Sharon May

"Are we doing anything important today?" My Instructional Shift From Doing to Learning

In my college education classes—roughly a thousand years ago—I was taught to identify and note behavioral goals in my lesson planning, such as "students will read and discuss Ch. 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird," or "students will write a paragraph discussing characterization in The Great Gatsby." And I would write these activity goals on the board to answer students' perennial question: "What are we doing today?" or more annoyingly, "Are we doing anything important today?"

But now, I write one to two key learning goals on my classroom whiteboard, identifying learning goals, not activity goals. This is shifting our focus—mine and the students'—from what students will be doing in class today to what they will be learning in class today.

Now, my whiteboard might read: "Today's learning goals: (1) Identify and analyze the author's purpose in Ch. 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird. (2) Analyze the author's use of character foils in Ch. 11.

Or, instead of: "We will view and discuss a film version of The Great Gatsby," I might introduce our activity as: (1) Understand a director's use of juxtaposition by comparing and contrasting scenes in a film version of The Great Gatsby."

Instead of my former: "Today, we will watch a speech by Colin Powell and discuss his ideas," I might write: "Today, we will learn to name the rhetorical strategies used in an oral argument."

This daily articulation of learning goals, not an activity list, which I read to students at the start of class, has helped to focus students—and place my focus—on students' learning. It informs and reminds all of us of exactly why we are doing a learning activity. It focuses instruction, practice, and assessment on skills and knowledge attainment and acts as a continual reiteration of our GVCs.

I attribute this shift to a process that at times seemed an annoyance, just another district “hoop” to jump through, passed down from our principal to our department PLCs. To my chagrin, however, our department’s continual defining and refining of our GVCs to precise statements of desired learning for our students has resulted in better-focused instruction and communication to students.

I like this change so much that I also now type learning goals at the top of every assignment, which I read and clarify when introducing an assignment.

This articulation is helping shift the entire culture of my classroom to learning, not just doing; to skills mastery, not just points accumulation.

My grading is following this shift, as well. My grading measurement has shifted from a jar of points for completed assignments to a scale of proficiency for demonstrated learning of our PLC’s identified essential skills; and raising a grade has shifted from "do another assignment" to "demonstrate greater proficiency."


Sherri Downing

I absolutely love your ideas! The district that I work for has done a huge shift in focusing on the "why" in the materials we teach, but I am struggling to balance the shift that needs to happen in grading. I don't know how to move beyond the point value for assignments, because there is so much focus on letter grades instead of mastery level. I have found that the focus is more about how high student's letter grades are, not how well they mastered that skill. Any suggestions?

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Shannon Galloway

I love your ideas! I have done something similar with my own students, but I think I will change the wording to give students more meaning to what we are doing in class. Also, a lot of learning targets include testing vocabulary that my students are unfamiliar with. By completing targets that are similar to yours, they can become more familiar with the language, and connect their learning to the standards/tasks that they will be tested over. Great idea!

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Sarah Hayes

Our school has been working on implementing target learning objectives with every change in a lesson. We are also working on strengthening them so they are written in more student-friendly language, and are more specific to each day's goals. It has really impacted my teaching - focusing my mind on what the kids should know by the end of a lesson. It also makes assessment much easier, as I know what to look for and the students know whether or not they are accomplishing their goals.

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Shannon Galloway

I have recently begun to post the learning objectives in my classroom, rather than the "tasks" that we are doing. Much like you did, I have seen a shift from "Are we doing anything important today?" to more genuine discussion about the learning that revolves around the assignments given in class. I like how you introduce the learning objective at the beginning of each class. I think I will add that to my classes' repertoire. I think that is very helpful to them, because it uses the testing vocabulary that my students will see when they take the ISTEP+ examinations in the spring. That's just another way to familiarize them with the vocabulary by incorporating it into what we do each day through the learning objectives. Great suggestion!

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Kayla Howell

This is something I have been working on for the last two years in my classroom. I have seen a huge shift in the confidence and performance of my students. They have started to understand the real purpose of the lessons and activities, and that it is not always about how many points you can get, the point is what can you take away from this activity, and how will it be useful to you.

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Cheryl Gorenflo

I really enjoyed reading your blog and could certainly relate to both sides of this. From a student prospective, I remember sitting in classrooms and wondering why we were doing the activity we were doing and never really understanding the point behind it all as an immature child. I think that is a real benefit our 21st century students receive that we didn't. They are being given more ownership over their education and a clear purpose is being presented to them where we just had to go along with the flow without any real idea as to what the outcome was supposed to look like.

On the flip side, I appreciated your take on presenting learning goals versus learning activities to our students. Not only does this help your students to understand what the focus of the day is and why, but it also sets the tone for our own way of thinking and how we should direct the lesson. Instead of it being just another task or annoyance presented by administration, you gave a much more positive spin on the way we should view these learning targets.

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