[Guest Post]The Importance of Teacher Clarity
by Melissa Balsamello, Tottenville HS, Staten Island
When I was a student, teacher clarity was not a thing.
I never knew what I was learning or why I was learning it. I just blindly accepted what we were doing in class as necessary without making any real connection between it and the rest of my life. My teachers never prioritized it. We jumped from unit to unit (which thematically did not clearly have anything to do with each other), and the learning model was primarily based on compliance. “If you do what I tell you to do, you will learn,” without explanation or justification.
I don’t think I had bad teachers. Maybe they made efforts toward this clarity and they were just lost on me (which is entirely likely!). All I know is that pedagogy has evolved since then, and our students today are more sophisticated consumers than ever. Transparency can go a long way in creating the best experience in our classes for everybody.
When planning instruction, the most important questions to consider, from the students’ perspective, are:
What am I learning?
Why am I learning it?
How will I know I have learned it?
These questions coincide with learning intentions, standards, and success criteria:
What am I learning?→ Learning Intention
Why am I learning it?→ Standard
How will I know I have learned it?→Success Criteria
These are the most important questions because they also lead to our own clarity. As we get into this practice, our lessons begin to plan themselves.
We know our content. We know our standards. We know why our students need to learn what we are teaching them and how they will benefit from it in the long run. But have you ever had a moment when you understood something, and then had difficulty explaining it to someone else? My students sometimes say, when asked to explain a word or concept, “I know what it means, but I can’t explain it.” I have no doubt that they understand it in their own way. I have seen their work. But I’ve also been told, as a student, “if you can’t explain it, then you don’t really understand it.” Sometimes, I find myself in that position as a teacher - I understand all the standards I teach, but I can’t readily explain the nitty-gritty of it to others unless I really break it down. Considering the three clarity questions when planning helps me to do that.
One way to increase teacher clarity is to unpack standards. Many of us have done this before, It is a practice that is beneficial to do on a regular basis. Toward the end of last year and at the beginning of this year, I unpacked several of the Priority ELA standards (you can find what I’ve unpacked so far here). I revisit those documents frequently while planning lessons and units.
Several teachers have engaged in this work as teams this year supported by Core Collaborative (shout out to our coach, Starr Sackstein). When we do this work in teams, we ensure all teachers have the same understanding of the standards, supporting horizontal alignment for all students. Here’s what 9-10R1 looks like unpacked:
After unpacking a standard, the next step is to determine a logical learning progression of skills within the standard. We also looked at the 8th and 11th/12th grade levels of the same standard:
Now, we can start crafting Learning Intentions. It is important to recognize that standards are not learning intentions. Standards are often complex and layered; that’s why they require unpacking. One standard may be practiced for a whole week to address its different components thoroughly. Many are revisited throughout an entire year.
In addition, it’s good practice to focus on a single standard at a time for learning intentions and assessment. This is especially challenging for me as an ELA teacher; I know that the work we are doing in each lesson relates to multiple standards. In most lessons, we do a little reading, a little discussion, and a little writing. But to make the learning goal clear to students, I should focus on one skill that’s practiced in each of those activities. While reading, writing, and discussing, they are focusing on making logical inferences from explicit details. So that lesson doesn’t cover 9-10R1, 9-10W2, and 9-10SL1 (which is what me three years ago would have argued!). That lesson only covers 9-10R1. After lots of PD and conscious reflection, I am getting better at focusing each lesson on one standard. It then naturally follows that the learning intention and success criteria reflect a clear skill and production goal to students.
Here are some 9-10R1 learning intentions we created in Core Collaborative:
Our next step is to determine the Success Criteria. These indicate steps students can take to achieve the learning intention. They should be as specific as possible, as they also state the performance expectations. For a neat one-pager on Success Criteria, check out this piece written by Starr Sackstein and Kara Vandas: Success Criteria (from Core Collaborative).
Here are the Success Criteria we created for our respective Learning Intentions above:
Finally, we design the assessment for the Learning Intention. This should be reflected in the Success Criteria.
We created a writing task for students. This is an appropriate assessment for this Learning Intention because in order to complete it, students have to make inferences, cite evidence, and draw conclusions. The trick is that when we look at our students’ work, we are only assessing the quality of the inferences, evidence cited, and conclusions drawn.
This is especially challenging for me. As an ELA teacher, I often feel like I have to correct everything. If the piece has grammatical errors, I want to correct them. If the piece lacks organization, I want to tell my students how to do better. But I don’t have to do all that right here, right now. I only have to grade for/provide feedback on the skill addressed in the Learning Intention and call it a day. This helps the student too; they know exactly what you want them to do in the future to meet the Learning Intention. We can assess their grammar and writing structure in different lessons with learning intentions and success criteria aligned to those standards.
I can’t say if most of my high school teachers (circa early 2000s) examined their instructional planning to this level. There were, however, a few newer teachers who would make small efforts to make students part of the planning process, such as asking us for our input on class policies. This tells me that educational philosophy had just begun to approach respecting students as agents of their own learning. To build their capacity for this, we have to make our instruction clear to them. And in order to make it clear to them, it has to be clear to us.
For further reading or listening, check out Cult of Pedagogy’s Build it Together: Co-Constructing Success Criteria with Students or the accompanying podcast interview with Starr Sackstein, our Core Collaborative coach.