Both the works of Marzano and Hattie provide us with evidence that clarity of goals and purpose has a positive impact upon student learning. However within this truth is a hidden problem. Clear goals help students learn but they can also restrict their learning and creativity moving them ever further away from education's long term goal of developing skilled,enthusiastic and engaged life long learners.
Dylan Wiliam makes this point clearly when he states that, "Rather than a single goal, there is likely to be a broad horizon of appropriate goals, all of which are acceptable, and the teacher will intervene to bring the learners ‘into line’ only when the trajectory of the learner is radically different from that intended by the teacher."
Too often, though, teachers paint themselves into a corner with a limited, often easily achievable, short term goal dominating the lesson and student autonomy to aim for that broad horizon of goals, is either deliberately curtailed or unconsciously denied. This problem is often made worse in systems where desire for easily measurable achievement means that teaching is focused on easily measurable goals. As Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot state in their enjoyable book 'The Tiger that isn't, Seeing through a World of Numbers, "measurement is not passive; it often changes the very thing we are measuring... Numbers are pure and true;counting never is." This can lead to short term narrow thinking in surely the area that most needs long term broad think, preparing people for rest of their lives.
How then can teachers overcome this conundrum? We know that clarity of goals improves learning yet are we aware of the danger of ineffective short term goals moving students further away from our long term goals for them?
I would suggest a few reflection points might help:
- Are we clear on what our long term goals are? At ISS Singapore we have spent a lot of time creating an Educational Design Statement which clearly outlines the long term goals we have for our students. Based on the development of core competencies in our students, this statement will be a lens for us to reflect upon our practice to keep us on track towards our long term goals.
- Don't confuse the Learning Intention with the context for learning. Dylan Wiliam writes very clearly about this in Embedded Formative Assessment p 51-69. Too often I have seen teachers confuse the context for the learning intention, leaving students unaware of how a single task links in with their journey of learning. As a result, students come to view education as a series of disconnected small tasks to be completed. E.g.: 'To write a story about an adventure in the woods' is a task not a learning intention. 'To use written language to engage the reader' is a learning intention which can be explored in the context of a story about an adventure in the woods. A great example of this is the recent announcement in the UK that every child should know their multiplication tables by the age of 11. Every politician in my memory has always said we need to improve education and they will be the one to do it by setting a new easily measurable target. Among the many issues linked to this is the selling of learning tables as an end in itself rather than a context in which students can develop a rich understanding of number patterns and a deep understanding of, and confidence in, manipulating numbers to solve problems. (see Jo Boaler's excellent You cubed site for more mathematical related issues and ideas).
- Split Screen Teaching. This idea comes from the work of Guy Claxton and is very powerful. Put simply, each lesson has two objectives; one linked to the skill or knowledge to be acquired and the other to the disposition or competency being focused on e.g. 'We will learn how magnets work and be focusing on questioning'. By keeping both objectives in mind we remind ourselves and our students of the longer term goal of the learning. Another way of doing this is to ask students two questions about each learning activity and its objectives; "What have I learnt?" and "Why do I need to know this?"
By reflecting on these points we can use short term goals as useful scaffolds as students grow and develop in the way our long term goals envisage. If we ignore them, we run the risk of creating goals that move us ever further from our long term objectives and become constraints rather than supports for student learning.