Many music teachers plan their instruction in units. A unit on playing recorder, a unit on composing, a unit on African drum circles, or what have you. This is a good practice. What makes it good is that it gives teachers a structure for a sequence of lessons. The end goal is stated at the outset, and lessons within the unit are written with the goal in mind, each class moving the students along the “path” toward the destination. Planning around a unit helps keeps lessons focused and connected, and helps prevent falling into teaching “one and done” classes that don’t really connect to what was taught previously or what will be taught next time. Students need lessons to be presented in a logical order so that they can build upon what they have learned, using their knowledge and experience to take on and succeed at new challenges.
Even if you think you don’t teach in units, if you’re lesson planning is effective, you probably are teaching units de facto. If you write your lesson plans weekly, you probably look at what your students accomplished over the past week, and write the next lesson based on how the last one went. Where your students’ progress stood after the last lesson becomes the starting point for the next. You decide if students are ready to go on, or if more teaching or re-teaching is needed first. Of course, there will always be a need to adjust plans, both at the writing stage, and to a lesser extent even in real time as a lesson is taught. But there is a way to plan lesson that reduces the likelihood that students will need further instruction before going on. That way is to plan backwards. Here is how it works.
Decide what you want your students to be able to do four weeks from now. It could be three, or five or six, but I like to use four. Write your lesson plan for that class where they will be a able to accomplish your objective. Once that lesson is written, read it over and make a list of what your students will have needed to know in order to successfully complete that lesson. Now right the lesson plan for the previous lesson, the one you will teach in three weeks. This lesson will teach the things you listed, the things the students will need to be able to do for the next lesson. When that lesson is written, do the same thing. Make a list of what students will need to know for the third lesson, and then write a plan in which they will learn those things, which will be your lesson plan in two weeks. Write one more lesson for week one, and you now have four weeks of lessons for that class that are well sequenced, and which anticipate student needs. Instead of hoping students learn what they will need to know and carryover into the next lesson, you are more certain that they will learn those things because you have anticipated their needs, and designed your instruction around what they will need, instead of allowing them to experience discouragement because they are trying to do something they have not been adequately prepared to do.
Due to our performance and rehearsal orientation as music teachers, this way of planning is somewhat counter intuitive for us. We are used to having students play or sing in rehearsals, stopping them, correcting them, and then having them try again. We all know how time consuming that is. By preparing them to avoid mistakes before asking them to perform, we are making our instruction more encouraging for our students, and more efficient. Although I had general music classes in mind as I described backwards planning, it is an equally effective way of planning rehearsals as well. Honestly, lesson planning for many ensemble directors is often poorly executed. A band, choir or orchestra director’s lesson plan often consists of a list of passages he or she will rehearse, followed by a run through of the section containing the passages, or of the whole piece. That really isn’t so much a plan as it is an agenda or to-do list. Nothing of what the student will be able to do at the end of instruction (objective) or of what the students will be asked to do in order to learn (task) are indicated or sometimes even known by the teacher. Backwards planning solves all of this.
The director, as part of his or her planning process, looks at the score with an eye to anticipating trouble spots, and of deciding what students need to know and be able to do in order to play or sing the music that will be rehearsed. There should also be a conceptual reason for learning that particular piece in the first place. You might be performing a Renaissance madrigal with your choir because you want your singers to develop a light and expressive head voice, because you want to teach syncopated rhythm, or because you want to make connections with what the social studies teacher is doing with those students in his or her unit on the Renaissance. Plan to highlight and teach those aspects of the music that pertain to the conceptual plan.
Then, there are the performance skills needed to sing Renaissance music. Before attempting to sing a madrigal, the singers should have experience singing in a light head voice. If all they have ever done is belt out pop tunes in a jazz or swing choir, then instruction in producing a good vocal sound using the head voice and in audiating and performing syncopated division rhythm patterns is needed before teaching the madrigal. It is discouraging for students to encounter an unfamiliar singing technique and unfamiliar types of rhythms in the midst of learning an unfamiliar piece of repertoire in an unfamiliar musical genre. That is just too much newness all at once. While including a Renaissance motet in a choir’s repertoire is generally good, what may be intended as “exposing students to a genre of music” can easily become turning them off to a genre of music by designing a bad experience with it from the outset. The teacher must always prepare students for the next step, whatever it will be, for asking them to take it. Even in cases where students will be “exploring” or improvising, sufficient context and experience must be established so that students understand what they are looking for, or trying to accomplish.
Backwards planning is more work up front for the teacher. Instead of writing one week of plans, four or more must be written. Instead of just reacting to whatever happens in class or rehearsal, one must take the time to anticipate what will probably happen in class, and plan to prepare your students for it. Planning backwards is proactive instead of reactive, and that is why it is better. Once that initial block of planning is accomplished, you will be rewarded with higher student achievement, interest, and even better classroom behavior.