Not too long ago I tweeted the following:
“It’s powerful when we shift the conversation from ‘What lesson are you on?’ to ‘What are your students learning?’”
It’s powerful when we shift the conversation from “What lesson are you on?” to “What are your students learning?”
— Ross Cooper (@RossCoops31) April 1, 2018
This tweet was motivated by a conversation I witnessed, during which a principal from another district said something to the effect of, “I’m working with my teachers to understand that it’s ok for students to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways, but we’re struggling.”
Although I still don’t know the entire context of this particular issue, I can say with confidence that a similar problem exists across countless schools and districts.
So let’s unpack it.
One of the Many Problems with How Textbooks Are Used
From what I have experienced, the majority of teachers still rely on a textbook when determining what to teach. And, if the principal’s problem is present, there’s an even greater likelihood the textbook is being used as a crutch, with teachers spending the year going through the textbook from cover to cover (more or less). This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with the actual book itself; the problem lies in how it is used.
The first warning sign is when the textbook is referred to as the curriculum, when in reality it’s a tool or resource that can help us to meet the needs of our students. And, if we’re treating the textbook as the curriculum, I’m more inclined to point the finger at the administrator (curriculum supervisor, principal, etc.) who is allowing for such abuse to take place.
So, if I’m a teacher heavily relying on my textbook, without the proper professional development to “move away from it,” I too would be baffled by someone telling me, “Teach Chapter 2 in a different way!” or, “Let your students show they understand Unit 7 however they want!”
At least three major steps are required for a paradigm shift to take place.
Step 1: Explore Academic Standards
A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), your current textbook was purchased because someone (or a group of people) believed its content aligned to the current academic standards at the time. Three questions come to mind:
- When the textbook was bought, was it then simply handed over to teachers along with a decree, “This is what we’re using from now on.”
- Have the standards changed since the textbook was adopted? And, if so, were the necessary adjustments made?
- Do teachers truly comprehend the idea that content from their textbook should be taught because it’s in the standards? And, if so, are they aware of the degrees to which they should emphasize or deemphasize certain content?
While the final bullet point may first appear to be uncalled for, I have learned that many teachers are not familiar with their current standards (which, as I’ve said, isn’t necessarily their fault).
So, once again, if all I really know is my textbook, how am I supposed to comfortably move away from it?
The first step involves exploring the standards (to which the textbook is presumably connected), and a simple standards audit can be used to guide the process. Here are the directions I’ve used:
Spend some time exploring your current academic standards. As you do, make three lists:
- standards you’re already adequately teaching
- standards you’re not teaching (at all, or to the necessary extent)
- content you’re teaching that isn’t in the standards
Two points regarding the directions:
- For all three bullet points, we could replace the word teaching with assessing.
- Yes, it’s fine to teach/assess content not in the standards (especially if it aligns to student interests). However, I do believe it’s first and foremost necessary to grasp what is/isn’t in the standards.
Step 2: Transition from Textbooks to Learning Targets and Enduring Understandings
With our new knowledge of the standards, we can now (1) be more intentional about how we use our textbook, and (2) further clarify, for ourselves and our students, what needs to be learned.
Based on what is/isn’t in the standards, we can determine what textbook content should/shouldn’t be taught. For example, Chapter 4 of my math textbook focuses on multiplication, but I know I can skip 4.5 (Chapter 5, Section 4); it has students multiplying to the thousands place, whereas the standards call for students to multiply to the hundreds place.
But it wouldn’t hurt to have them multiply to the thousands place, right?
Yes, it wouldn’t hurt, but time is a teacher’s most precious commodity. And, if I can save time, I’m doing it. Also, teaching next grade level content is acceleration; I’d rather spend additional time having students dig deeper into standards/content we’re already learning – enrichment.
Clarify Learning Outcomes
We can further clarify (for ourselves and our students) what needs to be learned through the use of learning targets for lessons, and possibly enduring understandings for entire units of study.
Standards are not the same as learning targets; think of learning targets as user-friendly standards. Here are three tips to consider when converting standards to learning targets:
- If a standard contains multiple independent actions (e.g., I can identify a dog and a cat.), split it up into multiple learning targets (e.g., I can identify a dog. I can identify a cat.).
- Make sure all learning targets are in student-friendly language, because we ultimately want students to be able to leverage these targets to drive their own learning through self-assessment (assessment as learning).
- To promote inquiry, present each learning target in the form of a question. (“Can I…?” instead of “I can…”) Then, feel free to call them inquiry targets instead of learning targets.
Follow this process for all of your standards. Do it once and you won’t have to do it again.
If we plan on taking a more holistic approach to teaching through the use of unit plans (or project based learning), we can also generate enduring understandings (one, or a few) for each textbook chapter and/or unit by asking ourselves, “What should be my students main takeaway(s) from the learning?” For any specific topic, it helps to think of learning targets as building blocks that must be accumulated by students in order for them to grasp deeper, conceptual, enduring understandings of said topic.
