In my district, we adopted a new framework for teacher evaluation, UW CEL, and I learned a new phrase: Teaching point. What's that, you ask? Learning target, learning goal, performance expectation, lesson objective, power standard: while they each have an important nuance of meaning, they all refer to what students should understand or be able to do by the end of a certain period of time.
Posting those learning targets every day so they are visible to all? Yeah, I've never done that, for a variety of reasons. However, I have repeatedly heard that all three frameworks in our state are based on research, and hey, I want my students to learn, so when I read in our district’s framework rubric about daily posting as one possible way of communicating learning targets, I figured--I'm game, I'll give it a try—and I have been posting these in class for the last two weeks.
I shared what I was doing with a fellow teacher—and we had a very animated discussion (raised voices in the copy room!) about the pros and cons of posting learning targets and how this might or might not fit into teacher evaluation. I will say I put some thought into how and when during my lessons I was going to post these targets and discuss them with the students. I knew that for many lessons, about the last thing that would be helpful would be to have a posted learning target at the beginning of a lesson.
I’ll give you an example: Last week, my students extracted DNA from an onion and from themselves. Then they wrote descriptions of what they saw, and talked about possible reasons for this—it turns out human and onion DNA, on a macroscopic level, are virtually identical. I wanted students to understand that the similarities in the structure of DNA in diverse organisms like onions and humans are a piece of evidence of evolution from a common ancestor. It was much more powerful to have the students themselves first notice the similarities between their DNA, their lab partner's DNA, and the onion's DNA, and try to come up with reasons why this may be. The students saw the evidence, the students owned the evidence, the learning target was solidly achieved without explicit posting at the beginning of the lesson. I did post the target the next day, however, which did spur some further discussion. I must say that most days in the past two weeks I posted learning targets at the beginning of the lesson, and I do think it was helpful.
So should I march into my classroom armed with a few teaching points and a “By Gum, these students are gonna learn” attitude? Well, a sense of mission is certainly helpful, but really, this is where the nuance of the teaching point versus a learning target comes in. It’s kind of like the National Board Architecture of Accomplished teaching: teachers use their knowledge of students to set learning goals appropriate for these students, at this time, in this setting. The entire architecture rests on knowledge of students. A teaching point in my district's instructional framework is a target based on student learning needs. Do my different class periods have different personalities and learning needs? Oh yes. Do the individual students in each class have different learning needs? Yes again. Clearly, one of the challenges is differentiating teaching points when teachers have so many students. However, the teaching point versus learning target idea, and the centering of teaching points on students needs, does start to address some of the concerns raised in a more general conversation at lunch in my school faculty room a while ago. The discussion revolved around welcoming the students and establishing community each day, as opposed to just starting right in on learning targets and success criteria. I think basing teaching points on knowledge of students could tie into this nicely.
A problem with having posted learning goals associated in any way with a teacher evaluation rubric? In some buildings in some districts, having learning goals written on the board has become an item on a check-off sheet administrators look for on walk-throughs, whether formal or informal. There are many legitimate educational reasons a teacher may not have a learning target posted even if the lesson was planned with a specific target in mind. The emphasis needs to be on communicating learning targets in some way, multiple ways are even better, rather than a requirement of posting. It seems to me that effective learning targets may be based on content or process, may be phrased as questions, or may be communicated in a variety of ways at various points in the lesson.
I asked my students what they thought about me posting learning targets, and whether they thought it was helpful to their learning. The student reaction? Overall, quite positive. One student said it helped him know what to focus on each day. Another student said she liked going over them at the end of the class period because it helped her know if she had learned what she needed to that day. One student requested more “student-friendly” language. (Well, she didn’t use the term student-friendly, but that is the idea she was expressing!) Several students were somewhat indifferent. One student said he thought he was learning, but the learning target wasn’t really helping--he thought he was learning from all the other things we did in class. I think this student has a good point--I don’t think that posting a learning goal is what is going to make or break a lesson. I’m pretty sure a well planned set of learning activities trumps the posting of a learning target any day.
So am I going to keep posting learning targets in my classroom after my two week trial period? It was helpful enough for student learning that yes, I think I will.