MRS. MIRIAM GETTINGER
As professionals, we appreciate the value of cutting edge educational initiatives and seek to have our teachers, both kodesh and chol, utilize current best practices in their instruction of students. Some of us read vociferously and others network regularly to dialogue with colleagues, maintaining our freshness and focus. Yet reality sets in, and truth be told, we all feel overwhelmed by the myriad responsibilities we juggle daily, and we struggle to consistently be the educational leaders we envision. How can we best manage the implementation of curricular and socio-emotional programs that we recognize as vital to our students’ growth trajectories?
Inspired by the work of Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Brookhart on Learning Targets, I sought to bring their ideas to classrooms in my school several years ago. Learning targets describe a lesson-sized chunk of information or skills that students will come to know deeply, and they bring the students and teacher onto the same page regarding the goal of a lesson. Used well, they can promote higher-order thinking and foster student goal-setting, self-assessment, and self-regulation. They also help guide assessment and keep teachers and students focused on the elements of the lesson that are critical in the overall curriculum. (Please see sidebar for more on learning targets.)
I wanted to take this research and consider its implementation in the classrooms of my schools. The challenge all school leaders face is implementation. It could be Learning Targets, Universal Design for Learning, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, or most anything else. How can we take what we’ve learned and feel passionate about from the principal’s desk to the classroom? How can we best implement these initiatives, so that they’ll help our students the most?
First and foremost, there are few important perspectives that help guide school leaders to set realistic goals in implementation of new programs. We must accept the constraints of time and space and undertake only one such initiative annually, or even biannually. This approach recognizes the need for rollout, presentation, guided practice, data collection, and significantly, spiraling back over time and deeply reflecting upon the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges we faced in its integration in our classrooms. Secondly, as principals we ought to teach ourselves, albeit on a limited basis, to experience the educational initiatives we push down from the top, first hand. This helps our implementation efforts and also helps us maintain an ongoing relationship with our students.
Dr. Atul Gawande, the well-known Harvard-trained surgeon, has looked at the challenge of controlling quality and avoiding mistakes in large group settings, such as in a hospital. He purports that knowledge explosion of the digital age, and its ensuing complexity, create challenges that we haven’t had to deal with in the past. Basic checklists, with pause points to catch potential problems proactively, as well as critical protocol reminders, have become key components for any group success. Gawande designed such a 19-point surgical checklist for the World Health Organization with phenomenal results, lowering surgical death rates by 47% and overall surgical complication rates by 35% in the eight hospitals globally in which they were implemented. His checklist has been adopted in operating rooms all over the world over the last decade to continued success.
Candidly, Gawande addresses our inherent resistance to such protocol lists. They seem to defy our autonomy, and as professionals, shouldn’t we be able to do things how we best see fit? His successful work with checklists forces us to confront the values of discipline and humility in the face of prevention of unconscionable error and irreparable harm. Importantly, he argues that there is the need for checklists in all areas of life as much as in medicine or aviation, and education is no exception. I agree, and ever a pragmatist, I adhere to Gawande’s checklist protocol as vital and relevant in the classroom as in the operating room or cockpit of an airplane, for what is at stake in the classroom is authentic dinei nefashos.
What does a checklist for implementing a learning targets program look like? We can prioritize critical terminology and expectations of staff and distill it down to a single sheet checklist presented to our too thinly stretched rabbeim and teachers after brainstorming with them at a professional development session. The checklist below was one I used when rolling out the learning targets initiative. (I made sure to use the Seven C’s – another important initiative – when I described what I was looking for.)
The devil is in the details and we must co-plan and problem solve with our teachers in order for any educational initiative to be successful. Allowing teachers to present examples of their classroom integration experience and highlighting those successes and opportunities for tweaking creates an inherent buy-in from the staff. By way of example, inviting different teachers on a rotating basis (by division, by subject taught, etc.) to share the ‘performance for understanding’ and ‘look-fors’ they have successfully inculcated into their lessons spurs the professional banter between colleagues and inspires a unified ownership of the process.
And as we function efficiently in the digital age, consider a digital discussion board option with requisite monthly posts by teachers in reflection of targeted questions when face-to-face meetings are not easily accessible. This will facilitate the communication without the time constraints as each educator will be free to post at his or her own convenience. Additionally, the documentation feed and opportunity to bounce ideas off other posts energizes the educational conversation and is intuitive to our millennial professionals. As for me, the GPS is challenging enough!
