Clarity Precedes Competence—Applies to Kids Too!
When I do quick observations in classrooms, I’ve found that one simple question tells me more about the level of learning taking place than just about anything: “What are you supposed to learn today?” Responses vary, particularly at different grade levels. More often than is comfortable, the response is in a language I believe derives from the caveman. The response usually includes a shrug and a series of guttural grunts that sound vaguely like, “Uhhh . . . I dunno.” In some cases, the students snap their heads to the board and read the objective that the teacher has posted. This is a great sign that the teacher is working toward clarifying expectations! However, my follow-up question is always the same: “What does that mean?” More often than not, caveman language shows up again: “Uhhh . . . I dunno.” Another common response when I ask students what they are supposed to learn is that they begin to explain the activity or assignment they are working on. My response is always, “That sounds great! So, what are you supposed to learn from that?”
Teachers in effective PLC teams spend countless hours clarifying what they want students to know and be able to do. They unwrap protocols and debate what prerequisite skills and vocabulary students must have. They further clarify what they want students to learn by designing assessment questions that specifically assess learning targets embedded within a standard. They determine what proficiency will look like when a student has met the standard. Unfortunately, I rarely see the same level of clarity from students. Instead, teachers lead their students along the path of compliance without communicating a true understanding of what they are supposed to learn. By empowering students with a clear goal and pathways for reaching the goal, students can become partners with us, engaged in reaching the rigor being demanded of them.
Last year, a math teacher in my middle school had a scheduled personal day and left detailed plans for the substitute to follow. The sub didn’t show. As principal, I stepped into the class until a replacement could be found. My math skills are plenty strong enough to do middle school math. However, as a trained English teacher, I was not feeling confident about my math pedagogy. The teacher left a crystal-clear objective and a well-designed formative assessment. I wrote the student-friendly objective on the board and explained, “Hey everybody, I’m not a math teacher, so I’m not going to pretend to know the best way to teach this to you. But here’s the thing. Your teacher expects me to make sure that you learn this today, and I don’t want to hear later that Mr. Hansen doesn’t know what he’s doing! So, can you help me out? Can we all learn this today?” The class agreed. We had a lengthy two-way conversation about what the objective really meant and came to consensus about what a student would be able to do when they had learned it. We were clear! Then I asked, “How many of you think you can do that right now?” We were 10 minutes into the class. About 40 percent of the class raised their hands. I said, “Okay, prove it.” I handed them the short formative assessment the teacher had prepared. About 25 percent of the total class was actually proficient! I said, “Fabulous, we have the rest of the class period to make sure that everyone gets it.” Using each other, the Internet, and the textbook, the class worked together to make sure everyone got it. The next day, the math teacher was quite impressed with my math teaching “prowess.” I almost didn’t tell my secret! Instead, I shared that the real work had been done by the teacher in getting clear on what students were supposed to learn and designing a viable assessment. All I did was make the learning target clear, keep the peace, provide them with pathways for accomplishing the learning, and get out of their way.
Nothing builds efficacy like having a clear goal, persevering through challenges, and achieving what was intended. By providing clear learning targets and communicating them, we can help students become our partners in reaching the rigor demanded. Clarity precedes competence.