It’s Not Really About Learning Targets

So, I’ve got this PD (professional development or professional learning) session that I get asked to lead. I’ve conducted the PD session probably six or seven times in and out of my school district. I think it’s pretty powerful on the whole, but I’ve got to tell you, I’ve grown to hate the topic…learning targets. If you don’t know what a learning targets is, here’s a quick lesson:

A learning target is one sentence and represents what the students should be able to do at the end of that day’s lesson. They usually begin with either “I can” or “Student will be able to”. This is followed by a verb associated with Bloom’s taxonomy and finished off with the topic being studied. Here are some examples:

I can explain major differences between the cognitive and behavioral perspectives of psychology.”

Student will be able to convert fractions into decimals.”

I remember discussing learning targets while in graduate school some 15 years ago and they continue to be something I’m instructed to write on the board daily. It’s really nice when administration walks in, sees that you’ve written your learning target on the board, and you know you’re not going to get dinged for that aspect of the lesson (#sarcasm). Are they beneficial? Depends. Like a lot of things in education, they can be used effectively or they can be a complete waste of Expo marker.

As I’ve refined the session over the past year, I’ve started to begin the presentation with this statement: “This is about learning targets, but it’s not really about learning targets.” By that, I mean it certainly is good for students to know the endgame or big picture of the lesson, but I’m not sure this has to be accomplished by something called a learning target. Beginning a class session with a conversation about the day’s topic can access student prior learning (and schemas) and assist with retention of material for students to understand how the day’s material all fits together. It’s a bit like completing a jigsaw puzzle. With an explanation or conversation at the beginning of class to discuss the information for the day, the students are metaphorically given the top of the puzzle box that shows what picture they are creating. The individual pieces of the puzzle are the facts/ideas/concepts to be introduced during the lesson that fit together nicely and create a completed puzzle which represents, hopefully, understanding of the material. Without a clear image of what the big picture is, it can be harder to connect the information and put the puzzle together. At best, the puzzle is completed, but in a quite inefficient manner.  

Imagine I have two groups of people and each has a 100 piece puzzle to complete. Group 1 is allowed to see the top of the box while working and group 2 is not allowed to see their box top. Who will finish first? Who will be more efficient and effective with their time? Group 1, right? Which group would you like to be a part of?

Does all of this have to be accomplished with a learning target written on the board? Of course not. Can it be attained that way? Of course…as long as there’s a conversation or discussion in addition. Again, it’s about the learning target, but it’s not really about the learning target. It’s really just about learning.

What activities do you use in your class to access student prior knowledge?

How do you help your students see the big picture and put the puzzle pieces together?

6 comments

  1. I think the exercise of summarizing what you want students to learn in a lesson as a one (or two or three) sentence learning target (or goal or outcome) is incredibly useful for the instructor. It either verifies that the lesson (lecture) makes sense or it shines a bright light on something that might seem cool but doesn’t result in much learning. Or teaches something that’s just not very important. Collecting up these learning goals later on makes exam writing far easier too. I’ve found sharing them with students to be a mediocre way to introduce a new topic. A richer introductory discussion of something meaty is almost always more engaging.

  2. Intuitively this seems to make sense. But is there research that shows this is actually effective for students beyond the effect it has on the instructor? I can see that writing these things on the board or including them in a lesson can keep the teacher focused on what they’re supposed to do, and having a discussion can ‘access prior knowledge’ etc. But I’d like to see it measured against other uses of time such as the ‘hook’.

    So in one class we discuss that we’re going to be talking about changes of state and talk about what that means or ask them about ice or boiling water or something. (or God help us write “I can describe the difference between a physical and chemical change.” on the board) In the other class we don’t tell the kids what we’re going to be learning today, we just take out a blowtorch and quickly melt an icecube until it steams. The second one sounds cooler to me, and I feel like it would spark curiosity and engagement, but I honestly don’t know which one would be better for learning or if there’s any decent research to show one way or the other (emphasis on decent). Education is full of nice-sounding analogies like building a jigsaw puzzle but they don’t always hold up to scrutiny.

  3. In project-based learning where students plug away at the same problems for days, and each student is doing something wildly different from the others… I’ve struggled with adequate learning targets that change daily. I have settled with knowing that my kids are setting their personal goals within the boundaries of the assignments and I’m just keeping up with kids day by day. Yeah, there’s a learning target… but my kids don’t need it.

  4. It’s okay to tell the students the intended goal or outcome for a lesson but there are times when, as an instructor, you’d like to ask the kids: What did we learn today?

  5. Are learning targets better thought of us content specific or skill specific, or some kind of combination of the two? In other words, is the learning target (which are called objectives in my neck of the woods) what they will learn (knowledge), how they will learn, or a combination of the two.

  6. Having learning targets written for students is considered sacrosanct in my neck of the woods. I think partisans for posting justify it by saying it provides ELLs or lowers students with a visual reminder they need. I agree with you they need not be posted, but I’ve trained myself to do it anyway. 180 days a year with an new objective or two written everyday on the board is a absurd exercise though.

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