Is Your Team Identifying Essential Learning Targets Together?

One of the most embarrassing moments that I’ve ever had as a classroom teacher was the day that a seventh grade science teacher in my school stopped by my room to completely ream my learning team.  

“I’m SICK of it!” she shouted.  “Every year, you guys send us students that know different things.  It makes teaching completely impossible.  Could you PLEASE start teaching the same content in your classrooms?!”

Once she’d left, we sheepishly realized that she was right.  We HADN’T done a good job at working together to define outcomes that were essential for EVERY kid on our hallway to learn.  Instead, we each made choices about the content to introduce to the kids in our classrooms individually based on our experience with the curriculum, our interests and our personal expertise.

The result was nothing short of a professional disaster.  While I spent a ton of time teaching students about ecosystems and interdependence between species, another colleague spent a ton of time teaching students about the solar system.  That means the kids on our hallway left sixth grade learning VASTLY different things.  My kids were experts at the impact that humans have on the environment while his kids were experts on the origins of the universe.

The result HAD to be frustrating for the teachers in seventh grade, who were constantly reteaching content to small groups of kids who hadn’t been exposed to the same things even though they went to the same school.

That’s when I started to push for our learning team to develop unit overview sheets that defined a small handful of essential learning targets that EVERY child would learn, regardless of who their teacher was.

Here’s a sample of what we created:

Energy Unit Overview Sheet

Our unit overview sheets were initially designed to make sure that every student in our grade level had access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum by providing teachers with boundaries for their instructional choices.  Whatever we chose to teach on a day-to-day basis, our promise — to each other, to our students, and to the teachers at the next grade level — was that every kid would leave our classes having mastered the outcomes detailed on our unit overview sheets.

Our unit overview sheets also provided guidance for all of our collaborative decisions.  What lessons would we share with one another?  Lessons connected to the objectives listed on our unit overview sheets.  What were we going to assess together?  The objectives on our unit overview sheet.  Which objectives were we going to provide enrichment and remediation for?  The ones listed on our unit overview sheets.  Using our unit overview sheets to prioritize instructional objectives ended up simplifying — and provided clarity for — the work we were doing together in our weekly PLC meetings.

But we soon realized that our unit overview sheets did far more than align our instructional choices and provide clarity for our collaborative work.  

Because we chose to write our essential learning targets in student friendly language, we were able to use our unit overview sheets to support (1). efforts to integrate student self assessment in the classroom and (2). efforts to communicate with stakeholders working beyond the classroom.  Not only do our students have a better sense for what they are expected to master during the course of a unit of study — and a tangible tool for tracking their own progress towards mastery — our parents, our specialists, our principals, and our special education teachers now have a clearly defined sense for what we are trying to accomplish.

Are you interested in developing unit overview sheets to guide the instructional choices of your learning team?  These handouts might help:

Identifying Essential Learning Targets

Converting Learning Targets into Student Friendly Language

And here are a few additional samples of what unit overview sheets can look like:

Atoms Unit Overview Sheet (Eighth Grade)

K-2 Unit Overview Sheet

Any of this look useful to you?


Related Radical Reads:

My Middle Schoolers Actually LOVE Our Unit Overview Sheets

Writing Student-Friendly Learning Goals

Another Student Involved Assessment Experiment


4 thoughts on “Is Your Team Identifying Essential Learning Targets Together?

  1. edifiedlistener

    Hi Bill,
    Something I appreciate so much in this post is how you illustrate such a common phenomenon in such a helpful way. We see the disaster, we see the steps to recover and improve, and right along with you we see the possibility for moving from folly to wisdom thanks to your team’s willingness to tackle the challenge at hand. Often the work we initially perceive as toil and chore can become a genuine bonus in the future.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal…

      Thanks for stopping by — and no kidding: While this work may seem like a chore at first, it’s actually a breeze that leads to better teaching and learning. Definitely the most rewarding thing our learning team has ever done.

      Hope you are well!

  2. Brett Gruetzmacher (@BGruetzmacher)


    Love the post! The timing is amazing. Yesterday our leadership team and instructional coaches began the process of “defining” our instructional practices platform and learning targets was our focus. Once again you provided me with an Aha moment. Thanks and take care.


    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Glad you dug it, Brett.

      Not kidding when I say that identifying essential outcomes and developing unit overview sheets is the single most important practice for novice PLCs. It gives you a strong starting point that can lead to other strong instructional and collaborative practices.



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