how the activities and knowledge they’re working on each day relate to the overall standards. Also let students contribute by identifying what steps will benefit them the most. They may have increased engagement in the curriculum, or even discover extras steps they can take themselves to increase their success.

Finally, just like I encouraged you to spend time imagining what your perfect classroom looks and sounds like, walk your students through the same exercise. Ask them to picture themselves at the end of the year. How do they speak? What did they bring with them? What can they do that they couldn’t before?

Let our imaginations fuel our planning. The more powerful the images we paint of ourselves in the future, the better we teachers will be able to forge effective learning designs and the better our students will be equipped to take advantage of them.

How do you use backwards design to make the most of your instructional planning? Lend us your insights and share in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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