When I taught 8th grade science, I often heard, “Are we going to blow anything up today?” Most of the time, the answer was, “No”, but the question prompted me to ask myself “What is it the students are looking for?” Obviously, lots of the time, they are hoping for something cool, something truly engaging. But just as often, they simply are seeking clarity. They want to know what they will be doing in your classroom. They want to know what is expected of them.
I have found the easiest and most effective way to respond to this desire is to post the learning targets for the lesson at the front of the classroom. Posting the learning targets for the lesson lets the students in on what they will be learning and doing in your classroom for that lesson. It also begins to activate their prior knowledge, a key to making the learning for the day meaningful. A well-written learning target gives the students the road map they need for the next 40-80 minutes or so and it might even inspire their curiosity. In addition, I have found that when I name the daily targets for myself and for the students, I create for myself the intentional connections I need to make between the unit standards and what I need to address on a daily basis to help the students reach mastery.
In an effort to be sure students really can attain the daily targets, we ourselves need to be utterly clear on what it is we expect of them during each lesson. In my middle school science classroom for example, say I wanted my students to collect data for how the mass of a matchbox car affects its velocity. Say I also wanted them to record their results on a table, and finally, draw conclusions about the relationship between mass and velocity. First I needed to be sure they had a firm understanding of the terms mass and velocity. I also needed to be sure they could create a table, as well as properly use the equipment necessary to collect the data. Finally, I needed to know they had the capacity to analyze their data in order to draw conclusions. Enter one of my favorite voices on learning targets: Jane Pollock.
In Improving Student Learning One teacher at a Time, Pollock encourages us to apply the Goldilocks Rule and aim for “Just Right” learning targets. Pollock, like we JumpRopers, knows how easy it is for teachers to fall into the trap of “too much”. You’ve fallen into that one, right? Pollock suggests we break daily learning targets into useful categories to help us avoid that problem: factual, procedural and conceptual. The target, “I can define mass and velocity and use each properly in a sentence” is a factual target. It rests quite low on Bloom's Taxonomy, but it will be a very important target for my young scientists to attain if they are going to later attain the conceptual target, “I can compare the relative velocities of five matchbox cars, each with different masses, in order to figure out which one moves the fastest and explain why this is so.” In an 80 minute class period with my middle school students, I might have been able to address these two targets as well as the procedural target, “I can make a table to effectively record data.” If, however, we had not yet spent time addressing the procedural targets, “I can measure the mass of an object on a triple beam balance” and “I can use the formula d/t, in a given direction to accurately calculate velocity” then I would need to conclude that I had too many targets to cover in one lesson.
The key to addressing the daily learning targets, therefore, is first, seeing very clearly for yourself what it is you want your students to learn in the lesson and whether or not that learning necessitates a previous lesson, with pre-requisite targets. The second key to success is to make sure your students are aware of the daily targets (Sorry guys, today is zooming cars, not exploding chemicals!) so they can see where it is you are all headed that day.