choice · feedback · independence · middle school

Rethinking Learning Targets

“Listen up everyone!” came the voice of the coach.  All of us on the sideline quieted down, many of us placing one foot on top of our soccer balls.  As the summer sun beat down on all of us, I listened intently as the young Pacific Soccer School coach demonstrated a new move.  “You’re going to love this one,” he began.  Using a volunteer camper, the coach showed us how to dribble toward an opponent, then deftly push the ball between the opponent’s feet and run around one side of him, recovering the ball again behind the opponent. An audible gasp escaped all of us watching.  “We call that the ‘nutmeg’,” the coach proudly announced.  “Why don’t you guys just try it out a few times with a partner while I watch.”  Wow, I thought, cool move!  Later that day during the scrimmage, I felt so excited to try this new move out.  However, the opportunity never presented itself– that particular day.  Of course, I dribbled, passed, played defense, took shots…using other skills I had acquired over my years of playing soccer.  But did I eventually try out the ‘nutmeg’ on a different day? You bet I did.

Those of us who write understand writing is difficult.  Sometimes when I sit down to write, I wish I had an algorithm, formula…anything that would make the process more step-by-step or “paint-by-number.”  Okay, maybe that is overstating it a bit (I don’t really wish that), but my point is that writing can be a bit like playing soccer– it tends to resemble a fluid, creative process during which I rely on a repertoire of skills and strategies as I work.  Like all writers, no one is standing next to me dictating which strategies I ought to be using and when.  Of course, there are times when feedback comes (which can sometimes feel a little like a coach yelling from the sideline), and I respond to that feedback by revising or editing parts of my writing.  But even then, as a writer, I make the choices as to how I will respond to said feedback; and I do it by relying on what I know, what goals I have for the piece, and who my audience will be.

Recently, author and lecturer Alfie Kohn got me thinking when he tweeted out an interesting essay: screen shot 2019-01-22 at 5.22.57 am

In her essay entitled, “Old Habits Die Hard: How Learning Goals Can Stifle Learning”, the author Melanie Ralph asserts that by displaying learning targets on a whiteboard or PowerPoint slide, teachers actually set up a learning climate in which, instead of deeper learning and exploration, the students’ primary goal becomes pleasing the teacher.  In support of her point, the author goes on to quote another teacher who once said, “…[the] appearance [of the learning target] before children’s interest is captured can kill their interest.” She also quotes Professor Dylan William, who argues in a short but extremely well-constructed video presentation that the practice of posting learning targets can “spoil the learning journey” and sometimes make for “uninspired and uninspiring teaching.”

When reflecting upon the cheerless scenarios described here, we would all likely agree that these situations are essentially antithetical to our goals as teachers in a writing workshop, right? We all want to support and nurture inspired writers who work independently. That is the goal.  So how might we avoid creating such uninspiring, teacher-dependent environments for learning?

Don’t Present the Minilesson as an ‘Assignment’

This can be a challenging concept to put our minds around– “Wait,” a teacher in Queens once asked me during a professional development session, “if I’m spending all this time planning the minilesson, and I have determined it will teach a strategy that more than 80% of my students need… why would I not want them all to go do it that day?”  Yes, a fair question.  My gentle response to that teacher and his colleagues centered around the importance of writers making meaningful choices when it comes to their own work and learning.  Although not all secondary schooling may be completely prescribed across any given day, let’s face it– much of it is.  A writing workshop is one place where kids ought to be able to make at least a few choices.  Yes, we do state a teaching point during our lesson.  But I do not recommend writing the teaching point on a whiteboard or displaying it on a PowerPoint.  Instead, work to capture the kids’ interest first!  Use an engaging connection to pull them into the lesson (I wrote about this a few years ago in a different post).  Consider:

  • Using a story from your life
  • Painting a metaphor or comparison
  • Contextualizing today’s lesson into broader, more important work

Furthermore, think for a moment about my coach that summer day at soccer camp.  He did not say to us, “I would like you to look at this learning objective here; then I am going to teach you that move; you will then be required to prove you learned it by doing it.  And by the way, don’t do it wrong!” (Of course, this is a bit of an absurd non-example).  Instead, my coach made us feel like we were learning something pretty neat… almost like a secret trick only we were allowed to know.  And as we went off to play a game later, we were “allowed” to use that trick… or not. We decided.  What if we taught writing that way?  What if our minilessons became less about ‘assigning kids something to go do,’ and more about helping them feel we are ‘letting them in’ on some fabulous writerly tricks and knowledge?  How much more room might we be making for inspired, unpredictable learning and growth?

