Learning Targets--Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today's Lesson
By Connie M. Moss & Susan M. Brookhart
I highly recommend that you read this book. It will really help your understanding of what Learning Targets are and their importance.
*I found used copies on Amazon.com-very inexpensive to purchase ISBN 978-1-4166-1441-8
This is the last chapter!!
Chapter 9—A Learning Target Theory of Action and Educational Leadership: Building A Culture of Evidence
*The role of the educational leaders is to make schools and classrooms work better for all students. One of the traditional ways educational leaders go about this work is to observe teaching and learning at the classroom level and use that information to improve their schools and districts. But what educational leaders observe depends on what they look for.
*A Shared Theory of Action and a Common Language
As a cohesive theory of action, learning targets bring increased clarity to the work that students, teachers, and administrators do each day to raise student achievement and increase teacher effectiveness. In a very real sense, they create a common language about what educators look for and count as evidence of effective teaching and meaningful student learning.
These shared beliefs compel action-oriented and goal-directed collaboration wherein each educator intentionally focuses his or her daily efforts on looking for and addressing inconsistencies and ineffective practices. In fact, looking for what works and what doesn’t— and doing something about it—becomes everyone’s most important work. Once educators’ eyes begin to open, what they see astound them.
*Are We Looking For What Actually Works?
Picture the typical list of educational “best practices.” The lists are normally saturated with descriptions of what teachers do—the instructional methods, strategies, and techniques someone deemed “best.” Traditionally, principals use these lists as “look-fors”: techniques administrators are supposed to see, describe, and evaluate as they walk through a classroom or conduct a formal observation. Ultimately, leaders are supposed to use the information they gather from their observations as feedback to help teachers to improve the quality of their instruction and raise student achievement.
The problem with this setup is obvious. A traditional list of best-practice look-fors asks the principal to gather frequent “snapshots” of teacher actions, including how well the teacher differentiates the lesson, integrates technology, manages the classroom, uses specific instructional strategies, and provides academic rigor. Even when these forms and structures invite principals to describe what students are doing, they are directed to look for something called “student engagement”—a concept that has become so diluted and ubiquitous that it is nearly meaningless. Ask a thousand principals to define student engagement, and you will hear a thousand individual theories, most having something to do with student being “on task.” Unfortunately, too few principals ask the jugular question: “Engaged in what?” Students may be working feverishly on a task that is meaningless.
Here’s the bottom line: what principals “look for” in the classroom is exactly what they see, and what they will continue to see. That’s because teachers will continue to demonstrate the behaviors and practices that they know their principals are looking for.
*What We Evaluate is What We Perpetuate
What we evaluate is quite literally where we place values—what we deem to have worth.
What members of a district look for during classroom observations signifies what they value and communicates the culture of their district. For that reason, what educational leaders actually do, more than what they say, influences what is accepted as strong evidence of student achievement. If the leadership team focuses exclusively on data from standardized test scores and audits of teachers’ actions and decisions, then instructional methods and standardized test scores will continue to be the coin of the realm—the way everyone in the building measures what is valued.
In too many cases, classroom observations are audits of teacher performance. Information on instructional decisions is valuable, and we are not discounting it. But details about what the teacher is doing tell only half the story of what is and isn’t working in the classroom. The rest of the story—the most significant part—is told through what students are doing and the evidence they produce while they are doing it.
If the leadership team places increased value on what students are doing during a lesson, then a transformational value system will begin to take root. Once the leadership team adopts and communicates a learning target theory of action, it can use every opportunity to learn more about what students are actually doing during today’s lesson to increase their understanding, produce evidence of their learning, and raise their achievement. Although educational leaders will still observe teaching behaviors, they will do so from a decidedly different point of view.
*Educational Leadership: The Catalyst for Student Achievement
When researchers examined the links between student achievement and educational leadership practices, they found that leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to student learning. What’s more, the contribution of effective leadership is larges when it is needed most. There are virtually no documented instances of turning a troubled school around without intervention from talented leaders. Although many factors must work in unison to transform an underperforming learning environment, leadership is clearly the catalyst.
A learning target theory of action can better equip educational leaders to exercise vigilance over instruction and support an effective learning environment. It makes them better able to conduct strategic observations, provide targeted feedback to teachers, and forge strong learning partnerships between teachers and students.
*The Role of Educational Leadership
Look beyond the walls and test scores of an excellent school district or building, and you will find excellent educational leadership. What we know about excellent leaders is that they have significant effects on student learning, second only to the effects of teacher expertise and quality of the curriculum. We know that school leadership is most successful when it is focused on teaching and learning. It makes sense, then, that effective leaders play a crucial role in high-quality schools, because they spend more quality time in the classroom.
Lately, the term data-driven decision maker has added another layer to what we expect from an instructional leader. In today’s standards-driven landscape of accountability, educational leaders are encouraged to collect, organize, and analyze data using ways that would have been impractical just a few years ago. Two important cautions regarding data-driven decision making are worth mentioning here.
1. Data from standardized tests are not educational goals. The data we collect are not “ends,” or the reason for doing what we do as educators. They are means—and not the sole means—that we use to improve student achievement and increase teacher effectiveness. Standardized test scores are the signposts we consult periodically during our journey. They are useful markers that can tell us some things about our journey, but they are neither the journey nor the destination. In fact, if we think about standardized tests as large directional signposts, then learning targets and success criteria are the mile makers that help students, teachers, and principal’s figure out exactly where they are relative to where they need to be and assess their progress minute by minute during today’s lesson.
