Sunday, March 3, 2013

Is "I Can" Enough?

I've tried to write this post a hundred times.  I can't find the words.  I can't find the voice.  I'm not clear enough about my own thinking to share it with all of you, but I'm wondering...  

So I've decided to write this post as if you and I are sitting down with a cup of a coffee.  I've decided to ask you the questions that I am pondering right now daily.   I hope you'll take time to read it, think about it, and share your thoughts with me.   

I Can Statements
In an effort to help students take ownership of their learning there has been a move toward "I Can" statements or learning targets.  Many educators are using them with success (How I CAN Statements Can Work for You, How I Am Using Those I Can Statements, Writing I Can Statements).  The belief is, if children understand the focus of the learning and have a clear goal, achievement will be improved.  We've had many interesting conversations about this very topic in our school.

Learning targets are designed to help students understand the expected outcome.  Whether they are class statements or individual statements, they focus students on what they should be able to do in the end.  When I think about these statements, I think they often require me to be clear about my expectations for students.  If I'm clear about my expected outcome, my lessons are likely to be focused to what I want students to take away from them.  As I've learned about these statements I have also found myself asking:
  • Are learning targets enough?
  • Do "I Can" statements and other targets put student attention on the thinking that will help them grow as learners?
  • How do "I Can" Statements fit into the curriculum?
  • How many "I Can" Statements are too many? 
  • How do we write effective "I Can" statements?  
When I search "I Can" statements, here are some of the first ones I find:  
  • I can use ordinal numbers (first, second, third) to order objects.
  • I can use exclamation points when I write.
  • I can say the beginning and ending sounds of words. 
Did you ever play the Sesame Street game, "One of these things is not like the others."?  Here are four more statements I found.  Think about how they are different:
  • Math:  I can add to 10. (applying)
  • Science:  I can investigate balance. (analyzing and evaluating)
  • Language:  I can use exclamation marks when I write.  (applying)
  • Social Studies:  I can use a compass rose to show direction.  (applying)
Language for Learning
Language is important in learning.  Will Richardson just wrote an article for ASCD, Students First - Not Stuff, in which he discusses student learning during these times of technological advancement.  Richardson asks, "What if we focused on developing kids who are "learners" instead of trying to make sure they're "learned"?  In other words, are we asking our students to know or to understand how to learn? Are we shaping learners who are able to figure things out in a world where so much knowing and learning are right at their fingertips?  In a push toward standardized assessment, are we creating standard children?  Is that really enough?

I'm going to be honest right now and tell you I likely lean toward a constructivist philosophy of learning.  I think learners construct their own knowledge when given authentic opportunities to learn.  Spending years learning about inquiry has solidified this for me.  For this reason, I think the language we use with children is key in shaping students who take on a learning mindset.  Language is important in creating agency and in shifting students away from thinking they have to be right and toward thinking they can figure things out.

This model was shared by 
Overbaughand Schultz, Ohio Dominion University
"I Can" in Context
Though I want students to have ownership of their learning and their achievement, I keep wrestling with "I Can" statements.  Let's consider this scenario using the revised version of Bloom's Taxonomy.  Gardening is something I enjoy attempting each year, but honestly it rarely goes well for me.  Let's say my statement is, "I can plant a garden."  The "I can" in my statement assumes application, but can I plant a garden that produces healthy vegetables?  This "I can" statement assumes as I learn I will be able to apply information to plant a garden.  Honestly,  I can plant a garden.  I can till our garden, plant the seeds, and wait for the plants to grow.  However, I must confess my garden rarely produces the quality of vegetables I hope it will.

Let's say instead of an "I can plant a garden," I ask "How do I produce healthy vegetation in my garden?".  I think the "How" changes my frame my mind.  My goal is still to plant a garden, but now I'm wondering how do I plant a successful garden.  Soon I'm wondering:
  • What steps help to create a garden that produces healthy vegetation?
  • How do I prepare the soil for gardening?  
  • Do certain plants grow better in certain conditions?  What do my tomato plants need (for example)?
  • How do I keep plants healthy as they grow?  
Which will help me to improve the quality of my garden?  For me, "I Can" suggests I will do it, but "How do I" suggests I'm going to figure it out.  "I Can" suggests I own the result, "How do I" suggests I own the process.  Now that I've asked "How," I'm going to have to read, research, ask experts, and experiment.  By setting out to understand "how" I'm going to have to understand, analyze,  and evaluate.  In the end, I should be able to create a garden with better vegetation.

Is "I Can" Enough
I think of "I Can" statements in much the way I think of goals.  I've been using goals in my classroom for quite some time and it is a process I'm always trying to improve.  We set goals in our classroom because I want students to own their learning.  Some of the quickest shifts are made in learning when students own it.  I'm constantly trying to figure out the best way to word these to get the desired outcome.

