by Grant Wiggins, Authentic Education
As promised in a prior post and in response to reader queries: Yes, I am still working on my ideal accountability system (as follow-up to my criticism of most current test-score-based systems). In the meantime, I want to respond to a number of recent e-mails, observations in classrooms, and in-person discussions with educators about the increasingly-common demand that teachers post daily objectives in highly visible form the classroom.
In almost every classroom now, one sees such posters; here are a few pictures of some posted Essential Questions in schools using UbD:
But here is a recent e-mail we received, from a teacher working in a district that attempts to honor Understanding by Design on a recent school policy:
My school is currently mandating the posting of K U E D posters in every classroom. I am an elementary school teacher, and I have a hard time understanding the purpose behind making giant posters to switch out for every subject (reading, math, social studies, and science). I feel that time would be better used in actually creating quality lessons rather than making posters. After talking to a colleague, she stated that Understandings shouldn’t be posted, because they should be developed by the students. I see the benefit of the K U E D format as a planning tool, but do not see the purpose of posting these wordy documents for students. Could you give me any advice?
You really don’t know whether to laugh or cry in the face of such mindless policy. (Nor do I know what all the letters stand for; it’s not a UbD abbreviation).
You want to hear something worse? We saw and heard, with our own eyes and hears, a classroom in which the teacher asked: boys and girls, what standard are we working on today? And the kids replied, in dull metronomic unison: ELA Standard B.2.a.i.
Last year I wrote a number of posts on the constant thoughtlessness we see in education. These policies certainly qualify. Yes, of course: it’s important for students to understand the goals for the day and beyond. But does any supervisor honestly believe–if they would just think about it for one minute–that a policy requiring the chanting out of Standards numbers or making and hanging 4 teacher-crafted posters each day is in the best interests of learning and the best use of teacher time?
This gets it all backwards.
Effective Goal-Setting vs. Ineffective Goal-Setting
The aim is to ensure that students understand goals and how current activities support those goals. Ideally, then, the student has perspective and sees value in the work: they understand the why of the current work in order to find it more meaningful and to facilitate purposeful learning, and they have a touchstone for gauging progress (and thus use of time).
Think about any long meeting. We have an agenda not only to remind us of what we must accomplish but what action items should follow. Why is that useful to provide a written agenda at the start – and, importantly, keep referring to? Because we easily lose track of time or focus unwisely on less important matters than the goals require. In other words, an ongoing reminder of larger purpose (and a double-check on whether current talk is on-task and a good use of our time) is always wise, given human propensity to get lost in the moment.
True for teachers as well as learners.
Thus, the bottom line test of the effect of any school policy about goal posting is whether or not students learn better and have greater perspective because of it. For example, when asked, can students say why an activity is being done and why it matters and how it connects to prior work?
Alas, having hundreds of times asked students in class Why are you doing and learning this? I cay say that the results are not pretty. I dunno is the most common. (Older kids sometimes sullenly retort: I dunno; go ask the teacher.) And this is often in schools where there are posters on the wall or objectives on the board.
So, while the intent of the poster policy makes sense, there is little or no benefit to merely requiring the posting. That gets it all backward, as the agenda analogy suggests. The posting is a means; the end is understanding of the meaning of the work and a way to stay on track. So, merely requiring the posting shows that the policy is really not for the learners at all but for the satisfaction of supervisors to make us all think that focused learning is happening (by osmosis?).
But, Grant: even you suggest that teachers post Essential Questions!
That’s just one way to keep goals in view. A reason for highlighting Essential Questions is to help students keep the broader goals and value of the immediate learning in view, to connect specifics to bigger ideas and issues which are easily lost in more specific lessons. So, in a unit on the writer’s craft, it makes sense for the teacher–and, eventually on their own, the students–to continually refer back to the Essential Question, whether it be on a poster, in one’s notes, or on a Google Doc: How do good authors hook and hold the attention of the reader? When the EQ is prominent, by whatever means–various Turn and Talk prompts, an exit slip, after each specific reading is considered, etc.–the available document becomes helpful.
In other words, the formally written and available EQ serves as a reminder to all that each read-aloud, charting of ideas, independent reading, and written reflection is to focus on that question. Like an agenda, the EQ is there to remind all of us to self-assess, make inquiries, and take notes on the priority question as we engage in discrete and easily tunnel-vision-inducing activities.
To put it in UbD terms, the posted goals are meant to be understood, not merely noticed; they are meant to be woven into all the unit design and activities so that they become meaningful as connective tissue for the learning. With active student consideration of what is written somewhere, via teacher prompts and reminders, and by logical links between each specific activity and the coherence provided by the written objective.
The student has to be helped to understand the importance of what is written and referred to, in other words, not merely see it as a label for the activities. And that’s just what a good EQ does: it provides a larger perspective and a binding focus to the otherwise unconnected ‘content’.
See If What You’re Doing Is Working
Supervisors, please do a simple test as to whether the current policy is working. Note the objectives for the day, posted as usual. Then, ask students as they leave a room to write on a post-it “What was the goal of today’s lesson? And how did the activities support the lesson?” or, more simply: “Why did the teacher have you do those activities?”
The results will likely put to rest the claim that merely posting the goals and citing them once at the start of the day is a good idea.
Note, readers are highly encouraged to submit both helpful practices for making goals clear to learners as well as more dumb rules about mandatory goal stating for the Mindless Policy Hall of Fame in the comments below.