In our district, we ask teachers to post learning objectives in the room so that the students can see the goal of their learning. The idea is that by posting this, both the teacher and the students will have a focus for the lesson and be able to determine at the end of learning whether they have met the objective for the day.
This clarity of learning is critical for students. It helps the teacher and the students to clarify what they are trying to accomplish. The second layer to this is to add a success criteria to the goal. This is language that shows the student how they will be able to demonstrate they have learned the objective to an appropriate degree. By adding success criteria, we then know how a student can prove learning to the teacher—and more importantly, to themselves.
This visibility in learning can also help the teacher to more clearly understand what is being taught. This may sound funny—how could the person teaching not clearly know what is being taught? I have found there are many times when I watch a lesson and feel the teacher doesn’t really know what the true objective is. This can happen because the teacher is using a curriculum and is just moving on to the next page in the chapter or the next chapter in the book. But it can also happen when the teacher begins a lesson and realizes later that the students don’t have the prior knowledge or background info to really learn the concept or demonstrate the skill.
What I have found, in our state at least, is that the standards themselves make this process harder for the teachers—not easier. Teacher try to turn the standard into an objective, and while this looks good on a wall, it really isn’t enough for the student and the teacher to use to show progression of learning (and therefore complexity).
For example, think about the standard for second grade that is about money. The standard reads, “Solve word problems involving dollar bills, quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, using $ and ¢ symbols appropriately. Example: If you have two dimes and three pennies, how many cents do you have?” The teacher can turn this standard into an objective, “The student will solve word problems…” If the teacher is spending five days on this standard, most of those days are not going to be teaching word problems as the standard states.
Surface-Level vs. Deep-Level Knowledge
When we break this down, we realize there are numerous pieces of information that teachers will need to teach for students to understand this. There are also various levels of complexity that are needed to understand. Finally, the balance of surface-level and deep-level knowledge must be considered.
The surface-level knowledge that students need is the value of each coin and its characteristics. This must come first before any word problems can be solved. Next, the teacher must show students how money is different than other numbers—possibly how it looks with a decimal compared to using the cent sign as a label. There is a step involved with students that helps them to understand how to best count money by sorting them by value, starting with the biggest value and counting down. Students can practice this first by being provided the coins in order, and then the more complex task comes along of arranging them first by value and then counting them.
As you can tell, there are multiple steps that are needed to address this standard. Each one builds on the other. Some of the skills are surface-level and don’t require much more than memorization, while some skills require comparing coins, organizing them, counting them, and totaling them.
Breaking Down the Standards
Whew! That is a lot all for one second grade math standard, so where is a teacher to start? In the planning phases of breaking down the standard, the teacher should begin first with the most basic knowledge that the student needs: coin identification. From there, the complexity increases until the student can reach the level required for the standard.
Think of it this way: The cognitive verb that is used in the objective can change during each lesson to help adjust the complexity. Students start with, “Identify the coins and name the values.” From there it goes to, “Count the coins and find the sum of the values.” Next would be, “Sort the coins by value and organize them from highest to lowest to find the sum.” Finally, students could meet the standard by, “Solving a word problem involving coins.” There could be a step needed between the final two that helps students translate from the pictures of coins to the words that describe the coins, but only if needed.
As a teacher, you can help make all the steps of learning clear to the students by breaking down the steps needed to master the standard by monitoring (and increasing) the level of complexity. This will help everyone in the classroom to know exactly how to be successful and demonstrate learning.
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