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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Learning Intentions Don’t Necessarily Work

By Peter DeWitt — March 11, 2016 4 min read
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Imagine walking into a 3rd grade classroom and watching students completing a worksheet where they had to use scissors to cut out coins from a paper and then paste the right coins to equal the monetary value next to each question. No continuing discussion with the teacher. No opportunity to create their own values and paste coins in extraordinarily creative ways on the paper while contemplating the value of money with a partner.

Now imagine asking a 3rd grader in the same class what they’re learning and having them answer that they have to paste the coins on the paper under each value. When I prod a little more to ask why they’re doing it, the student answers, “My teacher told me to.” Follow up question is to ask if this was a difficult task to complete to which the student says, “No. I’m in third grade. I learned how to add money last year.” When asked what the student should do next, the student answers that they “don’t know because the teacher hadn’t told them yet.”

So much for the idea of a growth mindset which just happens to be a focus of one of the professionally made bulletin boards on the wall around the world (which is why it doesn’t work).

In numerous classroom visits around the country, this has happened more times than I would rather admit. Not just with money in third grade, but other curricular areas and grades as well. Please do not think I am bashing teachers because I’m not. There are millions of good teachers who would never think of doing activities that students have mastered long before they entered into the classroom.

But...there are plenty of teachers who have students completing mind numbingly boring activities when they could be engaged in learning.

What Are the Learning Intentions and Success Criteria?
When asked what the students are learning, they often respond by stating what they are doing. This has major potential to mean that the students have no idea why they do what they do. Remember, it’s important to ask students what they are learning and not ask them what they are doing, which is often a mistake leaders make when they do walkthroughs or ask students questions during formal teacher observations. I was guilty of this from time to time.

John Hattie (someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer), Helen Timperley, Shirley Clarke and many others have researched and written about the importance of using learning intentions (LI) and success criteria (SC), which many educators have started using. The issue is that some teachers are using them both wrong. They believe, and yes I have seen countless examples, that finishing the activity is both the learning intention and success criteria.

Regardless of whether the teacher is using LI’s or SC’s, if the point is not about the learning instead of the activity, then all we are doing in the classroom is giving students the next task without really having any discussion around learning. And students of any age can have a discussion about learning. Having LI’s and SC’s is pointless if many of the students in the classroom already understand the topic being taught.

We need to stop re-teaching to students who have already mastered the content or we will continue to have students who become disengaged with school as they go from one grade to the next.

Using “I Can” statements or Learning Intentions and Success Criteria is becoming a standard practice in schools, but the problem is that they mean nothing if the point behind them is wrong. Why have an intention if students either know the material before they do the activity or worse, have no idea why they are doing the activity in the first place. When we do this to students, learning intentions and success criteria have very little positive impact.

What’s Worth Knowing?
Some teachers and leaders believe that they corner the market on providing students with learning opportunities, while other teachers and leaders believe students have the opportunity to learn regardless of whether they are in the classroom, school, home or outside.

In order to use learning intentions and success criteria with impact, teachers and leaders should utilize that structure known as the faculty meeting to discuss what learning means and what is worth learning. More importantly, if we truly want students to take responsibility over their own learning, then we should use the faculty meeting structure to figure out how to provide students with the knowledge and opportunity to know what to do next when they have mastered the learning that other students in their classroom may still be focusing on.

In the End
We should not be, regardless of the age, providing students with worksheets that take very little effort. We should be working in partnership with those students to have conversations about why they are learning, what they are learning, and how they can dive deeper into the subject on their own. If the students have mastered the concept, they shouldn’t be forced to work on it over and over again, because we are at risk of losing some great minds when we do that to students, and it certainly doesn’t foster the growth mindset that so many schools are touting they do.

For a great resource on Learning Intentions and Success Criteria developed by the Melbourne Catholic Education Office, click here.

Connect with Peter DeWitt on Twitter.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Souadnaji.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.