Teach into a Repertoire

In a writing workshop, we strive for writers to be independent, rather than just obedient.  In order to support our students in this way, we are wise to honor the true nature of writing; after all, writing is not a “go-do-this-one-thing-now” type of skill.  It’s just not.  For illustration, let’s take mathematics for a quick second; in math class I remember learning to multiply fractions. After learning this skill in a lesson from the teacher, I went and practiced multiplying fractions. And I am fairly sure the time spent practicing helped me internalize the process.

Writing, however, is different.  It requires a series of ongoing decisions, some of them made consciously, others unconsciously.  What we as teachers aim to do in the context of a writing workshop is teach into a repertoire of strategies, building and adding to writerly visions of what is possible.  Typically, teachers add these strategies to a growing anchor chart that students can refer to as they select daily goals for their independent work.  As Two Writing Teachers coauthor Melanie Meehan once wrote:

If you are running a true workshop …, then not everyone will be ready to use that teaching point on that day. It might be that the relevance will come later, but because you’ve posted it and there’s an understanding of how to use teaching points and build independence and repertoire, the teaching point of the day may show up on a different day.

Those of us who write can attest to the fact that we learn and improve by practicing, practicing, practicing…and incorporating new learning at our own pace.  


I will say I came away from my summer Pacific Soccer School experience that week a changed player–a better player I would argue.  Although I certainly cannot remember everything I learned that week, I do remember being inspired. And I don’t remember any learning targets being posted around the field.  Perhaps the comparison between learning “moves” in soccer and learning them in writing workshop falls short for you.  But I would bet many of you can get behind the notions that learning is not linear, that it can be unpredictable, and that like us, kids like to be inspired.  Let’s save the ink on writing out our learning targets, and instead focus our energies on what will really make a difference.

8 thoughts on “Rethinking Learning Targets

  1. Ahhhhh . . . this is so important: “But I would bet many of you can get behind the notions that learning is not linear, that it can be unpredictable, and that like us, kids like to be inspired. Let’s save the ink on writing out our learning targets, and instead focus our energies on what will really make a difference.”

    To find the “just right” or “sweet spot” for the “nutmeg” or the writing move, that’s the goal of the learning. To plug it immediately into a piece of writing would mean compliance and perhaps little thought about an effective use in a particular piece of writing.

    (Writing learning targets on the board/wall/ppt has not yet “guaranteed learning”!)



    1. You make a salient point here in your comment, Fran– the fact that immediate application of a teacher’s lesson to a student’s work could likely be an indicator of just compliance. Or it could mean a robotic application of a writing strategy that lacks consideration for its effectiveness. Both undesired outcomes for our students! And yes, have writing learning targets been our silver bullets for guaranteeing learning? Methinks, no! Thanks for you comment 🙂


  2. I firmly believe in what you are saying Lanny! Hooking the students is so important, as well as presenting the lessons in a way that will invite kids to try the strategy if they are ready or need to. However, a pressing question is this: If a district has adopted the stance that learning targets will be displayed, in the form of an “I can…” statement, how do we help kids feel like this isn’t an “assignment” while still honoring what we are being asked to do by administration??


    1. First of all, Ann, let me thank you for your comment and question. As far as districts requiring the posting of learning targets, my guess is that your district is not alone; so therefore, there are likely others with this question. I think I’ll limit my answer to a writing workshop classroom: Luckily, most workshop teachers are using strategy and anchor charts that help visually support both the teaching point and student self-initiation. So that should satisfy administration (“Look, my ‘learning target’ is right over there on that chart…see?”). As far as students not feeling like today’s teaching point is the “assignment,” that is clearly emphasized by the teacher in the link of each minilesson. When I’m teaching, I usually say something like, “So writers, today we learned that one thing writers do is [name teaching point]…And that may be something you want to try out today because it fits with where you currently are, or it feels like work you’re excited to try. Others of you are probably excited to keep going with something you started yesterday, or to try on some of these other strategies on this anchor chart here. And I know all of you know other stuff about writing you might do today… so, let’s set a goal for our work today.” Hope that helps!


  3. The soccer analogy is an important one. Just like your coach and “the nutmeg,” we have to remember that not everything will be used on that day. Our job, as teachers of writing, is to make sure we give kids things to put in their writing toolbox so they can be drawn upon whenever they need it.


    1. Yes! Love that toolbox analogy, Stacey! I really see our work as filling that toolbox and teaching kids to see themselves as writers. That journey will look different for every kid. Thanks for your comment 🙂


  4. Thanks for this post. My colleagues and I have been discussing this a lot lately and I sent them the link to the article you shared. I’m sure it will fuel more meaningful conversation. Thanks!


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