More on Learning Targets
In the olden days there was a commercial for American Express adjuring the audience “to never leave home without it!” Today, most of us would not contemplate leaving home without our cell phones and GPS units, particularly if we are embarking on a trip to an unfamiliar site. Yet in the educational realm, many of our students are treading on unfamiliar territory with nary a clue as to how to navigate the journey, and perhaps even more significantly, many of us do not truly know where each of our students are or what they have actually gleaned from the lesson on a daily basis prior to homework or some assessment.
A buzzword in educational jargon these days is, not surprisingly, learning targets. As the old adage goes “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Learning targets are clearly delineated lesson or unit objectives written in “student friendly language” which go beyond the mere listing on the board or verbal cue of topic or pesukim/suggya to be covered that day or week. Instead, they systematically present the requisite vocabulary and concepts and provide students with “look-fors” to self-assess their mastery of the content and skill of the instruction.
Consider the GPS metaphor. The device does not drive the car for us but guides us to our destination by always knowing our precise location. Additionally, it “recalculates’’ for us rather than yelling at us when we have taken a wrong turn, and warns us of potential roadblocks and traffic obstacles, even suggesting shortcuts or alternate routes when available. Most significantly, it speaks a language we understand, as we can actually select the voice and dialect we are most comfortable with.
In other words, learning targets help students aim to understand today’s lesson by propelling them to clearly articulate the goal of the lesson/units for themselves, their parents, or anyone who might walk into their classroom in their own words and ultimately train them to recognize their precise location and trajectory in the instructional process – how close are they to the “bull’s-eye” and what will they need to hone, practice, or demonstrate to reach the goal.
For example, a first grader may explain to the principal walking in to a Chumash lesson on gematria that he is learning the number value of the alef bais and that by the end of the lesson they will be able to figure out the gematria of their name. A sixth grader may state that her class learning target in Navi is to understand Shiras Chana and that they will know that they hit their target when they can paraphrase the shira in their own words, explain how it echoes some ideas or phrases from Tehillim, and explain why it affects our tefilla today.
Learning targets must be shared visions of instruction in order to be effective. They are not curriculum benchmarks or “standards” which are teacher-centered, as utilizing them in that way would be tantamount to teaching calculus to kindergartners. If the teacher is the only one in the classroom who knows where the lesson is headed, they expend a great deal of energy trying to get students to meet the instructional objective while the students spend the bulk of their energy figuring out how to comply with what the teacher says rather than understanding the underlying concepts or mastering the essential skill presented. While this seems like a futile exercise in frustration, it is nonetheless commonplace in many our classrooms on a regular basis! In contrast, learning targets help teachers and students forge a partnership in the classroom with both halves knowing exactly what they are aiming for in the lesson.
Moreover, learning targets must be continuously visible and woven into the very fabric of the lesson to be effective. We can utilize the board, a handout, picture or chart to post as well as verbally share the target, all the while asking students to paraphrase the target in their own words or explain it to their peer. We ought to refer to the target throughout the lesson in order to help students gauge where they are in relation to the goal. We may choose the verbiage of an “I Can” statement for students in grasping a new concept or skill, such as “I can locate Rashi’s dibur hamaschil”, or “I can identify Rashi’s question within the words of the pasuk”, or a checklist of such statements to describe mastery of a discrete skill.
To begin the process, we must spend time “preparing” the instructional process and not only the content of our lesson. First and foremost, we must identify the “essential” knowledge and skills that students must come away with from the particular lesson. There may be many distractions within a 45-minute lesson – anything from business to outside interruptions and even our stories and jokes vying for the student’s attention and focus. In order for them to see the forest through the trees, we must narrow the focus and highlight the target!
Secondly, we must identify our lesson’s “reason to live” – its instructional trajectory. Where does my lesson come in the unit – beginning, middle or end? What have my students already learned about this concept from previous lessons, and what will they tackle in tomorrow’s lesson or those which lie ahead? Thirdly, we must consider the essential reasoning processes or critical thinking which will best help students to actively construct the understanding inherent to this lesson. Can they compare/contrast, analyze, cite textual examples to justify their answers, or give examples of what a vocabulary term or concept means or does not mean? “Preparing” strategic questions in advance of the lesson to connect to the learning target is as critical as reviewing the “chomair” before attempting to teach it no matter how many years of classroom experience we have!
Mrs. Miriam Gettinger has been a principal for the past 30 years, currently at the Hasten Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis and previously at the South Bend Hebrew Day School as well as at the helm of Bais Yaakov High School of Indiana. A graduate of Beth Jacob Teachers Institute of Jerusalem as well as Touro College, she has taught Limudei Kodesh to all ages from elementary to adult for over 40 years. Contact Mrs. Gettinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.