Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Should I always start with an "I can" statement?

I was originally going to title this post "A Case Against 'I can' Statements," but as you'll soon find out, I'm advocating for starting inquiries with provocative questions, so why should this post be any exception? 

So here it is, the fascinating question that we're exploring today: Should I always start with an "I can" statement?

Some history: For the last several years, teachers in our district have been busy converting rigorous academic standards into student-friendly language in the form of "I can" statements. Here are some examples from various grade levels and subject areas.

I can identify cause and effect in a nonfiction passage (based on ELA benchmark

I can sort objects by shape, size, color, and thickness (based on Math benchmark K.3.1.2)

I can describe societies that existed in Mesoamerica and North America before 1500 (based on History benchmark

I can recognize that plants need space, water, nutrients, and air and I can explain that plants fulfill these needs in different ways (based on Life Science benchmark

Clearly communicating to students the intent of the lesson is of utmost importance. Hattie writes it is important "to communicate the intentions of the lessons and the notions of what success means for these intentions," (p. 126 of Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.)

Hattie found that teacher clarity - which Fendick (1990) defined as organization, explanation, examples and guided practice, and assessment of student learning - has an effect size of .75 and ranked it 8th on his list of most effective influences on student achievement. Read more about Hattie's list on his website.

We all can agree that when students clearly understand where the lesson is heading and what they need to do to be successful, they'll achieve at higher rates. But is an "I can" statement the only way to clearly communicate the intention of a lesson?

In the fall, our school's teaching staff read an article by Brookhart and Moss about learning targets. The authors echo Hattie when they write that "when students understand exactly what they're supposed to learn and what their work will look like when they learn it, they're better able to monitor and adjust their work, select effective strategies, and connect current work to prior learning," (p. 29). They continue by saying that a learning target can take on several different forms. They suggest that the learning target can be words, pictures, demonstrations, or other experiences. They warn that a learning target does not have to be an "I can" statement.

I wonder, can a learning target be in the form of a question?

In a Primary Years Programme teachers should consider communicating the intentions of the lesson and what success means for these intentions in the form of a thought-provoking question. This will provide our students with opportunities to build understanding through structured inquiryBut how is this done?

Once teachers identify what they want students to understand (concepts), know (knowledge), and be able to do (skills), they should craft questions that will drive student inquiries. These questions should serve to motivate students to construct their own understanding of concepts and engage them in acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. Yes, teachers should clearly communicate the intentions of the lesson but I would warn against "giving away the answer" in the form of an "I can" statement. Instead, teachers should ask questions that engage learners and motivates them to seek out the answer.

Communicating the intention of the lesson in the form of a question allows teachers to "model explicitly [for their students] the asking of open-ended, driving questions that will promote conceptual development," (p. 37 of Making the PYP Happen). Fun Fact: the word 'question' appears in Making the PYP Happen 140 times.

McTighe and Wiggins advocate in multiple ways for the use of questions in their book Essential Questions, but they really ramp up the rhetoric when they purport that "once we have learned to question - really question - then we are immunized from falling victim to people who want us not to think too hard about what they say, be it politicians, advertisers, or bullying associates," (p. 18).

So, can teachers tweak "I can" statements to make them into questions that clearly communicate the intention of the unit/lesson and what success means while not "giving away the answer"? My answer is a resounding, YES! WHY NOT? LET'S GIVE IT A TRY!

Here is my attempt at it, converting the "I can" statements previously shared above into questions.

What are cause-effect relationships? Where are the cause-effect relationships described in the nonfiction text we're reading? How does discovering cause-effect relationships help us understand what we read?

What are the different ways we can sort things? How does putting things into groups help us understand them better? How does putting things into groups hurt our understanding of them?

What were societies like in Mesoamerica and North America before 1500? What caused them to change?

What do plants need to survive? Do all plants fulfill their needs in the same way?

So, let's revisit the question again: Should I always start with an "I can" statement?

I certainly am not making a case for throwing "I can" statements completely out the window. There is certainly an appropriate time and place for explicitly telling students the intent of the lesson and what they'll need to do to have success. 

However, I am suggesting that teachers consider clearly communicating the learning target by asking challenging questions at the onset of a unit or a lesson that engage learners and draws them into the inquiry. These questions should capture their head and tug at their heart. As the lesson or unit continues, students' responses should be revisited; misconceptions should be corrected; new learning should be added.

Recently, a first grade teacher asked her students at the onset of a unit of inquiry, "Why is it important to make careful and close observations?" She recorded her students' initial answers, leaving out any repeats. Throughout the entire unit, as the students explored, discovered, and investigated making observations, classifying, and drawing conclusions, they continually revisited their original ideas, editing and revising as necessary. The poster below is their "finished" product.

As a thoughtful colleague recently reflected, the questions we ask - both by teachers and students - must really kindle a strong desire, passion, or need to follow through. If through asking thoughtful, relevant, and provocative questions, we can successfully light a fire within our students, imagine the learning and achievement that is possible!


  1. Personal Statement is sometimes called College or University Admission Essay or Statement of Purpose. It is a document, to be prepared by a person, who either seeks admission or scholarship. cover letter for a teaching position

  2. Thank you Mr Higbea... I needed a way to communicate clearly why these should not be our ONLY means of communicating our learning intentions in our classrooms. I appreciate your help.

    1. Not a problem! I'd love to hear feedback about how this message is received to whomever you're communicating it AND what are the other ways you communicate your learning intentions to your students? Thanks!