• Sara Needleman

Sharing Learning Expectations

This post provides a deeper look into the ideas of transparency, one of JumpRope’s Core Values.

One of the things I love most about the practice of teaching is how tiny little changes I make to a lesson plan or assessment, an activity or a discussion, can change how everything plays out in the classroom. As I plan, I ask myself questions like, “Where should I begin? How do I make connections to prior learning? Which questions should I pose? When do I step away and let the students take charge?” Asking those questions and others has long been a part of my practice, but it was not until I read Ron Berger’s Leaders of Their Own Learning that I saw the importance of strategically and mindfully talking with my students about our learning targets. I had not yet discovered how invoking this little adjustment could shift the whole lesson. I knew that posting the targets was a positive step toward transparency. Doing so would help students see our goal for the day. What I had not considered, though, was questions like, do all the students know what all the words in the learning target mean? Do they understand what the learning target is asking them to do? Do they see a context for our work with this learning target? Do they maintain focus on the target as the lesson moves along? I was inspired to spend more time and attention on how and when I used the learning target so that my students could get more from it.

One focal point for discussion of learning targets, as I mentioned above, is making sure everyone in the classroom has a common understanding of the words we use in our targets. Engaging with the lexicon of the academic world not only gives students currency in that world, it enables them to approach academic tasks with greater confidence. If students don’t know what certain words in our learning targets actually mean, they’ll struggle to reach those targets. Consider these examples:

I can determine the relationship between the number of sides and angles in a polygon.

I can compare and contrast capitalism and socialism.

I can label igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks in a cross-section of the earth.

I can justify my position using evidence from the text.

I can synthesize basic information gathered from observations to formulate a hypothesis.

I examine a series of historical events to generalize and name patterns.

The first three examples ask students to know the meaning of content-specific academic language. Two methods I like to use to help students understand this type of language is to ensure that earlier lessons directly address the meanings of words so that later, when students need to operationalize the words, like in the first example, they feel confident. Of course, another way to ensure students know the meanings of words is simply to stop the lesson and define or review definitions of those words in the moment. This is a good strategy to use with both content-specific vocabulary and the taxonomic academic language we use in classrooms, like the verbs seen in the latter three learning targets. When we help our students fully grasp the meaning of words like “justify” and “generalize” we not only shine light on the path toward the learning target, helping them know what exactly is expected of them, but we help build their academic capital. Here are some video examples (one), (two) from Expeditionary Learning, of teachers taking time to help students grapple with the language of the learning target.

Perhaps the biggest epiphany I had in reading Berger was the suggestion that revealing the learning target and addressing it directly does not always need to happen at the start of the lesson. In some cases, naming the learning target and making sure everyone understands its intention is best done once the lesson is under way. For example, it might make sense to open a lesson with a demonstration or a simulation to capture student attention and give them an experience to draw from. After engaging in a common experience like comparing the motion of an object across two surfaces, each with different amounts of friction, students might have an easier time accessing the learning target, “I can determine the effect friction has on moving objects.” Likewise, after watching the teacher model how to offer constructive feedback, students might better understand and engage with the learning target, “I can effectively provide critical feedback to my writing partner.”

Once I feel confident my students can navigate the language of the learning target and that they see the context for it, I try my best (though this is still a work in progress) to invoke the target throughout the lesson. I find that revisiting it helps all of us focus on our goal for the lesson. We are reminded of why we are doing these activities, having these discussions, taking these notes, creating these products. We are doing these things to learn something specific. Here is one more video from Expeditionary Learning that provides an example of the teacher referencing the learning target throughout the lesson, including as she closes with an exit ticket based on it.

I think of learning targets as the guideposts for my lessons. If my own clarity with them is a step toward better supporting students, it follows that student clarity with them is non-negotiable. In helping students access our learning targets, we need to consider things like their understanding of the target’s phrasing, when and how we introduce them, and how we keep them present throughout our lessons. The more transparent we can be with what the target actually means and the better we can position our students to engage and re engage with it throughout the lesson, the better chance we have that they will actually meet our expectations.

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