I’ve been a physics teacher for 21 wonderful years and have learned a lot from my students, my experiences, my colleagues and educational research. The concept of a learning target and understanding a purpose prior to learning was a new one for me when I was a new teacher – my experience in high school as a student in physics was similar to most from my generation: a set of transparencies were already set for the entire year and my teacher would pull out the folder for “Day #” and would proceed to plow through the material. There was no sense of purpose or ownership of the daily lesson, which is something that I knew had to change in the ways that I structured my classroom environment . . .
During my first year as a teacher, a colleague shared with me five questions from Understanding by Design, Expanded 2ndEdition. In this text, Wiggins and McTighe recommended asking a student mid-lesson any of the following questions to reveal whether or not a student realized the purpose of their work:
- What are you doing?
- Why are you being asked to do it?
- What will it help you do?
- How does it fit with what you have previously done?
- How will you show you have learned it?
These five questions were so important to my class and effective classroom assessment that I had them written on laminated notecards taped to the teacher desk to ensure that I would have them ready to ask during each class. As a result of frequently assessing student awareness of the purpose of their work and assessments, I better understood what resonated with my students. It soon became apparent how to structure a lesson, activity, or assessment so that the students understood the purpose of what was to be learned. Student responses to these questions helped me refine the learning targets and modify the work toward comprehending those targets. The student responses also helped me to adjust the teacher lesson plans when the students were not confident of their purpose.
Student understanding of the purpose of lessons and assessments is an essential foundation upon which their new knowledge and skills are built.
Twenty years later, my approach to my students’ understanding of a lesson’s purpose is much less formal, but Wiggins and McTighe’s questions are still alive in my questioning strategies and perception of students’ non-verbal cues as well. These purpose-seeking queries have become intertwined within the fabric of the discussion of the class, often taking the form of “Wait, what?”, “So what?”, and “What’s next?” Students who are proficient in discerning the purpose of their work are ready for more ownership of the learning process — not only knowing the purpose, but in the co-creation of the purpose through inquiry. According to the National Board Science Standards, 3rd Edition, “scientific inquiry involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known about a given subject; planning investigations; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating results.” With these ideas in mind, I have a new set of questions that I ask regularly:
Prior to investigation (investigation is used generally here, not just for experimentation)
- What questions do you need to consider?
- Why do you need to explore your questions?
- How can your questions be best investigated?
- What resources do you need to improve your understanding?
- How is your improved understanding useful and relevant?
- How can you best communicate and demonstrate the evidence of your improved understanding?
Two weeks ago, my students and I started our study of rotational motion. I began by asking small groups to explore the prompts and equipment for the four major labs of the upcoming unit. I gave them the “prior to investigation” questions and asked them to explore the lab materials, discuss what they would need to be able to achieve the purpose of the experiment, and share their new insights with the class as a whole. Each one of the labs “looked” like something we have done before, but the new rotation components added extra levels of complexity. . . within each of the groups there was an initial sense of confidence (I heard some of them say “Haven’t we done this before?”) that was replaced with confusion that transitioned into lots of discourse and discussion and sense making. Leaders emerged and stepped back as others had ideas and took on that role. Ideas were freely suggested and the students came back to the whole class discussion ready to share. As a result of their fifteen minutes of exploration and another fifteen minutes of discussion, the students generated over 70% of the district-defined learning targets and performance expectations of the rotation unit before even looking at them. They did not have the right vocabulary yet, using words such as mass location, pivot point, rotating force, rolling inertia, and slushiness (as it related to the chicken noodle soup inside the can) – in the weeks that followed we replaced these words with lever arm, fulcrum, torque, moment of inertia, viscosity (though we often used slushiness as well). The students had an innate sense of what was needed to be learned even before learning it. Additionally, they developed some new learning targets on their own, ones that were added to our work together during the rotation unit.
When students have the opportunity to take ownership of defining the purpose of their work, this leads to increased student involvement and understanding.
The students left the classroom after our first day’s learning target discussion excited to learn – they had significant ownership in the learning process from the beginning and that sustained throughout the unit. Before the unit began, I had a plan for the flow of the unit, the ways we would build our understandings, and the assessment tools we would use. We used most of the work I had previously prepared, but we supplemented the existing materials with student-generated assessments and assignments that I created in response to the students’ initial purpose-defining work that highlighted their interests and prior knowledge. The anticipation of the upcoming labs that they previewed on the first day of the unit and the corresponding content that was required to do them was at a high level every day. Throughout the unit the students approached all tasks with a sense of ownership and renewed clarity of purpose, and they made great progress in understanding all of the district-defined learning targets as well as the additional ones they created. The students often scored their own understanding of the material at very high levels, especially the topics that aligned with the initial targets they developed. The students communicated and demonstrated their new knowledge and skills throughout the unit with high levels of proficiency – often using the learning target language and concepts in their explanations. Having understood the purpose of their learning and taking ownership of that purpose made the learning targets dynamic. Instead of the learning targets being something extra that was on the board every day or at the top of every homework, the purpose of learning was meaningful for the students since we authentically considered them before the unit began and developed them together as a class.