A System of Best Practices: Building a Strong Foundation for Learning Part 2

PART 2: Components of clear learning goals

Because I have learned that I don’t know it all and that I’m not always right, I would like to briefly preface this post with my reasons for advocating for this method of crafting learning goals.  These approaches are reflective of experienced and well-researched minds in education. Among them Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s work on backwards curriculum design, Carol Tomlinson’s work on differentiation, and more, have offered compelling reasons for writing and using learning goals in this format. This approach draws from the way real-life disciplines structure knowledge and understanding, works with the way the brain learns, and has stood the test of time.  On a personal note, I’ve used these ideas to shape the way I support growth and learning in nearly every capacity (e.g. as a public school educator, educational consultant, curriculum writer, and often even as a parent of two young children). As a teacher of learners of all ages, I’ve seen first-hand how this approach creates a cohesiveness between learning, assessment, and learner needs.  Most importantly, I’ve seen first-hand how this approach supports endeavors to make worthwhile learning accessible to all learners, regardless of strengths or needs.

*         *          *

There are three components to effective learning goals: goals for understanding, goals for skill development, and content or knowledge goals. Articulating these goals as clearly as possible and aligning all learning experiences and assessments to said goals is a necessary foundation for quality curriculum and intentional response to student needs.

Goals for understanding are statements of understanding that show a relationship between two or more concepts. Throughout the course of a lesson or unit, students should be supported in “unpacking” these understanding goals. In other words, framed by goals for understanding, guiding questions should be asked at key stages and learning tasks should be structured in such a way that students are supported in constructing these understandings themselves.

Goals for skill development describe the various skills students will develop and use in ways that support them in exploring and developing understandings (i.e. understand goals) within the context of the content knowledge (content goals) throughout the course of the lesson or unit. A well-written skill goal is (1) reflective of the kinds of skills and methodologies that practitioners in a given field or discipline develop and use and (2) transferable to other contexts.

Content goals are the goals relating to context-bound pieces of knowledge such as: vocabulary, dates, names, and procedural “how to” knowledge. In most cases, this content knowledge is outlined in state and district standards. Isolating the required content from standards while considering deeper meanings behind them is one way in which teachers can begin to parse out understand goals while assuring standards are addressed. Content goals are important because they allow students to see deeper understandings in “real life.” Content goals should provide a context for students as they “unpack” deeper understandings.

For more information about each of these types of learning goals and support in crafting your own learning goals using this approach, see support tools listed below.  Please feel free to email me with questions, ideas, or requests on this topic.

Support tools:


  • 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.

One thought on “A System of Best Practices: Building a Strong Foundation for Learning Part 2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s