Monday, September 12, 2011

Just Tell Them

"Sometimes I feel like the kids don't have any idea why they're here. It's like they have no idea that they are supposed to be learning something."
Sound familiar? It's something I don't hear often, but occasionally. I wonder if it's thought more often than uttered aloud.

So...what if they don't? I mean, what if some of our kids really don't know why they are in our classrooms or don't realize they are to be learning something. That may be the case--or maybe not. Either way, it's not like there's nothing we can do about it.

This week the teachers in my school have been thinking a lot about posting and stating lesson objectives. In plain talk, they are thinking about telling students what it is they are to learn during each lesson. Yep--just tell them. That simple step may make a big difference.

It may sound simplistic, but it's sound. People like educational researcher Dr. Robert Marzano say that when students know what it is they are to be learning, their achievement tends to be 20-27 percentile points higher than those who don't. Pretty big payoff for a relatively simple statement at the start of a lesson.

Landrigan and Mulligan (contributers to Choice Literacy) remind us that kids should not have to spend the first 5 minutes--or longer--of a lesson trying to figure out what we're trying to teach. If we tell them up front, it frees up the brain to put attention (and energy) into learning what we need them to know.

This isn't new thinking. Some of you probably know of Susan Kovalik's work on effective teaching. One of the many things I learned teachers could to do make their teaching more effective was to include on the daily agenda what it was we'd be learning during each part of our day.

One of my mentors and dear friends once asked me a career-changing question after watching me teach a lesson. "If you can't say to the kids what it is you are trying to teach them, what makes you think they are going to be able to learn it?"  That was years ago, and I still remember it like it was yesterday.

The other thing that we notice about some of our learners is that they don't seem to know how to focus--or more accurately for most, they don't know what to focus on. When we start a lesson by telling the kids what they are going to learn, they know what to pay attention to, resulting in a much more focused learning experience. It's the same for us.

When I started writing down what it was I was going to teach kids in my lessons, and then posting it where we all could see it during the lesson, I became more focused too. I didn't ramble on or become distracted and pulled off-task by the meandering learning conversations I was having with my students--an occupational hazard when you work with young kids! I was clearer and my teaching was more specific. The kids knew why we were there and not only did they know they were supposed to be learning, they knew what they were to be learning.

The important part for us to take away is that we can do something. We can impact what or how much or to what degree our kids learn stuff by telling them at the start of the lesson what it is we're about to teach them. Posting it will help keep us focused during lessons and will help kids remember what they are learning and what they have learned. When they see these learning statements, it'll most likely trigger at least some spark of recognition in their minds and it gives us something to physically point to when referring to past or present teaching and learning.

So if maybe there's a chance our kids don't know that they are to be learning something or don't know what to focus on...we should just tell them.


  1. I know it's true, but enjoyed how you said it & the support you gave for this. Thanks for reminding about the small, but critical parts of a lesson. I'll use your mentor's question when I talk with the teachers I work with: "If you can't say to the kids what it is you are trying to teach them, what makes you think they are going to be able to learn it?"

  2. I love that question too, I've written it down so I don't forget it. Also, I think when we tell them explicitly what they are to learn from this lesson, it prevents us from trying to cram so many things in. It helps me stay focused on my learning goal for them. Thanks for sharing your thinking, it always pushes me to ponder my words and/or actions.

  3. Good idea to post it to keep on track. Thanks for the reminder.