A System of Best Practices: Building a Strong Foundation for Learning Part 1

PART 1: Why are learning goals so important?

If you wanted to make intentional and powerful changes in your health, you might hire a personal trainer. Before you would even step on a treadmill, lift any weights of any sizes, or begin to map out a weekly fitness routine, a personal trainer would first help you determine your goals. It’s essential to first determine where you want to arrive before trying to map out what you will do in order to arrive at those goals. So it is with crafting quality curriculum; before selecting activities, strategies, grouping arrangements, materials, and more, you must first determine goals for student learning.

Today’s public school educators often begin and end their goal-setting with state or district standards. While addressing state or district standards is important, and often required, leaving goal planning at standards omits essential goals towards meaning-making, understanding, and students’ transfer of learning. Private and home school educators are not bound by the same state or district requirements, but still face challenges when determining learning goals. Yet taking the time to craft goals that drive learners toward meaning making, understanding, and transfer of learning is equally as important for these teachers as it is for public school educators.

Why are understanding and transfer so crucial? Understanding is crucial for lasting learning and transfer is the hallmark of true learning. When content is organized and subsumed under deeper understandings (concepts and generalizations) that support transfer, work is meaningful, relevant, and lasting. If students can successfully memorize content for a test, their understanding and application of those understandings is likely to be limited to only test performance. It’s far more effective to guide students in developing and transferring deeper understandings as a result of the context of that content.

If the aim is quality curriculum and student work toward understanding and transfer, it is crucial to clearly articulate goals for understanding, skill development, and content acquisition. These goals should frame lessons or units and anchor the corresponding assessments and learning activities. In order to guide students toward meaning and transfer, standards-based objectives should be subsumed under more substantive goals.

In addition to supporting student work toward meaning and transfer, appropriate assessments are more effective when aligned to clear and substantive learning goals. Assessments designed to measure student understanding, skills, and content knowledge, provide a clearer sense of where students need the most support, scaffolding, or extension of learning. Having a clearer sense of what students most need facilitates a more effective response to those needs.


  • Erickson, H.L. (2006). Concept-based curriculum and instruction for the thinking classroom.Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Erickson, H.L. (2002). Concept-based curriculum and instruction: Teaching beyond the facts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
  • Hattie, J.A.C., (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
  • Sousa, D.A, & Tomlinson, C.A. (2011). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
  • Tomlinson, C.A., Brighton, C., Hertberg, H., Callahan, C., Moon, T., Brimijoin, K., Conover, L.A., & Reynolds, T. (2003). Differentiating instruction in response to student readiness, interest, and learning profile in academically diverse classrooms: A review of literature. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 27(2/3)¸119-145.
  • Wiggins, G.,& McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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