One Effective Habit of Highly Effective Teachers: Beginning with the End in Mind

Begin with the end in mind

In November 2005, I was given the opportunity to teach graduate school classes at a well-respected university.   I was handed a syllabus and textbooks so that I could prepare my classes.   While I was excited about the opportunity and did as much reading and preparation that I knew how, I now realize that I was grossly under-prepared and likely completely disorganized.  Being appointed as adjunct faculty was a career goal that I achieved – not because I knew how to teach – but because I was able to demonstrate proficiency in the subject matter.  In retrospect, I think that my students received the best instruction I could have given, but I know it could have been much better had I understood  concepts related to instructional design.

Steven Covey, the illustrious author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, explains to us in his second habit, that we should “Begin with the End in Mind.”  According to Covey:

Habit 2 is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint… If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize what you want, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default… Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each task or project with a clear vision of your desired direction.

While this guiding principle can apply to many aspects of life, a key to sexuality educator’s success in facilitating classes or trainings is taking the time for thoughtful and targeted curriculum and lesson design. Beginning with the end in mind, allows us to be thoughtful about what we expect students to learn as well as the nature of assessments that will be used to demonstrate if objectives have been met.  Instructional objectives  detail what we want students to be able to know, understand and do by the end of the instructional period.  Using this framework, teachers and students are more able to focus on the specific goals.  According to Estes et. al., clearly defined objectives allows lessons to be focused and challenging rather than serendipitous and shallow.

Backward design allows educators to develop a road map for the student and teacher alike.  In traditional curriculum planning, a list of content that will be taught is created and/or selected. In backward design, the educator starts with goals, creates or plans out assessments and finally makes lesson plans.  The key to backward design is that  before the instructional procedures are developed, assessments that will provided information about the attainment of instructional objectives must be planned.  This way of lesson development ensures that objectives and assessments align and provide an equitable way to prepare students for assessments, (Estes, et. al., p52).

The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University identifies the following principles of backward design:

I. Identify desired results.

Establish your learning goals for the course.  This is where the educator determines what the students should know, understand and do by the end of the course.  This is also the time where the educator narrows the scope of learning since everything about the subject can not be taught in the  given timeframes.  The educator should consider three questions during this phase of instructional development:

  1. What should participants hear, read, view, explore or otherwise encounter?
  2. What knowledge and skills should participants master?   What processes, strategies and methods should they learn to use?
  3. What are big ideas and important understandings participants should retain?

Answering each of these questions will help you determine the best content for your course,and create concrete, specific learning goals for your students.

II. Determine acceptable evidence.

What will you accept as evidence that students are making progress toward the learning goals of the course?  How will you know if they are “getting it”?

A wide range of assessment methods  should be considered (for example, essay tests, term papers, short-answer quizzes, homework assignments, lab projects, problems to solve, etc.) in order to ensure that you test for exactly the learning you want them to gain.

III. Plan learning experiences & instruction.

After you have decided what results you want and how you will know you’ve achieved them, then you start planning how you’re going to teach.  What are the best exercises, problems or questions for developing your students’ ability to meet your learning goals?  How can they practice using new knowledge to gain the skills you want them to learn?  How can they apply their learning?   You want to foster increasing understanding, not rote memorization.

Sexuality is a broad topic, and is an important aspect of life for youthful and adults to learn about.  This broad topic can be divided into smaller areas, and we can not teach every aspect of a topic in any one setting. The lesson plan or topic being presented could divide broad concept of sexuality into much smaller components; gender, identity, sexual behavior, sexual attitudes and customs, or sexual problems are only a few.  Backward design in sexuality education gives us the opportunity to focus our lesson or presentation on specific topics and to tailor the learning engage students in a manner that when they leave the classroom, that enduring understanding has been imparted.

In sexuality education, we need to understand what the expected outcomes of the course is. Clear definition leads to clear direction, working backward from clearly defined outcomes will make certain that those who want the teaching to occur and the educator are on the same page about the learning objectives.   It is too often in this field, that tems are used interchangeably, i.e. gender and sex.  The critical thinking about the topic area that backward design emphasizes only serves to help the teacher and student alike in making effective use of the learning opportunity.


Buehl, D. (2001, April 16). Backward Design – Forward Thinking. Wisconsin Education Association Council.

Covey, S. R. (n.d.). Books: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People : Habit 2.  Stephen R. Covey.

Estes, T. H., Mintz, S. L., & Gunter, M. A. (2011). Instruction: A Models Approach (6th Edition ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. (2014). Understanding by Design. Understanding by Design.

9 responses to “One Effective Habit of Highly Effective Teachers: Beginning with the End in Mind

  1. Hey, Michael. I really enjoyed reading your blog because I can totally relate to your experience. Although you had no pedagogical training, I spent my entire undergraduate years studying English and education. The only negative side about studying education at the bachelor level is that most classes were based off theories instead of application. When I entered my first year of teaching, I was not informed of what I would be teaching until the week before school started. I thought I would be extremely prepared since I recently graduated with a degree in education, but I was completely wrong. I was handed a text book, just like you, and was told good luck.

