Thursday, October 29, 2015

One of the temptations teachers face is focusing on student activities rather than learning goals. We all have favorite lessons or projects we think students will enjoy or get something valuable from, and so we plan with these things in mind. The danger of this is that it's often not very clear to us or to our students just what learning is supposed to take place and why. As a result, we're often not sure how to assess whether students have learned what we hoped they would.  

A sure sign of a weak learning target is unclarity as to assessment. If I can't think of just what (and how) I'm going to assess learning during or after a lesson, then it's a safe bet that my target isn't clear and I've been focused on an activity and not on student learning. I need to move from my activity-orientation to a goal-orientation. Here's how:

1. 'Begin with the end in mind.' Start with the goal or target, and think of it in terms of what students will learn or do. Knowing where you want students to get in the end is more important than knowing what activity they'll do.  Activity is not our goal--learning is. We need to know where we're going, not just what we'll do along the way. 

2. Once the target is clear, then plan how you will assess the learning, both during and after the learning. Checking for understanding is critical to teaching and learning, and assessments should flow naturally from clear targets. 

3. Once the target is clear and the assessments are in place, activities can then be designed or adapted to teach the desired learning. Interestingly, by starting with the goal we sometimes discover that a favorite project or activity isn't so great after all. It may have served a purpose once, but now we just don't get as much from it as we (and students) need. Thinking about the target first may lead us to create a more effective learning activity. Working this way holds true whether we're planning units or daily lessons.

Activities are very important, of course, and are at the heart of learning. Targets and activities are not mutually exclusive, rather, well-designed activities deliver on the desired learning target. 

Another benefit of starting with the student learning goal is that it tends to push us away from teacher-focused activities and more toward student-focused activities. Students should do most of the thinking and intellectual work in the classroom. Keep the student-learning goal central and this will be more likely. 

We want students doing interesting and challenging work in our classrooms, but we want them doing this toward some well-defined end. Beginning with the end goal in mind will help us be sure that this happens. 

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