February 28

Learning Intentions – What are we really teaching?

As a staff we decided that one of the first things we would do when we began to design Universally Designed lessons was to ensure that we were clearly stating our Learning Intention to our students at the beginning of each lesson. Some of our teachers now write the learning intention for each of their lessons beside their daily agenda on their board. Teachers who are using Interactive Whiteboards build their first slide as their learning intention slide. I wanted to share two things I have discovered as a result of doing this:

My first discovery is a bit embarrassing but here goes… I always thought (assumed) what I was teaching was obvious. I wasn’t convinced that simply stating the learning intention would make a great deal of difference. One day I was teaching phonemic awareness to a small group but hadn’t planned ahead to discuss the learning intention. On the fly I decided to do this. One problem… I quickly realized that I was unable to articulate it in a way that would make sense to my students. I realized at that moment that the lesson I had planned did not have a clear intention, that I was actually intending to teach my students a whole bunch of things. Being that I work with students with learning disabilities who have not been able to gain phonemic awareness from classroom lessons, I instantly knew this could not go well. This was the turning point for me in my understanding of backward design – beginning with the end in mind. After all – how can we expect to get to our destination if we are not clear about where we are going. 

My second discovery has been about how clearly articulated learning intentions make it easier to make adaptations for students when necessary. One of our students has autism. He is currently on an adapted program (he is working towards the same learning outcomes as his classmates but may need to learn and show his understanding differently). Adaptations have been far easier since his teacher has begun adding the learning intention to the classroom agenda. When I walked in to work with this student the other day the class was working on a math sheet. Because I had missed the lesson, the worksheet the students were using made no sense to me. Being that this student is not currently able to make sense of verbal instructions, the lesson had probably not have made much sense to him either. Luckily the learning intention was to ‘make things balance’. I quickly found a balance scale and some cubes and got him involved in adding cubes into the baskets until the scales balanced. His activity looked quite different from his classmates’ activity, but he was still working towards the same learning intention. Had the learning intention not have been stated I would have had difficulty determining an appropriate adaptation. In an attempt to accommodate this student I may have selected a different aspect of the task to focus on. 

In a perfect UDL world the teacher and I would have met prior to the lesson, discussed the activity, determined the barriers within the lesson for learners including this one, and found ways to remove the barriers. In our world where on-the-fly happens more often than we care to admit, the simple act of articulating the learning intention makes a huge difference for our learners.