Why, exactly, are students spending time with you today? What is it you want students to know, understand, and be be able to do as a result of this lesson and unit? Great teaching starts with a great reason to teach!
My favorite analogy to describe learning objectives (or lesson objectives, learning targets, learning goals, etc.) is to think about a GPS system. Unless you are on summer break, it is not often that you get in your car and just start driving. It’s even less often that you get in your car and the car decides to take you somewhere. Instead, you take about 30 seconds and type in your destination. Magically, the GPS system gives you turn by turn directions, and you can even look at the route in advance to know why the GPS system is taking you in a certain way. Is there an accident on your typical route? Perhaps a road is closed? And what happens when you miss a turn or make a pit stop? You receive specific and targeted feedback on how to stay on course. Voila, you are at your destination!
How does this translate to the classroom? Clear and specific (measurable even?) lesson objectives, teamed with effective checks for understanding and modifying instruction as needed, allow for students to know where they are going and when they have arrived. Without a “road map” giving directions and feedback along the way, there is no ending. Students will never know if they’ve gotten anywhere, let alone their destination. What’s just as important is the why. Do students also know why they are spending time in school learning this? Do they understand the significance and real-world application of the concepts being taught?
As simple as this sounds, the magic of these clear and specific lesson objectives comes from the teacher communicating them to the students. Make it no secret – the students should know precisely what they are doing and why it is important. Be explicit, and your students will take ownership of the learning themselves.
One simple and effective way of gauging how well students understand the purpose of the lesson is to ask them! As an administrator, I made it routine at the end of each observation to ask a few students what they were doing and why. I typically wrote the students’ answers in the feedback I sent teachers so they could read their students’ comments. The student comments became an important part of my post-observation conversation with teachers. If students are able to articulate the day’s learning, its impact, and its importance, there was clarity. If students could not, it was time for me to ask more questions of the teacher to better understand why this might be.
Teachers can ask the exact same question at the end of a lesson, either as a quick exit slip, a short dialogue, or in some other way.
Are you allowing your students to know their final destination before even beginning the lesson, or are you having your students jump into the car without any idea of where they are going?