When creating enduring understandings, we should be able to answer yes to the following three questions:
- Do the enduring understandings encompass the unit’s main content?
- Do the enduring understandings promote inquiry? In other words, will students have to engage in exploration and productive struggle to uncover a deeper understanding of the content?
- Are the enduring understandings in student-friendly language so they can be relayed to the students for them to take ownership of their learning?
Now that we have clarified what content needs to learned – through learning targets, and potentially, enduring understandings – and what parts of the textbook can support this learning (as a tool or resource, but not as the be-all and end-all), we’re ready for the actual teaching and learning to take place.
Step 3: Teaching and Learning
Instead of asking ourselves, “How can I teach Chapter 2 differently?” we’re now saying and asking, “This content is what my students need to learn. How can I teach the content, and what are the different ways my students can demonstrate mastery?” Let’s address this question, one part at a time.
Teach the Content
There’s not much to say here other than to reinforce the idea that content has taken front and center, and the textbook has been relegated to a supporting role. The textbook can still be used, but it’s now one of many options. And, a quality curriculum map or lesson/unit plan would present teachers with these options. For example, next to a specific learning target we may list the textbook lesson that could be used to teach it, but we’d also include other resources that support the same content: websites, videos, apps, etc. Also, of course, we should consider the countless instructional approaches at our disposal, some of which may or may not rely on available resources.
Students Demonstrate Mastery
This idea of students demonstrating their learning in multiple ways (the principal’s original question) is abstract. To make it more concrete, I created this graphic, which I featured in a previous blog post on learning targets.
From top to bottom, choices range from most restrictive to least restrictive. For example, after choosing one from each column (as the graphic indicates), we can end up with, “Teacher chooses target(s). Hit the target(s) this way, by this date, at this time.” Here, we’re one-size-fits-all without student choice. The other extreme is, “Learner creates target(s). Hit the target(s) however you want, at your own pace.” And, while the graphic illustrates learning targets’ flexibility through various combinations, I do realize that not all possibilities are covered because we can blur the lines between what’s listed. For example, for the second column, the teacher could say, “Hit the target(s) with one of these options, but you can also come up with something on your own, pending teacher approval.” The intention wasn’t to generate a graphic that fills every nook and cranny, but rather to provide key options that hammer home the idea that learning targets can be leveraged to support anything from direct instruction to personalized learning,
In the graphic’s middle column, all three statements begin with “Hit the target(s)…” So, if this is what we’re asking our students to do, we have to know what it looks like when this hitting happens. In other words, for each learning target, teachers and students need to be aware of its success criteria. Here are three learning targets along with their success criteria:
- Learning Target 1: Can I identify who is telling the story at various points in a text?
- Success Criteria 1: As I read, I can tell you who the narrator is, and I can support my answer(s) with evidence from the text.
- Learning Target 2: Can I compare two fractions with different numerators and different denominators?
- Success Criteria 2: When given two fractions with different numerators and different denominators, I can tell you which one is bigger or if they’re equal. I can justify my answer using numbers, words, drawings, and/or manipulatives.
- Learning Target 3: Can I apply knowledge of basic electrical circuits to the design and construction of simple direct current circuits?
- Success Criteria 3: I can engineer a circuit containing a closed path, which connects a light bulb to a battery. The circuit contains a switch that can be easily activated.
Two points on learning targets and success criteria:
- If we want students to have flexibility in regards to how they demonstrate their learning, success criteria should be medium agnostic. As in, it should refrain from mentioning specific products, technologies, tasks, etc. The litmus test is to ask, “If teachers from other classrooms are teaching the same learning target in a different way, would they also be able to use the same success criteria?”
- Optionally, to better own their learning, students can work with the teacher to construct success criteria (as opposed to it simply being given to them). As a teacher, when possible, I accomplished this through the analysis of exemplars (e.g., students analyzing various narrative essay introductions in order to determine its quality features).
Finally, if we’re talking about entire units as opposed to individual lessons, we could create an almost identical graphic by swapping out learning targets for enduring understandings.
In the End
In summary, to give students flexibility in their learning, here are more detailed steps we can follow. (Steps 3-5 are not entirely linear.):
- Explore our current academic standards, and how they correlate to what’s being taught or assessed. Then, calibrate what we plan to teach.
- Transform our standards into learning targets (for lessons). Optionally, for units, create enduring understandings.
- Find resources, other than the textbook, that can support standards-aligned teaching and learning. (A curriculum map or lesson/unit plan can help.) Consider your instructional approach.
- Decide how much flexibility will be embedded in the learning process. (The graphic can help.)
- For each learning target, determine its success criteria. For units, group together all of the learning targets that will contribute to the enduring understanding(s).
It’s critical we’re aware of the intricacies that are involved in moving away from the textbook, promoting student-centered learning, and allowing for students to demonstrate their learning in more ways than one. Once this awareness exists, these shifts are much more likely to happen.
How do you shift the conversation from “What lesson are you on?” to “What are your students learning?”
Connect with Ross on Twitter.
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