Friday, July 25, 2014

Differentiation Using Learning Targets

Chapter 6- Learning Targets

Without a doubt, this chapter amplifies the need for teachers to do real lesson planning.  The kind of planning that takes a high level of content knowledge, flexibility, and a instinctive relationship with each student.  Differentiation is what separates good teachers from great teachers because instead of reaching “most” kids, they begin to reach “all” kids.  As Moss and Brookhart mention on pg. 96, the use of learning targets can help teachers decide how and when to differentiate instruction. 

The examples used throughout the chapter highlighted two things for me. First, many well-meaning attempts to differentiate in the classroom fail because the choices themselves are unrelated to the learning target.  Specifically, the authors mention the example of allowing students to work in partners may or may not be beneficial to both students but often a teacher has no way of knowing which one. This is not to say that collaboration is not both effective and necessary, but teachers much align their activities with the actual learning target to insure that each and every student can meet their learning goals.  The second point of emphasis in the chapter is how time consuming quality differentiated lesson planning can be for teachers.  Within the template the authors prescribe on pg. 105, a teacher would do the basic planning by unpacking a Student Expectation (SE) and working to create learning targets to reach the specific standards.  However, to differentiate the lesson, they also have to prepare multiple ways to present the content, multiple activities for instruction, and finally multiple assessment methods to show performance towards the learning target.  It is no wonder why so many efforts to differentiate in the classroom fail.  It is hard and time consuming. 

Moss and Brookhart also propose another reason we struggle with differentiation. The concept that many teachers are okay with varying the resources (inputs) but struggle with the idea of varying outputs (such as assignment length). (pg.97)  Some of this revolves around a philosophy of grading…is about what a student “earns” or what they “learn”? In my mind this is not an easy debate, but ultimately, in a standards-based grading system, we need to focus on what the student has learned and the evidence we use to make that determination may be different, but the standard should not.

Finally, a much under utilized strategy we have at our disposal is the concept of pre-assessment in terms of a resource for lesson planning as well as goal setting with students.  The strategic questions in Fig 6.2 (pg. 98) are excellent resources in which  to build a foundation of knowledge about lesson design for an individual classroom or concept. In my experience, pre-assessment rarely gets the attention it deserves in the formative assessment cycle.  We must use the information we have about our students (Readiness, Interests & Affect, Learning Profile) to create better learning targets and ultimately better learning experiences. 

Luckily, within many NISD classrooms, teachers are utilizing the workshop model of instruction.  This is ideal for providing the structure needed to make differentiation  possible for teachers and students.  The opening portion of the lesson is perfect for introducing the learning target (I encourage using many of the strategies noted in the book and not just writing in on the board). By planning performances  of understanding at various levels that involve varying levels of teacher help, the work period provides the ideal time to have teachers differentiate their support and provide formative feedback.  The closing portion of a lesson should be used to monitor the success criteria by having students explain their learning process. Following the learning targets philosophy adds a simple question to the closing....a student should not only articulate what they have learned, but be able to determine for themselves (without the teacher) where they are in relation to the learning target.  This self-regulation is the difference!!

I would love to hear how you differentiate in your classroom!

Questions to Consider:

·      What role do learning targets play in a differentiated lesson?
·      Which concept of the “input” or the “output” within the differentiation process, do you and/or your peers struggle with most?
·      What secrets do you use to help plan for
differentiation in you classroom?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Who Owns the Learning? Learning Targets: Chapter 5

For years, educators everywhere have held up the mantra proudly that “It’s all about the kids!”  In Chapter 5, some of Moss and Brookhart’s insights hit me right in the face as I consider my own teaching and the instructional work I have led in my career because while we like to say its all about the kids, we often make it about the adults in our buildings.  The opening line in the chapter, “Students are the most important DECISION MAKERS in the classroom,” got my attention right away.  We often say that students are the most important part of the classroom, but the most important decision makers? Taken in that context, I am not sure our actions consistently model a student-centered approach to the formative assessment cycle.  As educators, we have to admit that while we can force compliance for many things, students decide how engaged they are in their learning and how much in means to them.  Now, our actions certainly can influence and motivate students…sometimes we can even manipulate them; but if we are developing assessment-capable students, as the author suggests, we must put them in position and expect them to monitor their own learning.

