Yes, Learning Targets Can Make Our Lives Easier
My first few years in the classroom I wasn’t a big fan of learning targets or posting learning targets prior to each lesson for students to see. These feelings were mostly driven by my experiences as a student teacher, during which I had to write the standard on the board prior to each lesson. (I mistakenly thought standards were the same as learning targets. But, in reality, posting the actual standard was even worse.) I also thought the learning target approach to revealing content was both generic and lame.
However, I can say now that I started to “get” learning targets when I began to give my students more choices in regards to how they expressed their learning. In short, I was making the transition from, “Learn this in this way!” to, “This is what we’re learning, and you can demonstrate your understandings however you’d like!”
This shift was most evident when examining the rubrics my students and I used during our project based learning experiences. Initially, these rubrics looked like project directions regurgitated in another format, which promoted compliance, not creative learning. Many of my students were able to “play the game of school” and earn an A by simply following what had been outlined for them in their rubric/directions: appropriately title your work, include three photographs related to your topic, include at least ten adjectives, cite five sources, etc. Furthermore, in the end, all finished products usually looked quite similar.
Then, after a few years of this productive struggle, it was nothing short of groundbreaking for my students and me when I decided to start populating each rubric’s left-hand column with learning targets (as opposed to tasks). As students made their way through these projects, I gave them feedback in relation to where they were on the continuum of hitting each target (instead of telling them what hoop to jump through next in order to earn an A). Increasingly, feedback and assessment focused on what students were supposed to learn, not what I wanted them to do. And, because feedback wasn’t task-specific, students were able to naturally own how they learned and displayed their knowledge.
As I continue to wrap my head around learning targets, I’ve created the graphic (above), which illustrates the various degrees to which learning targets can impact learning. From top to bottom, choices range from most restrictive to least restrictive. For example, after choosing one from each column (as the graphic indicates), we can end up with, “Teacher chooses target(s). Hit the target(s) this way, by this date, at this time.” Here, we’re one-size-fits-all without student choice. The other extreme is, “Learner creates target(s). Hit the target(s) however you want, at your own pace.” This path resembles personalized learning. And, with all the buzz about personalized leaning (and student choice, student agency, learner-centered spaces, etc.), I have found that these abstract (and sometimes, intimidating) approaches are much more concrete (and far less scary) when considered through the lens of learning targets.
Two more ideas related to learning targets…
What Are Learning Targets?
Standards are not the same as learning targets. Here are three tips to consider when converting the former to the latter:
- If a standard calls for multiple independent actions (e.g., I can identify a dog. I can identify a cat.), split it up into multiple learning targets.
- Make sure all learning targets are in student-friendly language, because we ultimately want students to be able to leverage these targets to drive their own learning through self-assessment (assessment as learning).
- To promote inquiry, present each learning target in the form of a question. (“Can I…?” instead of “I can…”)
Uncovering Learning Targets
To encourage inquiry when working with learning targets, divulge the target at the right time. Revealing the target too early can be comparable to a comedian supplying the punchline to a joke before starting the joke itself; it ruins the suspense. For example, if I’m going to teach kindergarteners how to add, I wouldn’t start by saying, “Today, we’re going to learn how to add!” Instead, without even using the term “addition,” I’d have students group together manipulatives, then drawings, and finally, numbers. At this point we’d attach the term “addition” to what students are doing, and I’d let them know what they have to do to be successful with it.
In the End
While the accompanying graphic illustrates learning targets’ flexibility through various combinations, I do realize that not all possibilities are covered because we can blur the lines between what’s listed. For example, for the second column, the teacher could say, “Hit the target(s) with one of these options, but you can also come up with something on your own, pending teacher approval.”
The intention wasn’t to generate a graphic that fills every nook and cranny, but rather to provide key options that hammer home the ideas that (1) learning targets can be leveraged to support anything from direct instruction to personalized learning, and (2) often times, examining progressive practices though the lens of learning targets can make our lives that much easier.
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