Recently Barry Weaver, an educator who supports gifted students in our building, came in to work collaboratively with our classroom to support mathematical reasoning and thinking.  I explained where we were in this process, that students often searched for the answer quickly and weren't always able to rethink and talk about their understanding.  He came into the classroom with this learning target, "I can think creatively or differently (analyzing, evaluating, creating)."  You can imagine the difference this created in the way students went about their work.  It wasn't enough to just solve it.  Were there other ways to solve it?  Can you show different ways to solve it?  What if his target would have been, "I can solve word problems using addition and subtraction (applying)."?

Building a Learning Mindset 
I suppose "I Can" statements may be used as a way for students to measure progress.  It seems to me "I Can" statements, though perhaps useful in measurement, are not as powerful for learning as the deeper questions that guide our studies.  If we want students to be learners in today's technological world we want students who can ask questions and find their own paths to learning, understanding, and creating.  

While these types of targets may show measurable short-term progress, I'm wondering if these kinds of statements result in shaping the kinds of learners who can communicate effectively, think creatively, and work with innovation.  Yes, we want students to understand where we are headed and to be involved in the ways we measure (see Bud Hunt's post on Data Dashboards for some interesting thinking on this), but do we want them spending more time measuring than creating?  Do we want them applying their learning or using it ways to evaluate, analyze and create?  In our classrooms are we producing students who can take tests today or shape our world tomorrow?  I'm just wondering....

Recent Reads about Shaping a Learning Mindset:


  1. Great post Cathy, it has me thinking, nodding my head, and questioning right along with you.

    "but do we want them spending more time measuring than creating?"

    I worry that in today's classroom so much time is mandated to be spent collecting the never ending data, that students lose out in time spent taking their learning to the next level. They lose time spent being creative and innovative.

    1. It is something I'm constantly trying to figure out. I like students to be aware of the focus of their learning, but I do want them to spend time learning. I also wonder a lot about the kind of data they are asked to collect. It seems often we are collecting very skill oriented data.

  2. Cathy,

    I can see how this is important! Only joking! Thank you for working through a struggle I've had for the past year. I started using "I can" statements in my middle school language arts class at the prompting of coaches. They seemed demeaning and I couldn't quite figure out why, but as I pointed them out on a daily basis I realized that I shouldn't be the one determining a singular direction for learners. True, I should be an expert in the classroom, but how can I have any idea the lessons will shape and direct every learner?

    Thank you for your justification of asking questions! They are what I fell back to this year because they opened up so many possibilities, but you articulated WHY. Thanks for your smarts and thoughts!

    1. Katie,
      Thanks for your responses. I'm still trying to think about it and figure it out. I'm grateful for everyone's comments.


  3. Cathy,
    Wow! You got me thinking on a Monday morning. I have struggled with "I Can" statements as well. I agree with so much of what you said. I like the addition of the use of the word "how". I want my students to be able to figure their learning out with my guidance. If I pinpoint exactly what they are learning each day, I am closing off the many possibilities that they have to discover more about our world. You really got me thinking and I think that I am going to share your post with colleagues. Thanks for starting my Monday off with your great post!

  4. Your post beautifully articulates everything I've been thinking about. Thanks for all the links. I'm going to go back to them this weekend. Yesterday, I glanced at my "Learning Targets" chart that is currently hanging in my room, because that's what we've been told we need to have to prove that we are providing quality education for our students. It's empty right now because I have not had (or made) the time to fill it in every morning. I wondered to myself, "Are my students learning less because I don't have my Learning Target chart filled in?" As I looked around and saw students engaged in research, I thought they were probably learning plenty even though my chart was empty. I'm worried about what is to come. I see a new Slice of Life for me. :) I'm going to share this with my colleagues.

  5. Cathy,

    This is exactly the same struggle that I have been having. I don't want to be limited to learning targets. I want to go where the students' questions lead us. In my school, I feel a strong pull to go both directions - towards the increased use of learning targets and towards more student centered learning - and it is so complicated and uncomfortable. I think you may be onto something with your idea of using Bloom's Taxonomy to make the learning targets more meaningful but even then I still worry about the overuse of learning targets. This has been my worry/struggle/issue all year. Let's hope we can all work together to figure out what is best for kids. Big sigh...

    1. Jill,
      This statement really has me thinking, "I feel a strong pull to go both directions - towards the increased use of learning targets and towards more student centered learning - and it is so complicated and uncomfortable." It's like the push to differentiate in a time we demand standardization.

      I hope we can continue these conversations.

  6. This is so good...What are your thoughts on this now?