Sunday, May 18, 2014

Learning Targets

Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Brookhart's book, Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today's Lesson, reinforces some of my thoughts and introduces some interesting refinements. To start, they identify learning targets as uniquely different from objectives. As someone who went to college in the 80's taking special education classes, objectives are something with which I am intimately familiar and skilled at developing and assessing. The idea that objectives are not broken down far enough is intriguing. Moss and Brookhart see the differences as illustrated in the chart below:

objectives for the teacher
learning targets for the student
span one or more lessons
span one lesson
describes content knowledge and skills students should be able to demonstrate
asks, “What am I going to learn?”
teacher language based
language, model, illustration and/or demonstration based
specific to the performance chosen for the lesson
includes criteria and performance standards
includes student look fors to identify success
ex. student will be able to solve problems using 3-digit addition with carrying in the one’s place. (p. 166)
ex. I am going to be able to use a method called carrying to solve problems like these accurately and smoothly: 438 + 152 =        (p. 166)
ex.  explain the literal meaning of the Gettysburg Address and make connections among ideas in the Gettysburg Address and other historical documents.( p. 119)
ex. I can put the speech into my own words.
I can explain how the Gettysburg Address echoes some ideas from the Declaration of Independence. (p. 120)

The differences may seem somewhat subtle. The learning targets may be thought of as specifically telling students what they exactly can do and the objectives are more adult oriented. As students get older the two ideas may get closer together. Some of the examples the authors use to illustrate learning targets are leading questions. Students who are not metacognitively aware or are not honest may simply respond, "Yes, I can explain three differences between latitude and longitude," with no basis in reality. The authors never confront this concern. Perhaps it is enough to put it to kids so they know the truth inside.

Grading is a concern the authors address. I have long been against grades that do not reflect what the student can do but rather how compliant, effortful or well behaved he is. As I have explored grading practices, I have become increasingly supportive of standards based grading that reflect the current level of knowledge a student has rather than the mean of his grades or the behaviors he exhibits. For the students that I directly teach material to, I have divorced compliance and effort from content grades. These are definitely areas in which I comment, but they are not allowed to impact grades. For the classes I teach for my homeschooled students, I use a standards based report that lists each objective and where the student performed at the end of instruction on that objective. If I had to reteach a skill, I retaught and then re-administered a summative assessment. If the key is learning the material, it is incumbent upon me to teach the material until some level of success is achieved- not until the time for learning that objective per a curriculum map has passed. The authors concur. They support content and behavior reporting as separate on a report card. They argue for using a median score rather than an average, unless steady progress has led to the decision that a mean would lead to a more accurate report of student knowledge. An entire chapter in the book is dedicated to how to incorporate learning targets into grading. For teachers who are responsible for assigning grades this is essential.

A concern I have is with the time required to plan using the author's guide. Starting with the standards, developing objectives and learning targets that match is only the beginning. Then they describe identifying multiple activities that meet those targets (a task that enables differentiation). The teacher then develops individual descriptions and rubrics for each activity. The process is extensive and time consuming. Planning in teams might help. Slow adoption of the full process might help as well. The easy part is identifying what the students should be able to do at the end of the lesson that they were unable to do at the beginning of the lesson. (This assumes your class does not have any students who could perform the task before the class started.) Creating a series of 1-5 "I can ..." statements for a lesson could be fairly simple. Having a clear direction of exactly what the students should be able to do at the end of the lesson benefits instruction and helps create a road map of learning that helps everyone.

The book offers some interesting insights to the process of organizing and planning lessons. A skilled professional could pull refinement tips and a novice could pull big steps forward from the text. The authors might think of providing a sample set of unit plans across grade and content areas that demonstrate CCSS referenced standards, objectives that meet those standards, learning targets that focus on those objectives, activities that students could engage in to learn those standards and sample rubrics to use throughout. While they do offer a few sample ideas, for many practitioners, this could be inadequate to support their learning and adopting suggested instructional behaviors. The appendix provides some resources for helping plan a lesson or observe one thoughtfully, but time required to use them will be extensive.

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