What am I doing here?

It seems obvious that students might find it helpful to know what they are going to be learning, and yet, consistently sharing learning intensions with students is a relatively recent phenomenon in most classrooms. –Dylan Wiliam

After a post last week about articulating learning goals, a question was e-mailed to me by an educator who wanted to know if learning goals need to be written on the board for every lesson. Sometimes the objective of a lesson, the educator rightly asserted, is to have students discover answers on their own without direction from a teacher.  A classic example of this is a SOLE lesson, where student inquiry is guided by a single question and Za learning objective is not present. Students are encouraged to discover meaning during their pursuit of an answer. Whether or not teachers should make learning objectives present for students during a SOLE lesson or other inquiry-based activity is a great question as it addresses a fundamental principle of lesson design and classroom management. Namely, how much information do we need to give students so they can answer this question: What am I doing here? Luckily, Dylan Wiliam writes about this dilemma in his recent book, Embedded Formative Assessment, so we can turn to him for an answer. Wiliam and his book are amazing, by the way.

Wiliam calls the sometimes mandated approach of having teachers post a learning objective before each class “wallpaper objective.” Clearly, with a term like this, Wiliam is not in favor of this approach. Wiliam believes that “sometimes it’s not even a good idea to tell the students what the lesson is about” (56). A SOLE lesson is a classic example of this. The point of a SOLE lesson is for students to discover meaning behind a question by working together to make connections between relevant material. Therefore, for Wiliam, it is not necessary to post a learning objective during each class. “Sometimes we can be very specific, such as when we require laboratory reports to be structured in a particular way–diagrams are to be drawn in pencil and labeled, and so on,” explains Wiliam. “At other times, it may be that the best we can do is help the students develop what Guy Claxton calls a ‘nose for quality'” (58). Rubrics can play a part in this process as long as they are shared with students who are given time to think through, in discussion with others, what the rubrics mean.

Wiliam believes that sometimes it is appropriate for the teacher to present learning intentions and success criteria to students at the beginning of a lesson. He shares that teachers of younger students find the acronyms WALT (We are learning to) and WILF (What I’m looking for) to be helpful at informing students of a lesson’s intent. “Unfortunately,” Wiliam writes, “in many districts, the pendulum has swung too far the other way: a lesson is regarded as a bad lesson if the teacher fails to post a learning objective at the start” (69). Wiliam does include in his book some ways learning goals can be reinforced without resorting to “wallpaper.”

Wiliam’s Non-Wallpaper Techniques for Clarifying Goals

  1. Have students look and analyze samples of other students’ work
  2. Peer review where students discuss the quality of their work
  3. Have students design test items with correct answers about what they have been learning

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if a teacher were to post an objective with every lesson. However, like Wiliam, I don’t think it’s essential for classroom success. If I saw a successful lesson, I would never find fault with a teacher for not writing a learning objective on the board–especially when the point of the lesson might be to have students find their own question-mark-452707_640connections. What makes a genuine difference in a classroom is when a teacher works to ensure that the questions they are asking students are of a high level, that all students get to participate in the learning process, that the problems students try and solve are written clearly and are relevant to learners, and norms have been established in a classroom so students can be given freedom to explore material while staying on task. Oftentimes lessons are not as successful as they can be because one or more of these things are missing. We should always strive to make our lessons and meetings as specific as possible for participants, and agendas, clearly defined learning objectives, and rubrics are a big part of this. “Like everything else in teaching,” Wiliam summarizes, “there are no simple rules, and it is up to the teacher to exercise professional judgement in how best to communicate learning intentions and success criteria to students” (69). It’s important to note that the less students have to wonder “what am I doing here?” the more time they will have to think about a task.