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  • Sara Needleman

Figuring Out Learning Expectations

At JumpRope and in the field of education in general, we talk a lot about transparency. To me transparency means providing an unobstructed view or clear access, no hidden surprises or secrets. It’s a good goal to aim for in schools and classrooms. In Visible Learning, John Hattie helps us see that teacher clarity, a facet of transparency, is among the most effective practices we can use to improve student learning. Working toward clarity requires multiple conscious actions on the part of the teacher. We work toward it during our planning phase, before we arrive in the classroom; during instruction, as we lead students into their studies, and later guide them along toward mastery of facts, concepts, and skills; and finally in helping them understand how their learning will be assessed. First among the practices that support teacher clarity is defining what we want our students to learn.

Determining what we would like our students to learn can be simultaneously exciting and daunting. As such, it is a process best approached through dedicated collaboration. Theoretically, we could begin anywhere, but increasingly in our K-12 schools, we begin with a set of standards. Schools and school districts use Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), or American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), to name a few, as the basis for the content they address. Sometimes school districts and schools use national or state standards to write their own set of standards. In any case, teachers are then expected to use the chosen standards as the foundation for the courses, units, projects, and lessons they teach. Teachers dissect the standards into “what” they are asking students to know or do, determine how complex the skill or concept is, and identify what context students should be able to use the skill or knowledge in. From this analysis, teachers determine which of the outcomes are most essential and write class or grade-specific long term learning targets or indicators. Using standards to develop learning targets will be the subject of our next post.

Once teachers are clear on the set of standards they should use, their next step is to “unpack” them, to actually figure out what they mean. California’s Digital Chalkboard provides one of my favorite resources on how to unpack a standard. This resource contains three short videos: Introduction to Unpacking Standards, How to Unpack a Standard, and the Conclusion which wisely reminds us that this work is best done in collaboration with colleagues. These brief Digital Chalkboard videos address a few important ideas in the unpacking process. First, the teacher has to identify the concepts contained within the standard, “the what.” Next, it’s helpful to figure out the skill or the type of thinking attached to “the what.” And, finally, sometimes the standard indicates a specific context for working on that thinking. Here’s an example from Reading: Literature at the 8th grade level:

KEY: red = “the what,” blue = type of thinking, purple = context

Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

In this case, and in others where I am at all able, I interpret the context quite broadly. “Text” might be print, or it might be audio or visual. More often than not, standards do not bind us to contexts; we get to choose them.

In my process of unpacking, I try to look at the standard through several lenses. This helps me translate it from a static directive, written by someone other than me, into actionable instructional goals. The first lens I look through is one of several taxonomies. The taxonomies help me figure out how complex the thinking within the standard is and which activities I should plan to best help my students work toward it. Some of my favorite taxonomies are Bloom, Webb, and Marzano. I also like to categorize the thinking within the standard into factual, conceptual or procedural knowledge. This helps me figure out how much time I might need to devote to instruction and what I might be assessing formatively and/or summatively. Here are some examples of how instruction could be categorized in terms of thinking:

Factual: names, dates, places, definitions and terms, memorized formulas or sequences

Conceptual: explanations of how and why, impacts resulting from, reasons behind, contributing factors

Procedural: writing a bibliography, writing a paragraph, using a microscope, using a protractor, drawing axes, making a map

Standards written at the school, district, state, or national level give us a common and necessary starting point for planning instruction. Our responsibility as teachers is to find a method to digest and understand those standards so we can effectively design curriculum all the way from courses to lessons. Once we know what the learning expectations are for our students, we can begin to help them access and interpret those expectations. Both of those are important steps to take on the path to transparency.

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