Beyond Learning Targets


dots                                                                                                           Shared on flickr by Yuki Ishikawa


In an intelligent classroom collective, things will arise that the teacher may not have considered previously.
~Brent Davis

Do you remember connect the dot drawings you did as a child? You drew lines to connect numbers and created a simplistic outline of a more complex image. It was a great way to feel a sense of mastery and had an element of surprise. I can draw an owl! 

But let’s face it, is was no artistic masterpiece! At best, the finished outline hinted at the subject. For instance, a dot-to-dot of an owl described owls in a very generalist way. The outline did not provide any detailed information about any specific owl. If you wanted to know about owls in the general sense, then the outline was great! But to discover more about the nuances and special features of a specific owl, a definite no go!

A dot-to-dot drawing tells us more about owls in general. It does not describe any ONE owl.

Ok. How about learning targets? Are they a bit like a connect-the-dots outline? Do they describe every child rather than any specific child? And, if each child uses the same dots to connect their learning lines as they move through school, what picture are they creating for themselves, about themselves? Are they finding out and exploring who they are? Specifically. Uniquely. Individually.

Or, are learners discovering more about who WE want children to be? In general. Do learners discover more about how their learning compares to the connect-the-dots outline of every child?

I wonder if learning targets (or outcomes, standards, intentions) might serve as a starting point rather than a stopping point on the journey of fostering learner agency and personalization. Are the creation and sharing of learning targets THE ultimate destination? Or, are learning targets, perhaps, a move TOWARDS inviting students into owning the learning, and a doorway into clarifying what is important in the learning landscape.

Maybe, learning targets are a step towards clarity but perhaps a world of exploration lies beyond?

Moving Forward with Learning Targets

Continuum over Comparison

  • Celebrate jaggedness
    When students are presented with learning targets and a corresponding 4 point criteria scale (whether these are in words or in numbers) we inadvertently create an unspoken expectation that EVERY child should work towards a 4 for every learning target. But is this realistic? And is this what we want? Could we find a way to represent and emphasize the learning journey of each child as a unique continuum rather than as a comparison to an artificial standard?

Acknowledge the Lived Curriculum

  • All targets/standards/outcomes in play all the time
    Do we see learning as a linear march through the curriculum? Do we as the teacher cover the topic and that determines when it has been learned? Or could we have ALL the learning targets out (like a deck of cards spread out on a table top) and put them in the hands of the learner?
  • Students identify when they have experienced a learning target
    Learners come with unique backgrounds and strengths. Can we assume to know what each child takes away from a learning experience? Or could learners be empowered to do this for themselves? Of course, we as educators still have a vastly important role in this process but maybe it shifts to designer, observer, documenter, and nurturer.

Encourage Diversity 

  • Learning targets that are expansive and open
    Do the learning targets invite diversity of thought? Sometimes learning targets can be quite specific and narrow. For example, I can multiply 2 integers, emphasizes the technical skill. In comparison, I can explore multiple strategies when I multiply integers, invites the possibility of diversity of thought.

Moving Beyond Learning Targets

I have just begun to consider what this might look like in practice. Currently some clues I am exploring are:

Consider Emergent Outcomes

More and more, we are required to map our assignments, assessments, and curricula to learning outcomes. But I find it strange that teachers and institutions would pre-determine outcomes before students even arrive upon the scene. I have argued, instead, for emergent outcomes, ones that are co-created by teachers and students and revised on the fly. Setting trajectories rather than mapping in advance the possible shapes for learning.
~Jesse Stommel 

Use Larger Frames 

Invite learners to consider themselves at a more holistic level. Rather than asking students to measure themselves against a predetermined standard in a content area, use the content area as means for students to explore who they are. The curriculum serves the child rather than the other way around. In B.C. we have the unique opportunity of leaning into the frames provided by the core competencies.

Consider Community as Curriculum




















10 Reasons to Consider Standard Based Grading (#SBG)

The hardest part of learning something new is not embracing new ideas, but letting go of old ones. 
~ Todd Rose

When we begin to tinker with classroom assessment practices, there are many changes we can consider. Maybe add an exit interview? Or maybe increase the formative assessment opportunities (using quizzes as feedback instead of as a mark to collect)? Or maybe create a re-do policy? Whatever you choose, it might be easy to change or add a single practice. However, it might be trickier to shift from a culture focused on points to one focused on learning. Enter standard based grading (or outcome based assessment)! And if you are looking for some #SBG articles to get started, scroll way down!