    I had less than a week to figure out a curriculum and what I would teach. I had no idea where to begin, and I spent my first year of teaching struggling because I had nothing set up as a guide. I did not know about backwards design at the time and spent the night before reading and planning for the next day. Planning for what I did not know because I had no idea what my goals, objectives, or assessments would be. I felt lost and confused. I tried to apply everything I learned from my degree, but I feel like I was losing the battle.

    It was not until I started and completed my master’s program in teaching and curriculum that I truly learned about education. Here is where I learned about backwards design, and I felt like a complete idiot at how easy it was and how much it made sense. I have used it ever since and have honestly seen a vast improvement with the progress my students make in a school year. I truly feel that my students grasp the content that I am teaching them because I have goals and an end result in mind.

    If you had this same enlightenment as I, do you feel that you would have had a better enrichment for your class? I know that you are a content master, but with having the pedagogical know how, do you feel that you would have had a better concept of what your students walked away with?

    • That is exactly how i feel. One thing i feel is that if you only have content knowledge then you may not do as well as a person who has content + the capacity to effectively plan a course.

      Taking the opportunity to learn how to plan a lesson and/or develop a curriculum only stands to make me a more focused teacher/trainer.

  2. I love this idea of backward design. We know, from experience, that we want to know why we are being taught what we are being taught. We want to understand how what we are learning will connect with the goals of the course and our future. Discussing the goals at the beginning of a class and revisiting them throughout is something I have started doing with my students this semester. It has been amazing and I have witnessed my most anxious students become more calm with this “backward design.” I did not realize that I was doing this but am grateful to have found a name and a model to support what I believe to be a thorough and comprehensive way of teaching. THANK YOU!

  3. Mike, you presented some awesome information. I have planned various lessons in the past but I never thought to plan based on the desired results. When I was a student teacher, I was given the information on what I had to teach and about how long it should take. Looking back, I wish I had worked backwards, but as a student teacher you don’t think of doing things based on what you want your result to be in the end. Working backwards probably would have benefited my students in that I would have known the exact outcome(s) I wanted out of a lesson.

  4. Mike, I too enjoyed your blog. I have not had the opportunity to teach in a formal setting as of yet. Prior to enrollment in this class, I always believed teachers approached teaching in this manner. It makes sense to me to know what your students should learn and then formulate your lesson plans according to the expected end result. Not having a full understanding of how to develop a lesson plan or knowing what aspects were incorporated, such the objectives and goals, I never knew there was so much planning in teaching and lesson plans. At this point, I am still developing my understand of lessons plans, objectives and assessments, but with this approach seems to make the most sense. I feeling like this approach will help the teacher understand the process the students will travel once learning begins. A teacher having the experience the process themselves while developing the lesson helps ensure the students will develop an understand of the material.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this. I’m currently teaching right now, and I’m hitting some challenges some with the students and some within myself. What your post provided me with is some great insight as to what I should be looking for, for my students to get out of this course. It so easy for me to look at them and say “Why are you acting like this? Do you know what would happen to me if I did what you did?” But I have to look at it through a totally different lens. This was great.

  6. I love this idea and I think that a lot of us can relate to this style of learning as students. When I write research papers, I compose the entire paper before even touching my abstract because I have no clue when I begin what my final product will be exactly.

    As teachers, we can get so caught up in an activity and an unintended lesson that we lose focus on what exactly we are aiming to achieve. More times than not it seems that teachers are losing track of time and not getting the desired outcome from a lesson, resulting in having to approach the concept again to reinforce that knowledge. If backwards teaching were used, the teacher could put in his/her plans key questions to ask and checkpoints throughout the lesson to make sure that the lesson is going along as was intended.

    I think backwards teaching sounds like a wonderful idea since everything is so standards based in today’s learning community. Nicely done!

  7. Great read and great inclusion of another model into sexuality education. While Estes, Mintz, & Gunter (2011) do explain the flow of creating overarching goals and measurable objectives when developing lesson plans, I found the “begin with the end in mind” framework to be really helpful when developing a curriculum. Beginning with the end in mind for a curriculum can inform every step in creating not only goals for lesson plans, but also the rationale for those goals and objectives. This will also help when answering the inevitable question, “Why are we learning this?”

  8. Thanks for posting this! For some reason, I often feel like I am “cheating” when I begin with the end in mind, but I keep going back to this model of doing things because it makes the most sense to me and seems to allow me to create objectives that actually make sense for my overarching goals when creating a lesson plan. Additionally, this seems to be the only way I can incorporate effective evaluation and assessment tools. I think it’s funny that we often leave this part out when describing how we got to the end product/result,

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