I have to admit, this chapter really solidified the need for teachers and students to work as partners in learning.  The two-way conversation that is essential around a learning target, success criteria, and performance standards must have complete understanding from both sides.  One of the pieces that I know I often miss when speaking with students on classroom visits, is having them share where they are in their learning/progress as compared to the success criteria.  I like to ask what the learning objective, goal, target, etc. is but that is really fairly generic unless it means something to the student in terms of their own learning.  I slight phrase change can make all the difference!!!  Another piece of developing assessment-capable students that I believe we are right on the verge of connecting, is self-reflection.  However, the authors point out some subtle differences that may help teachers and students move forward at a greater pace.  In NISD student commentary has become a regular practice as students reflect on how their work meets a particular standard in an assignment (especially on SBBBs, but also journaling and other activities), but what we need to make sure they are doing is “translating their self-assessment into action plans for improvement” (p. 80). 

“Self-Assesssing without making an action plan for improvement is like reading a recipe without actually preparing the dish: it’s nice to think about, but it doesn’t help get dinner on the table.” (p. 89)

This of course brings me to goal-setting.  Numerous studies have shown that goal-setting is one of the leading factors influencing student achievement.  The authors use John Hattie’s research to point out that students being able to know where they are in relation to a standard and use the information to set goals as the number one factor for improving student achievement.” (p. 80)  What it doesn’t mention is the impact of short-term vs. long-term goals and the impact they can have.  When starting anything new, don’t we all want to have some immediate success?  Maybe it is with a new exercise plan, a diet, or some home improvement, but the feeling of seeing results immediately and still having a success criteria in mind is powerful.  This is the beauty of Learning Targets!!  They are meant for DAILY learning to build toward a long term learning objective.  Students need to know for themselves how they did today and where they are headed tomorrow.

Rick DuFour and others have made four simple PLC questions famous:
·      What do I want students to know?
·      How am I going to teach it?
·      How will I know if they have learned it?
·      What will I do if the don’t? (or Do?)

These are essential questions for teachers to answer as they plan lessons, however the ownership is on the teacher, not the student.  Moss and Brookhart add to these questions by posing two for students as well:
·      What am I learning (the learning target)?
·      How will I know when I have learned it (the success criteria)?

Students must be able to assess where they are in the learning process in order to set goals to move forward.

Chapter 5 gives lots of examples of ways teachers can help students monitor their own learning.  I am curious, what are some strategies that are most successful for you?


Thursday, July 10, 2014

We Must Feed Our Students: Learning Targets Chapter 4

Learning Targets- Chapter 4 (part 4 of a series summarizing the book Learning Targets by Connie Moss and Susan Brookhart)

A popular book for principals several years ago, was Neila Conner’s “If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students”.  It is a humorous book filled with ideas to improve staff morale and encourage improvement.  A helpful tool for any principal.  In Chapter 4 of Learning Targets, Moss and Brookhart tackle the topic of “feeding” students through feedback.  I especially like the way they intentionally stress that feedback needs to connect with student goals and that it must happen in “real time” to have the optimal effect. 

“Feedback” has become a popular buzz word in education over the last couple of years (with good reason) as more and more research and literature has become available about effective feedback consistently raises student achievement more than any other factor (p. 63).  However, simply giving students feedback isn’t enough.  As Moss and Brookhart point out, feedback must answer three central questions of the formative assessment process from the student’s point of view:

1.     What knowledge or skills form my learning target for this lesson?
2.     How close am I to mastering them?
3.     What do I need to do next to close the gap?

Feedback has to truly “feed” the student.  The authors compare it to nutritional value…items such as stickers, checkmarks, happy faces, and even grades have “no nutritional value”.  They do not help a student grow and improve because they do not relate to the actual lesson, nor do they give a student anything they can use moving forward.  The feedback that does move students forward shares five specific characteristics (p. 64):

1.     It focuses on success criteria from the learning target from today’s lesson. (Specifically, what did they have to do today that builds upon what they already know and creates a foundation for what they will learn tomorrow?)
2.     It describes exactly where the student is in relationship to the criteria. (We often overlook this step and move straight to #3, but students need to know where they currently stand.)
3.     It provides a next-step strategy that the student should use to improve or learn more (Does your feedback offer suggestions toward accomplishing the success criteria?  Describing how they did is not enough.)
4.     It arrives when the student has the opportunity to use it.  (Three days later in the grade book doesn’t improve learning.  Students need real time information to assess their own learning.)
5.     It is delivered in just the right amount- not so much that is overwhelms, but not so little that it stops short of a useful explanation or suggestion. (Expert teachers can balance their feedback to help students without giving them the answers.)