2. All data are not created equal. Standardized tests happen too infrequently to be the sole data source of decisions about how to raise student achievement and improve teacher effectiveness. The decisions that matter most are the one made by the students themselves in partnership with their teacher during each lesson. Standardized test scores always give an incomplete picture of what is happening in the classroom. A learning target theory of action, on the other hand, reveals exactly what is working during a lesson and what isn’t. It provides living, breathing indicators that we can use to assess collaborative, targeted, and goal-driven action.
*The Principal as a Formative Leader
Much literature on successful leadership practices supports what we are learning about formative leaders. It underscores our belief that consistent, well-informed support from educational leaders in general, and the principal in particular, can have a significant influence on student achievement.
Research tells us that when principals engage in targeted professional development—specifically, in interactions with teachers about improving what happens in the classroom—their leadership is more likely to positively affect teaching and learning. In fact, developing principals’ ability to provide formative feedback to improve classroom practices can be more important than deepening their specific content knowledge. This is especially true in middle and secondary schools, where the realities of multiple disciplines make it highly unlikely that a principal can provide expert content support for each teacher and each subject. What’s more important is to develop principals who ensure that strategic instructional practices that raise student achievement are embedded in each lesson.
Principals who are able to engage in formative and generative professional discourse with teachers about how to refine teachers’ instructional practices to raise student achievement are principals who see themselves as competent to do so. We refer to this sense of confidence as positive self-efficacy, and research tells us that leaders who measure high in positive self-efficacy perform much better in leadership situations than do their less-confident counterparts. What’s more, leaders with high levels of positive self-efficacy tend to be part of leadership teams that exhibit high levels of positive collective efficacy—confidence in one another’s competence and in team members’ combined ability to be successful. It’s no wonder that multiple researchers point to positive self-efficacy as a key variable in understanding how leaders evaluate themselves in dynamic educational environments. District practices, including the kind of support that districts provide to principals, can influence collective efficacy within a district.
*Achievement of What?
Aiming for achievement means that you are looking for evidence of something. A learning target theory of action makes that “something,” in today’s lesson and every lesson, public and visible. In our work with schools, we have found that educational leaders play a pivotal role in the conceptual shift promoted by this theory of action. Formative leadership can move a district from a focus on teacher-centered instructional objectives to a focus on learning targets an success criteria that both students and adults use to understand, assess, and advance their own learning. Indeed, our experience and the experiences of the educational leaders we are privileged to work with tell us that this conceptual shift is a game changer.
For this conceptual shift to take root, three layers of change must take place.
Layer 1: TO LEAD THEIR SCHOOLS USING A LEARNING TARGET THEORY OF ACTION, ADMINISTRATORS MUST ASSUME THE ROLE OF THE LEADING LEARNER. Our theory of action promotes a learning-focused rather than an instruction-focused school culture. In a learning-focused culture, the adults in the school see themselves as intentional learners who view their buildings and classrooms as living laboratories in which they increase their knowledge and skill to foster student learning. The educational administrator functions as the principal learner, leading the learning of students, teachers, administrators, staff, and members of the school community. We use the term culture to describe the shared beliefs, norms, and artifacts of a particular group of people. Learning targets promote a cultural change from teacher-centered, evaluative beliefs and normative practices to a collective theory of action that centers on what students believe and know and uses what students are actually doing to learn as the standards. That cultural change can’t happen in only one classroom in a building.
**The culture of a building or district doesn’t change without its leaders. Administrators need to lead by example, provide feedback that feeds forward, see themselves as the leading leaders in the district, and treat teachers as co-learners. That’s why our learning target theory of action promotes a culture of collaborative learning in which administrators, teachers, and students “co-labor”—work together—to raise student achievement.
Layer 2: TO COMMIT TO A LEARNING TARGET THEORY OF ACTION, ADMINISTRATORS NEED TO LOOK FOR AND ANALYZE WHAT STUDENTS ARE ACTUALLY DOING AND LEARNING IN THEIR BUILDINGS’ CLASSROOMS. Evidence of student learning helps leaders analyze what is working in their districts, lesson by lesson and for specific teachers, groups of teachers, or buildings. As administrators sharpen their focus on learning targets, they ramp up their own professional learning and commitment by recognizing what students are being asked to do to learn and produce evidence of their achievement. This focus contrasts with the more conventional supervisor’s visit to a classroom to observe teaching behavior. During the traditional observation, administrators audit “student engagement”—usually defined as being busy and complying with a teacher’s requests.
*If school leaders want teachers to adopt a learning target theory of action, they must intentionally learn about it, commit to it, and model it themselves. They must critique their own ability to use specific, learning-focused language to describe what effectiveness, and provide feed-forward information to teachers while they still have time to act on it. In this way, they help teachers set more challenging short-term and long-range goals that benefit all students.
Layer 3: TO KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR AND ANALYZE IN CLASSROOMS, ADMINISTRATORS NEED TO UNDERSTAND A LEARNING TARGET THEORY OF ACTION AT A DEEP LEVEL THEMSELVES. To support a learning target theory of action, administrators need to be especially skillful at observing students working and interpreting what’s going on with their learning. Is what they are doing leading to increased understanding and producing compelling evidence of that understanding? As leading learners, school leaders should be partnering with teachers to look for and share examples of expert teaching that positively affects student learning. In other words, before educational leaders can promote a learning target theory of action, they must make the shift themselves, clarifying their own view of what they accept as evidence that all students are learning and achieving to their potential.
As I’ve said each week, this is a great book with a lot of examples, tables and charts that I’m not including in the post. At the end of the book there is a “Action Tool” section. I highly recommend that you purchase a copy of the book for further information and study.
I hope you have learned as much as I have and will put Learning Targets into practice.