Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Standards vs. Learning Targets: Training for the Marathon

One of the core components of SBL is the articulation of clear standards.  These standards help us design curriculum, instruction, and assessment within our courses.  Within a unit, however, students need to have more specific targets for their learning than the course or school or national standards. While the standards can provide our ultimate destination (looking at a body of work over time), they are often not very helpful (for us or for students) when it comes to specific instructional design and assessment.

Unit level targets, in contrast, are precise and specific, and provide interim destinations--where students should be along the way in order to be prepared to meet the year-long standards. They are smaller, more achievable goals that help build to the larger goal.

One way to look at this is through the metaphor of running a marathon.   My course level standard would be running 26.2 miles.

 In order to be able to meet this target, I will need to train over time; nobody expects me to be able to go straight from the couch to finishing a marathon.  It is essential that I will have small, achievable goals that will provide me not only motivation, but also valuable feedback about my progress towards my overall goal.  These smaller goals are equivalent to unit level targets.  

For example, in order to be on track for completing the full marathon, by week seven (of a 16 week training plan) I should be able to have a long run of 12 miles.  During this time it would not be helpful if the only feedback I was getting was, “you haven’t run 26.2 miles yet.”…as a matter of fact, it would possibly make me give up, even if I was actually making the expected progress.

The same is true in the classroom. Yearlong (or even semester long) goals may not be able to provide the incremental progress feedback necessary for maintaining motivation and growth. Neurologist and teacher Judy Willis writes about the importance of setting incremental goals. "The fuel that motivates the brain to persevere through increasing challenge, even through failed attempts, is dopamine. This neurochemical produces the pleasure of intrinsic satisfaction, and increases motivation, curiosity, perseverance and memory. Dopamine is released when the brain makes a prediction or achieves a challenge and gets the feedback that it was correct" (Willis). When students experience frequent success and can visualize progress, they are more apt to learn efficiently and effectively.

So what does this look like for standards and targets? Here are some examples teachers in our school have created. These scales move from left to right, increasing in complexity. Notice how the unit level targets inform the larger course level targets; they break down the larger goal and isolate a single part of the standard to focus on during the specific unit of learning.

Course Level Target
Reading: Comprehension:

I understand the main and supporting ideas of the text and can provide a summary, but my summary may be overly general or too specific; I can identify how the author structured the text, including how information is organized and presented.
I understand main and supporting ideas of the text and can provide a succinct and objective summary that supports my purpose; I can explain how and why the author structured the text and presented information.
I can determine which information from the text best supports my purpose, and can adjust my summary based on that purpose; I can evaluate the author’s decisions around structure and presentation.

Unit Level Targets (supporting the above)
Reading: Comprehension:
I can determine important ideas within a text.
I can determine main and supporting ideas within a text.
I can show how supporting details support the main purpose of the text, and can determine which information from the text best supports my own purpose.
Reading: Comprehension:
I can provide an accurate summary, but my summary may be overly general or too specific.
I can provide a succinct and objective summary that supports my purpose and includes a relevant Big Idea.
I can provide a succinct and objective summary based on my purpose, which connects the details to the big ideas within the text.

Course Level Target
I have a clear thesis; my paragraphs have separate and distinct topics that match my thesis; my leads introduce new topics; my purpose matches my audience; most of my paper matches my thesis.
I have a clear thesis with organizer; my purpose is appropriate to my audience and to the assignment; my leads support my thesis and organizer, and introduce subtopics; my purpose stays consistent throughout my paper.
I have a clear and multi-faceted thesis that determines my organizational structure; my paper shows awareness of my audience; I manipulate language and techniques to communicate my purpose; my leads and finishers further the understanding of my thesis.

Unit Level Target (supporting the above)


I have a clear thesis which can be proven with limited evidence and analysis.
I have a clear, arguable thesis requiring multiple levels of proof.
I have a clear, complex, and multi-faceted arguable thesis.

We know that learners are motivated by feedback and growth; therefore, our unit level targets must allow this.  The course level targets are often less helpful in an instructional sense, so we need to shrink the grain size in order to articulate what learning looks like along the way. By creating these specific unit level targets, we can design better instruction, monitor learning, and communicate progress toward the end goal, thus ensuring that more of our students cross the finish line.

Willis, Judy. "How to Rewire Your Burned-Out Brain: Tips from a Neurologist." Edutopia. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2014.

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