Don’t you hate when your lessons are derailed and don’t go as you planned?  Wouldn’t it be nice if you could better anticipate these issues and come up with ideas to lessen or eliminate their impact?  If so, here’s an idea to consider that has great potential to help: a pre-mortem.


You’ve probably heard of a post-mortem.  That happens when you try to determine the cause of death after someone dies.  So, a pre-mortem happens when you try to determine the cause of death before someone dies.  Sounds strange, right?  Let’s think about how it would apply when we examine the cause of death for a lesson.

Many times when we try to think about how a lesson could go wrong, we have two competing and counter-productive motivations:

  • Figure out how the lesson could breakdown
  • Be optimistic and not negative


These two motivations compete because while you want to anticipate potential issues, you also don’t want to be perceived as a pessimistic downer.  This conflict prevents people from fully embracing the process of predicting problems before they happen.

This is where the pre-mortem comes in handy by beginning with an essential assumption: the lesson you teach is going to completely flop.  Now it is our job to figure out why it will happen.  By beginning with this premise, it eliminates any perception of being negative, allowing you to focus on what could go wrong.

Research conducted in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, found that conducting pre-mortems increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30% as compared to those that used a traditional brainstorming session on potential problems.


Ok, so let’s talk about what this looks like when educators use it during the lesson planning process (usually towards the end of that process).

  1. Begin with the blunt statement, “This lesson is going to flop when we use it. Why is it going to flop?”
  2. Then have every group member spend sixty seconds writing down all the reasons they can think of for why the lesson did not go well. While some of these reasons may be less likely to happen (meteor striking your classroom) or more likely to happen (Internet connection goes out), nothing is off limits here.
  3. Next, discuss potential ways you could address these situations if they do happen.


This may seem like an absurdly obvious suggestion, but what’s great about it is that defining the problems puts you one step closer to defining the solution.  As an example, here is a selection of commonly anticipated concerns and potential solutions:

  • Copy machine breaks down and copies can’t be made
    • Make any copies well ahead of the lesson
  • Internet connection goes out and you can’t play video or show images
    • Always download all multimedia ahead of time so you can run them without Internet. You can download all of my lessons ahead of time including the multimedia, for free. Look for the download button towards the bottom of the page.
  • Fire drill / assembly happens during class
    • These are often scheduled far in advance, so if you are doing an important lesson, consider asking for a list of when these will take place and plan around them.
  • A specific student frequently disrupts class and will make the lesson miserable
    • Consider talking to the student before class begins and acknowledging that things have been rocky in the past but that you’ve worked hard to make today’s lesson valuable and hope to see this student be a positive leader in class. Sure, it might not make a major difference, but it might help a little and you’ll never know if you don’t try.
  • Students have significant gaps in their content knowledge and need intervention during the middle of the lesson
    • Have everything you need for a potential intervention ready to go (such as a PowerPoint, manipulatives, handouts, etc.) so that time is saved rather than having to create the lesson on the fly.
  • An earthquake happens during class
    • Ok, so there isn’t a whole lot you can do about this one. Good luck!

To be clear, it is not my intention to imply that every situation can be accounted for.  What I am trying to say is that if you are investing the time to do a rich problem (like a problem-based lesson or Open Middle problem) with your students, wouldn’t you want it to go as smoothly as possible?  When I look back at the numerous times my lessons did not go like I had planned, I realize that I could have prevented many of the issues if I had spent more time anticipating these scenarios.

I hope running a pre-mortem as part of your planning process helps you have smoother lessons.  If you try it out, I’d love it if you let me know in the comments about how it went and what you learned.


  1. Great read Kaplinsky! Some teachers LOVE when we PLC and anticiapte road blocks together before a lesson. Some colleagues feel upset when I do this to a lesson they thought was perfect (especially if it’s their first time working with me). How have you been able to do this with new teachers that work with you?

    • Thanks Lybrya. Right now I only consistently do this with my fellows. Because we have planned the lesson together (and because I’ll be the first one teaching it!) they realize that we have a mutual desire to succeed. So, we think about any issues and deal with them. We make copies ahead of time (to avoid copy machine breakdowns or long lines). We download files to our computers (to avoid Internet going down). Things like that.

      • Oh ok. Sometimes we’re asked by admin to do lesson studies (meaning the teacher may/may not be nose-blind), so this article will be a good resource for justifying our pre-mortem discussions. As always, genuine, Robert!!

        • Genius not genuine Darn autocorrect! Why do I make so many random mistakes whenever I talk to you digitally!!

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