Most of us give feedback to students based on activity or task completion rather than connecting the learning to specific curriculum standards or learning targets.  However if we want to use our feedback as effectively as possible, it needs to feed our students forward and connect directly to their own goals. In the book “Feedback”, author Jane Pollock mentions two distinct factors that complicate the connection of learning targets, goal setting, and feedback.  First, many teachers write curriculum standards on the board, but do little to expect students to actually interact with the standard as a performance goal.  Second, students themselves do not expect to self-regulate or self-assess on a regular basis. (p. 21)

When learning targets are connected to student goal setting and provided effective feedback  you can truly see the effects of feeding students forward and making them confident independent learners.

Questions to consider:

·      What feedback strategies do you currently use? How effective are they, and how do you know?
·      Have you ever worked really hard to provide feedback that students didn’t seem to appreciate or use? What part of the formative learning cycle mentioned in chapter four may have been missing?
·      Halfway through the book, what has been the most useful idea you have found so far?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Build Student Engagement w/ Learning Targets (Ch. 3)

Learning Targets Chapter 3- Sharing Learning Targets with Students (The following is part of a series summarizing the book Learning Targets by Connie Moss and Susan Brookhart)

Student engagement: Can we see it? Can we measure it?  Is it possible to even know when and if it is happening?  Is it realistic to think that students will be engaged in every lesson, every day?

In Chapter 3 of Learning Targets, Moss and Brookhart define student engagement by “what students actively think about, what their minds are on, rather that what their hands are on, that determine active engagement.” (p. 43)  They also pose the importance of sharing learning targets with students, not just at the beginning of the lesson, but throughout, based on formative assessment to make sure students recognize, understand, and aim for what is important to learn during the lesson.   With that being said, the performance of understanding remains at the forefront of the planning process and cannot be an afterthought.  We have to intentionally plan to connect the daily learning target with compelling evidence of student learning.

Last year, in our district, we were fortunate to begin our first Teacher Leader Academy.  A large portion of this Academy focused on building capacity in formative assessment (resources can be found at  The pieces these teachers learned align perfectly with the performance of understanding cycle outlined by the authors on page 45:
  •      Embody the learning target
  •      Promote mastery of essential content
  •      Develop students’ proficiency in specific reasoning skills
  •      Provide evidence of student learning
  •     Prepare students for the elevated degree of challenge that will face them in tomorrow’s lesson

The performance of understanding provides the necessary tool to engage the student.  They will own their learning if they understand what they are trying to do and why it is important. I would also add, that the performance of understanding results must inform the teacher on their own level of success and provide a basis to adjust tomorrow’s lesson as well.   This year, another group of teachers from each campus will be part of the Teacher Leader Academy…they will be trained in assessment for learning and charged with helping lead their PLC’s design learning targets that include performance of understand.

Chapter 3 also emphasizes a third component to the design cycle:  Criteria for Success.  This piece is often not used on a consistent basis although we do have several structures in place to allow it to happen.  First, the criteria for success must align to the learning target (How many times have we seen a great task displayed that doesn’t match the Student Expectation outlined in the lesson?) and must include the students’ perspective.   Teachers should use exemplar pieces of student work, rubrics, and modeling among other things to insure that students understand what quality means. Our district initiative of Standards Based Bulletin Boards are wonderful examples of quality work with commentary from teachers and students, however this happens after the lesson; the success criteria must be embedded “into” the lesson.  They must make meaningful learning visible (pg 48).

A final piece of sharing the learning target outlined by the authors is the concept of “make it relevant”.  This speaks directly to student engagement. Students in our classrooms today, more than ever, want to know why they need to know the information.  Do we remember this as we plan the learning target, performance of understanding, or the criteria for success?  If we want students to have ownership of their learning, we must give them a reason to own it.  In NISD, our Profile of a Graduate sets an ambitious goal for the type of learner we hope to cultivate.  It is a great place to start building the “why” behind learning, however individual lessons must have relevance to the student as well.

As you prepare ways to share learning targets with students, questions to consider:
  •      Do you believe it is possible to create a relevant learning target that inspires student ownership for each lesson? Why or why not?
  •      What do you find most difficult in creating performance of understanding for each lesson?
  •      Do you regularly use student “look-fors” as part of your teaching?  How do you share them and how do students articulate they have met the criteria for success?

 To see a video describing connecting learning targets to assessment for learning: