Using Learning Targets as a GPS to Student Learning

Guest post by Drake Shelton

When I drive, my GPS helps me navigate to where I am going. It shows me multiple routes, an estimated arrival time, and the distance to my destination. My GPS has saved me countless hours of frustration by alerting me to traffic and helping me get back on track when I get lost.

But as Connie M. Moss, Susan M. Brookhart, and Beverly A. Long state, “a GPS can’t do any of that without a precise description of where you want to go.” They ask educators to think of Learning Targets as a GPS to student learning. Instead of flying blind in the classroom, Learning Targets help “convey to students the destination for the lesson.”

This GPS analogy has been very helpful in showing the importance of Learning Targets to teachers and students at Alliance High School. Unlike content standards—which define the broader knowledge, skills, and concepts that students should master at grade level—Learning Targets describe what students should know or be able to do as a result of a particular lesson, and are written in student-friendly language.

GPS for student learning

It is much easier for a student to understand a Learning Target such as “I can explain the three levels of government and which one most affects my local community” rather than the content standard that reads, “explain how the U.S. Constitution establishes a system of government that has powers, responsibilities, and limits that have changed over time and that are still contested.”

Viewing Learning Targets like a GPS helps students understand how to navigate their learning. During a lesson, it is beneficial for students to:

  • Know their destination for learning
  • Choose from multiple learning routes
  • See the estimated times for each route
  • Recognize obstacles or traffic that may stand in their way
  • Access help if they get lost
  • Learn the assessments they will encounter along the way

We encourage teachers to design their lessons using this helpful information. Just like a GPS works backward from the destination, creating the Learning Target is the first step. To do this, teachers must develop a scope and sequence for the lesson that shows growth, critical thinking, and a variety of learning styles to engage every student. Once the Learning Target destination is set, teachers should offer choices so that students can select the “route” that works best for each of them.

In addition, we want teachers to assess students formatively throughout a lesson. Formative assessments, such as exit tickets and discussions, allow teachers to measure their effectiveness and provide assistance by knowing which students are keeping pace, which are stuck in traffic, and which are completely lost. Students who are stuck or lost will then be able to get peer assistance, one-on-one help from the teacher, or whatever support is needed to get back on track.

To have a successful journey, the Learning Targets, which help navigate the students’ learning, are critical. Some students may choose the quickest, most direct path to learning, while others may take the longer, more scenic route. Whichever way they go, students will arrive at their destination so long as they know their Learning Target.

How do Learning Targets relate to outcomes in your classrooms? How do you use assessments to drive instruction in your school? Share your experiences in the comments.

Drake Shelton is the vice principal of Alliance High School in Portland, OR, the district’s only alternative school, serving students 15–21 years of age. Shelton is the 2016 Oregon Assistant Principal of the Year.

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