Navigating Success for All Students Begins with a Map

Success for All Students

In first period science, students compare and contrast transparent, translucent, and opaque. At the bell, they proceed to language arts where someone just killed a mockingbird and used a metaphor.  In social studies, Andrew Jackson is busy fighting the British and removing the Cherokee. Health class brings a video on ovaries and fallopian tubes.  Math includes twenty problems on mean, median, and mode.  And the art teacher lectures on the distinctions between Manet and Monet.

At the end of the day, students encounter the inevitable question: “What did you learn in school today?”

“I couldn’t possibly tell you.  Something about Andrew Jackson’s ovaries?” “Monet’s mockingbird?”

There’s a better way to make learning targets clear, accessible, and connected:  standards walls. Because, after all, if we don’t explicitly navigate clear expectations with learners, how in the world will they reach success?

What Standards Walls Are

Standards walls, detailed in both of my books, are maps of where we are going over the course of a unit.  They bring order to large amounts of information, make learning targets and connections clear, and encourage that fabulous feeling of accomplishing a goal.

Furthermore, they bring learners into our curriculum world. In the center of the map, the big unit idea is placed.  This is typically in the form of a broad essential question, such as “How did governments change after WWI?” Next, learning targets are mapped out.  The verbs are written on the stems of the map, such as compare and contrast or analyze. The remaining information rests in the bubble attached to the stems.  In math, for example, the verb line might say “interpret” and the bubble “whole number products and quotients.”  In essence, this is a concept map of a unit with distinguishable learning targets that will unfold over time.

When a unit begins, there’s a big fanfare with our new walls.  We articulate to our students that over the course of the next three weeks, they will be learning about this big question/concept in the middle.  We demonstrate that there are five (for example) learning targets that will develop the understanding of the big concept in the middle.  As work develops that demonstrates the targets, you’ll see some of that posted.

The Advantages of Standards Walls

  1. Clarity, Connectivity, and Transparency

There are a lot of things students might be foggy about during the day, but what the learning target is shouldn’t be one of them. Standards walls make learning expectations clear, concise, transparent, and visible.   Equally important, the targets are connected.  What we are embarking on today connects to yesterday and last Thursday.  They are not separate daily essential questions that seemingly go nowhere.  Pictures of the walls can be placed on teacher websites for parents, and students can take pictures of them on their phones.  Work samples are gathered and pinned on the walls. The question, “What are you learning in social studies?” can now easily be answered with, “Here, I’ll show you.”

  1. Improved Learning

Rigor and memory tend to be enhanced with connectivity.  Standards walls help pull concepts together for learners and provide needed vocabulary of the content.  Plus, in differentiated classrooms, more than one target might be in play.  Walls clearly demonstrate that. For example, two stations might be continuing practice on one target while another group moves on.  Perhaps more importantly -and I’ve witnessed this many times -walls can influence student motivation.  Powerful moments in the classroom occur as a target gets “checked.”  “Class, we are ready to move to our next learning target.” Learning feels doable.  Forward movement, progress, reaching a goal – feels good!

  1. Rowing the Same Direction

Standards walls provide critical information on where we are as a school or district.  In learning walks, targets and student work are readily apparent.  And while the expectation is not for teachers to be lock-step, it’s a powerful experience to be in many classrooms across a district and see that learning targets are, well, right on target.  This transparency brings learners, parents, leaders, and teachers all to the same place. There are no secrets about what learners need to demonstrate.

More than Drawings

Crafting walls is just the first piece.  The more important component is utilizing them as instructional tools.  In the opening minutes of a learning episode, the expectation is to see these articulated.  Some teachers assign a student for this task.  As an observer, I’m examining student work to see that it matches with the target.  In the closing minutes of class, the walls are revisited to ascertain progress on our goals.

It’s a long day for students.  A barrage of information comes at them all day long. Angles and wars and butterflies and kinetic energy and alliteration…AHHH!  How do they keep it all sorted out?  Largely, they don’t.  We can support their learning by a method I compare to a clothesline.  We’re going to help them pin information in a systematic, visual way.  The wall remains throughout an entire unit. “Here’s what this new target looks like. See how it connects to what we just learned?”

When students in your building are pressed with the question about what they are learning in class, are they responding with “I dunno” or robotically reading the essential question on the board? Consider a move to standards walls.  Because of all the things students have to worry about, what we are learning today shouldn’t be one of them.

Suzy Pepper Rollins is the author of Teaching in the Fast Lane and Learning in the Fast Lane, both by ASCD.  In addition, she is the founder of Math in the Fast Lane and the new project, a place where ed authors share their work.  Pictures of standards walls in action can be seen here.