Some reasons you might consider #SBG as you continue to tinker with assessment:

1. Shifts the focus from points to learning:
Previously, my conversations with students revolved around how many points they did or did not get. With the conversation was an implicit power struggle: I had points to give and they wanted them. When learning standards entered our conversations,  the focus shifted from points to what students did or didn’t understand. Our conversations began to explore what activities or experiences might grow their understanding or competency. We were now talking learning, not points!

2. Represents learning as a process instead of as a product or task:
When points were used, students saw learning as a single test, assignment, or answer. I did the test, got those points, and the learning is done. Moving on!
When learning was explicitly connected to learning standards and tracked over the course of several activities, students began to consider learning as something that developed over time and through various experiences. Suddenly, there was value in point-free activities because the activities helped with learning. The new meter stick for whether an activity was valuable of not, was no longer the points assigned, but how the activity helped with the learning. Magic!

3. Conveys a growth mindset:
When learners have only one shot to show what they know, we convey the belief that ability is fixed. When students have the opportunity to see their learning change over time, they begin to recognize that their learning is impacted by their efforts, and that their ability is not fixed. Mindset shift!

4. Redefines assessment as an ongoing conversation instead of as an algorithm:
Almost every course outline I created had the break down: homework 10%, labs 30%, tests 60% (or something similar to it). It was a formula which represented how the final mark would be calculated. I entered marks into these bins and then pressed calculate. I was free and clear, the computer did the work.
When I started with #SBG I had to talk to students, a lot. I had to talk to them all the time. I had to find out from them, what was going for them. I didn’t have numbers to hide behind or algorithms to prove the accuracy of the mark. Instead, we knew, by way of conversation, observation, and assessment, where learners where at in their learning journey.  

5. Makes opportunities for differentiation obvious:
When all the standards are in play all the time, learners can pick and choose which standards they are developing and exploring. This might sound chaotic, but no one is more aware of what they can and cannot do, than learners themselves. When students realize they can tackle a concept again, and one that they previously were challenged by, they are motivated to try again. It might not be the exact the moment that seems convenient to us, but if we believe that learning takes time, learners learn at different rates, and all students are capable of learning, #SBG allows us to put these beliefs into action. Amazing!!

6. Improves the specificity and detail of feedback:
Nothing says general and nonspecific quite as quickly as comments such as, very good, keep it up, or try harder. When standards are used to describe the learning instead of a number, feedback is unique and specific to each student, and unique to each situation. Conversations can now clearly communicate how each student is experiencing success and where they are challenged. Conversations can move away from justifying a number.

7. Provides authentic self-assessment opportunities:
With #SBG students can track their own learning journey. Gone are awkward statements such as, the computer calculated the mark and I don’t know why you got 64%! (I am ashamed but I actually did say that).  Instead, I talked with students to find out what was going on for them, from them. No one can tell you more about how a student is doing, than the student themselves. Although it may be at first unfamiliar to them, students are capable of accurately and honestly talking about their areas of strength and weakness. When learning is not about point collection and power, students open up about where they hope to improve and where they need support.

8. Shifts the ownership of learning to students:
There is nothing as demoralizing as when learners ask repeatedly, what’s my mark?  It is as if you are the one who is magically granting them the mark and it has nothing to do with their learning. When students are given the standards and they begin tracking their learning, it is now a question they can answer for themselves. Presto!

9. Makes the big ideas obvious to all:
When I started teaching, I had columns and columns of marks. I thought that if I collected enough marks, the average at the end would be accurate! But how many times did I find myself in the middle of marking something, thinking that the questions were trivial or in fact unrelated to the big ideas of the course. Many times!!
Once I worked through the curriculum and pre-determined the learning standards, projects and activities that were busy work became blatantly obvious. Now we could focus on what really mattered!

10. Communicates that learners are multidimensional in their abilities:
In Todd Rose’s phenomenal book, The End of Average, he talks about the jaggedness principleHe says:  “Human beings don’t line up perfectly There is no average learner. They have strengths and weaknesses. Even geniuses do.”

Related image

When we talk about learning in relation to learning standards, we can represent the individual learner and their unique jaggedness.

How are you shifting the culture of learning in your classroom or school?

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