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Knowledge Abundance Makes Learning Targets More Important in Classrooms

Knowledge Abundance Makes Learning Targets More Important in Classrooms

Watching my third grade son bounce from searching the internet to watching YouTube videos to asking Alexa questions – mostly to learn about his favorite sports teams and athletic trivia – I’m reminded of today’s students’ expectations for learning.  Put simply – they don’t want to wait and they don’t have to.  When they want to learn something, they do.

Thanks to technology and the internet, knowledge is abundant.  Want to learn about an environmental issue?  There’s hundreds of websites to explore.  Want to learn how to fix something?  There’s YouTube videos for that.  Want to learn about the accomplishments of a famous person in history?  There’s plenty of scholarly articles to read online.

But, of course, we all know this.  Because most of us at one time or another have taken advantage of these “learning on demand” opportunities.  I’m still proud of myself for successfully repairing my washing machine with the help of a YouTube video!  

When we learn on demand, two things are clear—what we’re learning and why we’re learning it.  The learning has a purpose – maybe it’s to explore an interest or learn how to make a repair or solve some type of problem we’re experiencing.  Regardless, this on demand learning doesn’t come with questions like, “when will we ever use this?” or “why do we have to know this?”  And this should matter to us.

It’s our job as educators to recognize how this abundance of knowledge and ease of access to information impacts students’ attitudes towards learning in the classroom.  Memorizing random facts doesn’t make sense to them.  Being told to learn something because you might need it in high school doesn’t make sense to them.  Getting drilled with math problem after math problem without a real world application doesn’t make sense to them.  Our students are ready to call our bluff when they’re asked to “learn” stuff that they can just as easily and more efficiently “Google” when needed.

Recognizing this makes the use of learning targets in lessons even more important.

Educational researcher John Hattie identifies “teacher clarity” as a factor that can have a huge impact on student learning – its effect size is .75 (anything with an effect size of .40 or higher is worth doing).  And Hattie explains that achievement is enhanced to the degree that the teacher demonstrates clarity by sharing the learning intention with students, ensuring students know why they are learning it and ensuring the success criteria are understood by all. 

Educational authors Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey say it’s simple.  If students understand the purpose, they will learn more.

So, how do we establish purpose?  Through conversation.  Through explanation. Through statements like, “Today, we are learning to . . . because . . .” or  “Today, we are going to develop a better understanding of . . . because . . .” or “Today, we’re going to practice . . .because . . .”

Notice it’s not the state standards or a list of tasks or something written on a whiteboard or worst yet, part of a long list of “learning targets” plastered on a bulletin board that are never even referenced.  It’s talking to kids about the relevance of the material and information they are about to encounter everyday – not just learning for the sake of learning – but learning that has a purpose and comes with a value to our kids who don’t need us as the great gate keepers of knowledge anymore.

Steven Estepp is the superintendent of the Mariemont City School District in Cincinnati, Ohio.