Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Know Where Your Students Are Going

Okay, so we know to start by understanding the standards, breaking them down into achievable learning targets that are worded in kid-friendly language (“I CAN” statements), and posting them in the room so that all can see. 

Unpacking Standards

The author discusses “unpacking” the standards and objectives.  Think of the standards as a final destination, and decide what steps (skills, knowledge, etc.) are necessary to get each kid from where they are now – Point A, if you will – to where they need to be – Point B – which is achievement or mastery of the standard.

Ms. Jackson identifies 2 types of goals: Content and Process.

  • Content: What students need to know and understand
  • Process: The skills students need to use or demonstrate

Content and process goals often overlap or are embedded in one another.  For example, in order to write a paragraph students must know how what elements (topic sentence, supporting details, conclusion, connections, etc.) are involved in creating an effective paragraph.

Teachers can tell the difference between content & process goals by looking at the verb in the goal statement.  If the verb is something like “know,” “tell,” or “understand,” it’s likely a content goal.  If the verb implies action, like “create,”  “write,” “analyze,” “compare,” etc., you’re probably reading a process goal.  It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but it’s important to think about what you’re asking kids to do in the classroom and how those activities lead kids toward mastery of the standards.  Here’s why:

  1. Analyzing your goals helps you figure out what’s really important to student learning.  It might be fun for kids to create paper dolls in class, but is it an effective way to help kids analyze cultural differences (for example)?
  2. Examining process vs. content goals is a great way to open the door to differentiated instruction.  If it’s a content goal, think about different ways kids can use to gather and master that content.  If it’s a process goal, think about the different ways kids can demonstrate those skills.  make a list, and give kids a degree of choice in how they show their mastery of content and skills.  That little bit of flexibility on your part can create a whole lot of ownership for kids, making them more likely to get deeply involved in your lesson.
  3. Once again, this process of identifying the types of learning goals you use in your classroom helps you figure out what smaller steps students will have to take in order to master each learning target.  To build off the example above, writing a paragraph is a big deal to a 2nd- or 3rd-grader.  Breaking it down into its elements and helping kids learn how to put them together is much more achievable.

Making Learning Goals Concrete

So we’ve discussed how to figure out what kids need to know and be able to do.  How will we know when they know it?  How will we know that they can perform the skill with mastery?  We do so by making those goals as clear and concrete as possible.

Start by thinking about what kids will be doing in class.  Where can you assess content knowledge?  Where can you assess skills or processes?  It doesn’t have to be at the end of class, with a homework assignment, or through a test at the end of a unit.  The knowledge or process should dictate the assessment.  Never give an assessment just because you need to put points in your grade book! 

The author suggests we avoid vague statements in objectives or learning targets.  Get rid of the wiggle-room!  Use specific criteria and descriptions in your targets.  Tell the kids exactly what they need to know and be able to do.  Instead of “Students will measure a number of different objects,” have kids “determine the volume of three-dimensional objects by calculating linear measurements and measuring liquid displacement.”  This way, kids will know exactly what skills they need to use to demonstrate mastery.  Plus, you know exactly what to teach them, too!

Set Goals in Terms of Minimum Performance

Don’t let this section fool you!  Learning targets should be rigorous and challenging for the kids in your classes.  They should be achievable as well, though.  The author takes great pains to point this out, and I would like to reinforce that here, too.

Meeting or achieving the standard is the minimum acceptable level of performance, the author says.  Moving beyond the standard, once again, allows an open door for differentiation.  They author’s simplistic example, a jumping over a string, describes a standard.  The way a child jumps over that string is how the challenge occurs.  For some, stepping over the string is challenge enough.  For kids who have no problems with that, some may jump and turn 180 degrees in midair to show appropriate mastery for their skill level.  Or, the author says, raise the string higher off the floor and try it again. 

Keep in mind that this is an author’s example.  There are vast numbers of ways this might be applied to your classroom experience.  The point seems to be, everyone should be expected to achieve the standard.  We differentiate in the way they show mastery, and the degree to which they master, each standard.

Designing Appropriate Assessments

OK, so, back to the question: How will we know that they know it?

First we develop criteria and decide on degrees of mastery.  What is the assessment task?  What elements – knowledge and process elements – make up the assessment task?  Will you ask kids to create something new or retell information?  Will kids perform a task with guidance or without assistance?

This discussion takes be back to rubrics.  Not checklists of quantifiable information that we can circle on a page.  A real rubric.  A matrix with descriptive statements in every box.  See Rubistar and other online rubric generators for examples.

Match Activities to Learning Goals

And now, back to the paper dolls mentioned above.  Some call it the “Crayola Curriculum.” The activities that are fun for kids to do, but may or may not demonstrate the knowledge and skills that you’re teaching in the classroom.  The author encourages readers to remember that the standards and objectives should always be the primary driving force behind every classroom activity.  If you look at an activity and cannot describe the target or standard addressed in one sentence, re-evaluate the activity.  Is it the best activity you can develop to help students understand a concept or practice a skill?  Could something be done differently?

Communicate Goals Effectively

Once you’ve done all this “behind-the-scenes” work, how do you communicate the goals to kids?  Kids may know WHAT you’re teaching, but are your students aware of the WHY behind your teaching?  And what about their parents?

The author suggests that the learning targets be discussed in kid language.  If you’re not good at kid-speak, stop and ask them to explain what they’re learning and why in their own words.  You’ll catch on.

Posting learning targets on the board is a nice start.  So is printing it on the worksheets or assignments.  Doing both is better.  When a student enters your room, the environment is all about learning, and kids will know exactly what is expected of them because it is reinforced wherever they look.

Help kids make the connections between their learning and their lives.  If you can’t do it, how will the kids do it?

Email or send a letter home to parents explaining the learning goals in advance of beginning a new chapter.  Want to post a web site?  I can help you with that.  However, this is passive – it relies on the parents’ abilities and willingness to access the site.  Pushing something out to them is more effective.

Get kids involved with their learning by designing ways to chart their progress toward mastery of objectives.  Use pre- and post-assessments, use assessments as formative tools to help kids grow.  make learning personal for kids to help them develop ownership in their achievement.

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