Connie Moss on Learning Targets
Earlier this week, EL reader and EDge member Susan Smith raised a serious concern on the EL EDge group page about the March EL article "Knowing Your Learning Target" by Connie M. Moss, Susan M. Brookhart, and Beverly A. Long. She was concerned that in the use of "I Can" statements, as suggested in the article, amounts to the parroting of teacher-created objectives. We on the EL staff thought this was an important question, so we shared it with the article's authors.
Connie Moss shared these thoughts:
Your comment is a powerful one and helps us examine an all too common misconception about shared learning targets. At first blush, it is easy to confuse shared learning targets with a simple restating of instructional objectives or curriculum standards. And we agree with you 100% that when teachers merely parrot curriculum standards in the form of "I CAN" statements they are short-changing their students.
Shared learning targets are very different from instructional objectives or curriculum standards, although they are derived from them. Here is a specific example using a standard regarding mathematical functions, patterns and relationships to illustrate our point. The standard states: "Students will describe the relationships among variables, predict what will happen to one variable as another variable is changed, analyze natural variation and sources of variability, and compare patterns of change."
Usually, benchmarks follow the standard to further describe the knowledge and skills that characterize achievement by program an/or grade levels. A benchmark for the mathematic standard reads: "Variability is represented in a variety of symbolic forms." Benchmarks describe specific performances for various developmental levels. A benchmark performance for the elementary grades reads: "Use tables, charts, open sentences and hands-on models to represent change and variability."
School district curriculum teams design down these national and state standards to develop district curriculum/unit goals that clarify the district’s expectations for which of these standards students will master at specific grade levels during specific units of study.
Classroom teachers, then, write instructional objectives for individual lessons or a series of related lessons to align their teaching with the district’s curriculum. An instructional objective for an elementary level lesson derived from the standards and curriculum goals regarding mathematical functions, patterns and relationships might look like this: "Students will describe how the element of chance makes any set of data subject to variation."
Clearly, instructional objectives and curriculum standards have the "right stuff" when it comes to framing the lesson or series of lessons from the teacher's point of view, but as you so rightly stated, they do little to help students understand what is important to learn or what they will be asked to do to demonstrate that learning in today’s lesson.
If a teacher merely writes an instructional objective on the board and asks students to state it, we agree with you whole-heartedly that students will not be able to harness the workings of their own minds or develop powerful motivational factors like self-efficacy, self-regulation, and self-assessment.
That's why our article advocates that teachers turn instructional objectives into clear, student-friendly, and developmentally appropriate descriptions of the "lesson-sized chunk" of essential content and skills that describe the exact learning intention for today's lesson—why they are asking their students to learn this chunk of information on this day in this way.
Let's look again at the lesson about how elements of chance can influence a data set to illustrate what we mean. In the lesson, the teacher asks his students to mix a batch of cookie dough using, among other ingredients, 30 chocolate chips. He tells the students to separate the cookie dough into 10 cookies, count the chocolate chips present in each cookie, and graph their findings.
To make sure his students understand why they are being asked to engage in this learning activity, he shares the learning targets for today's lesson using student friendly descriptive language and "I CAN" statements: Today we are learning to examine an everyday procedure, like making cookies, to analyze the many ways that the element of chance can influence the final product. These unplanned factors make it highly unlikely for us to predict number patterns. To learn more about this, we are going to follow a recipe to mix up a batch of cookies using 30 chocolate chips. In your groups, you will shape the cookie dough into 10 cookies. You will count and display on a bar graph the number of chocolate chips you find in each cookie. Then, in your groups you will think about what you did to make the 10 cookies and identify all the elements of chance that were part of the process. We will get back together as a class to discuss what each of your groups discovered.
We will know that we met our learning targets for today's lesson when we are able to say: I can describe the steps my group used to mix the cookie dough and form the 10 cookies. I can analyze each step to identify the elements of chance that are hidden in that step. And, I can use my own words to describe how the elements of chance I uncovered in each step work together to make it difficult to predict how many chocolate chips will be in each of our 10 cookies."
With the learning targets clearly in their minds as they begin the activity, the students can be mindful of those targets and intentionally aim for them. The "I CAN" statements help students do exactly what you say is important—be mindful of their own thinking, analyze experiences so that they can assimilate, accommodate or create new schema, regulate their own thinking and performance, and take control of their own learning.
One last thing—as we state in our article, the best way to share learning targets is through a strong performance of understanding—a learning experience that promotes content mastery, develops increased proficiency with specific reasoning skills, and provides compelling evidence of student learning. When "I CAN" statements are linked with a strong performance of understanding, they are very powerful indeed.
Thank you for calling our attention to this important aspect of student learning.