October 14, 2014 by

The Lowdown on Learning Targets

Susan Brookhart sets the record straight on learning targets—they must “live in the lesson,” not just be posted on the board. For more insight into how to effectively use learning targets, check out her article “Learning Targets on Parade,” which she coauthored with Connie Moss, in the October issue of Educational Leadership.

In “Learning Targets on Parade,” Connie Moss and I describe how important it is for learning targets for individual lessons to add up to a larger learning goal. With a lesson-sized learning target, students can focus on what they’re trying to learn in that specific lesson. When yesterday’s lesson leads to today’s lesson, which leads to tomorrow’s lesson, students move toward achieving the curricular goals and mastering the state standards you’re ultimately trying to teach.brookhart quote

Learning targets are so important that policies sometimes mandate that teachers post a learning target statement on the board for every lesson, implying that the learning target statement—usually an “I can” or “We’re learning to” statement—is, in fact, the learning target itself. Supervisors look for these statements and may conclude that a lesson has a learning target if a statement is posted on the board.

That notion, however, is not true. A lesson has a learning target when students know what they’re aiming for and are, in fact, aiming for it. This happens when four parts work together: the learning target statement; the lesson-sized chunk of content (the knowledge and skills to be learned); the performance of understanding (what the students will actually do to learn and give evidence of learning); and the student look-fors (success criteria). A lesson has a learning target when the students’ experience of the lesson—which includes those four parts—shows them where they’re headed and helps them get there.

Thus, the learning target must live in the lesson. For a lesson to truly have a learning target, there needs to be more than a statement on the board. When asked what they are trying to learn, students need to be able to offer coherent answers that ultimately describe the purpose of the lesson.

I emphasize this crucial point because of my own experiences over the last few weeks. I did a lot of learning-target professional development workshops this summer, and this was by far the biggest issue I ran into. One teacher remarked that it was so nice to be freed from “the tyranny of the ‘I can’ statement,” by which she meant her administration’s insistence that the statement be on the board. It seemed that the administrators didn’t look for anything else.

For me, viewing a learning target as a lesson purpose, coupled with an appropriate performance of understanding and student look-fors, is the only way to truly improve learning. Just putting a statement on the board and telling students about it at the beginning of the lesson is ineffective. Supervisors who check only for a statement waste a lot of their own and teachers’ energy.

Making a learning target live in a lesson so students experience it every moment of the lesson— that’s how you empower your students to really achieve that target.