A System of Best Practices: Proactively & Intentionally Planning for Student Learning

The analogy of the fitness goals and personal trainer experience aptly captures the essence of planning proactively and intentionally for student learning. Once your personal trainer had a clear sense of your goals and a thorough understanding of your needs and preferences relative to those goals, he or she would then begin mapping out a plan for how you could best arrive at your goals. Various exercises, use of equipment, and approaches address various needs. The time you spent working towards those goals and the exercises done to accomplish them would be tailored toward your particular set of needs.

Similarly, once clear and substantive learning goals have been established, and assessments have diagnosed student needs relative to those goals, the process of planning for student learning begins. The ways in which students are grouped, learning tasks are selected, instructional strategies are determined, and materials are selected, should all be appropriately matched to attend to student strengths and needs. Ultimately, all routes should move students towards the same worthwhile destination, the learning goals.

Moving all students towards the same worthwhile destinations – that is the learning goals discussed in Building a Strong Foundation for Learning Part 1 and Part 2 – requires that teachers scaffold learning experiences to address student variance of needs. Again, the personal trainer analogy captures the heart of why it is important to scaffold learning experiences for students:

If you began working towards your fitness goals, it would be highly unlikely for your personal trainer to say, “You’re missing important fitness skills, so we’re not going to have you use any of the gym equipment. We’re going to start you out with a worksheet on how you would use the equipment and perhaps progress towards using the plastic toy dumbbells.” Not only would this be unlikely, but it would fail to help you progress towards your worthwhile goals. Rather, you would use the same equipment in the same ways that most folks in the gym use them, only in varying levels of intensity or sophistication.

In the same way, it would be counter-productive to withhold meaningful and authentic learning experiences from students based on need for additional support. Scaffolding is the provision of tools for the mental process that students need to internalize. As such, it takes a variety of forms. Beginning with the most sophisticated and meaningful task, scaffolds are designed with particular student needs in mind to help students complete those tasks.

With a myriad of strategies, tools, approaches, grouping options, and materials, it can be a bit overwhelming to make sense of just how to intentionally and proactively select the tools necessary for designing quality learning plans. Curriculum design experts, Wiggins & McTighe (2005, pp 196-197), list the following characteristics of well-designed learning plans:

  • Clear performance goals based on a genuine and explicit challenge
  • Hands-on approach throughout; far less front-loaded “teaching” than typical
  • Focus on interesting and important ideas, questions, issues, and problems
  • Obvious real-world application […]
  • Powerful feedback system with opportunities [for students] to learn from trial and error and room for adapting the process       and goal to style, interest, [and] need
  • Clear models and modeling
  • Time set aside for focused reflection
  • Variety in methods, grouping, [and] tasks
  • Safe environment for taking risks
  • Teacher role resembles that of a facilitator or coach [rather than disseminator of knowledge]
  • More of an immersion experience than a typical classroom experience
  • Big picture provided and [made] clear throughout [the lesson and unit], with a transparent back-and-forth flow between the parts and the whole.

This type of planning can sometimes seem overwhelming. The support tools listed below are meant to provide additional support for teachers ready to dive in for the first time or for teachers looking to continue their journey. When considering where to get started, think about focusing initial efforts on defining and diagnosing. In other words, begin by clearing defining your learning goals (see Part 1 and Part 2 of the posts on learning goals). Then work to diagnose student needs, misconceptions, strengths, etc., relative to those goals. This can help making curriculum and instructional decisions much clearer.

Support Tools:



  • Hattie, J.A.C., (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
  • Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K., (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francsico: Jossey-Bass.
  • Sousa, D.A, & Tomlinson, C.A. (2011). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
  • Sternberg, R.J. & Grigorenko, E.L. (2004). Successful intelligence in the classroom. Theory into Practice, 43(4), 274-280.
  • Sternberg, R.J. (2006). Recognizing neglected strengths. Educational Leadership, 64(1), 30-35.
  • Sternberg, R.J. (2002). Raising the achievement of all students: Teaching for successful intelligence. Educational Psychology Review, 14(4).
  • Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Wiggins, G.,& McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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