Why not plan forwards?

In my previous blog, I suggested that we should plan backwards to enable us to design tasks more effectively.

Why not plan forwards?

I think this is best summarised by the thinking of Shirley Clarke and Dylan Wiliam.

Clarke argues that planning forwards can often lead to a conflation of the learning objective and the context in which the objective is being taught.

This argument is laid out in this picture below, taken from Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment book:

What’s the issue with this conflation?

The issue is that such conflation could result in the learner only attaching the learning to a specific context and not being able to apply it in either similar or different contexts.

So, using the last example in the table above, the implication is that the learner may not be able to design fair tests for scientific questions if presented with a different context of learning (i.e., outside of the preferred habitats of pill bugs).

The issue may not present itself in the immediate, because when we assess learners for their understanding of what has been taught, the learners are likely to appear successful. This is because we tend to assess them with the same context they were taught, hence their success in demonstrating their understanding.

However, when assessing their understanding in a new context, the knowledge may not transfer and learners may not do as well.

As Wiliam posits, “We are not interested in our students’ ability to do what we have taught them to do. We are only interested in their ability to apply their newly acquired knowledge to a similar but different context.”

Wiliam offers a suggestion as to how we can use this idea of transfer to ensure challenge for pupils:

“All students should be able to transfer what they have learned to very similar contexts, while others can be challenged by assessing how far they can transfer what they have learned.”

Planning forwards can therefore not only lead to a confusing conflation for learners, but can potentially prevent us from challenging pupils with the transfer of knowledge, if we rely heavily on singular contexts.

If we are aware of these issues and plan to prevent them, then planning forwards can of course be successful. However, planning backwards helps to circumvent these issues altogether by providing a clearer structure for our thinking.


Clarke. (2005) Formative Assessment in the Secondary Classroom.

Wiliam. (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment.

Published by mrmorgsthoughts

Curriculum Advisor. Interested in curriculum and task design.

One thought on “Why not plan forwards?

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