A strenuous soul hates cheap success.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Broadly, I’m in favour of sharing with students the intention behind what they are being asked to do. Anything that adds clarity to the murky business of learning is probably a good thing. However, an intention (or outcome, objective or whatever you want to call it) along the lines of To be able to [inset skill to be acquired or practised] or, To understand [whatever the hell the teacher wants her students to learn] is unlikely to be of much help. All too often our learning intentions are lesson menus; here is what you should know, or be able to do by the end of today’s lesson. Students are unlikely to do more than merely mimic the understanding or expertise we want them to master.

If instead we were to share our intention for students to struggle with threshold concepts, then we could tell them that it might take them weeks to wrap their heads around such troublesome knowledge. We could remind them that in this lesson they are making progress towards a goal and that there is no expectation for them to ‘get it’ in the next hour or even the next week. Lessons may be the unit of delivery but that doesn’t mean they must be the unit of planning or assessment.

Learning does not follow a neat, linear trajectory, it’s liminal. Students not only need to spend time in that confusing, frustrating in-between space, they need to know how important it is to stay there for as long as need be. If learning intentions rush or limit this experience then they might be doing more harm than good.

To a teacher, labouring under the curse of knowledge, the meaning behind our intentions is clear. But to students, standing at the threshold, not knowing the things we take so much for granted, our stated lesson outcomes are often impossibly vague. Consider this example:

Learning objective: To understand the influences that affect personal economic choices

Success criteria:

I can:

  • explain how limited resources create the need for choices
  • identify costs and benefits of a choice
  • identify and evaluate incentives
  • analyse choices and predict consequences.

This may be clear to an expert, but to a novice it’s a checklist of barely understood ideas that will lead only to shallow mimicry. The basic premise of letting kids know what they’re supposed to be learning is fine, but I do have a bone to pick with ‘success criteria’.

Dylan Wiliam recommends sharing mark schemes with pupils so that they will know whether they have successfully achieved the learning intention. ‘Student-friendly’ mark schemes are, he contends, “useful as students are introduced to a discipline.”[i] I’m not so sure.

Rubrics are inherently opaque and rarely provide anything meaningful to pupils. In subjects such as English this is especially pronounced: mark-schemes ask us to draw a distinction between such descriptions as ‘confident’ and ‘sophisticated’. One is apparently better than the other, but any difference is arbitrary. (Daisy Christodoulou calls this “adverb soup”.)  Exam boards are forced to provide exemplar work for teachers to understand the process by which they arrive at their decisions. Instead of wasting students’ time with vague, unhelpful success criteria, why not spend time deconstructing exemplars and modelling the expert processes we would use to complete a task.

Giving students detailed information about how to be successful can be enormously powerful. Bullet pointed ‘success criteria’ can be useful if derived from deconstructing an exemplar, patiently scaffolded and then practised, but all too often students are handed an inert checklist of what to include in their work. This is only likely to be useful if they already know what they’re doing.

Here’s an example of how success criteria can be used well:

First, give students an exemplar to deconstruct. In this example from Simon Scarrow’s novel Centurion, a battle is being described. As every Year 7 student knows, if you’re going to describe something then you have to use ‘describing words’ and a describing word is an… adjective. To disrupt this flawed chain of logic, I asked students to identify all the adjectives in the passage below:

The mercenaries began to back away from the rebels, stabbing their spears frantically to try to create a gap between them and their enemies. As soon as some were clear they turned and ran towards Cato’s men, immediately endangering their slower comrades as the rebels swarmed into the gaps in the rapidly fragmenting line. A handful were cut off and overwhelmed, attacked from all sides as they desperately swirled around, trying to block the rebels’ blows. Inevitably, a blade darted in, and as a man staggered back from the wound he was hacked to the ground in a flurry of sword blows and spear thrusts.

The observant among you will recognise that the only words being used adjectivally are the comparative ‘slower’ and the participle ‘fragmenting’, both words describing movement. Here is a piece of descriptive writing which does not rely on adjectives in order to describe. There are plenty of descriptive words, it’s just that most of them are verbs and adverbs.

We talk about why Scarrow might have avoided adjectives and decided that because this scene is action, adjectives would just have slowed it down. Anyone stopping to notice ‘sharp swords’ and ‘shiny helmets’ would have had their head cut off. We were then able to consider how the sentence structure added to the effect of the passage and noticed that all the sentences are pretty long. Longer sentences mean fewer full stops. And full stops slow us down. From all this we derived the following success criteria:

  • Use longer & varied, complex sentences to help speed the reader up
  • Use powerful, exciting verbs
  • Use adverbs to describe action
  • Avoid using adjectives: they slow the reader down

Having thought about how these criteria apply to Scarrow’s passage, we could then change context and think about how to apply the same criteria to the description of, say, a sporting event.

The horror of differentiating by success criteria

The most egregious form of success criteria are those which misguidedly attempt to differentiate. There’s a requirement in many schools to break learning intentions down into levels or grades with students expected to access work at their target grade. This leads to both students and teachers anchoring themselves on data never intended for this purpose and gives tacit permission for low expectations.

Here’s an example of the sort of thing we should avoid:

Learning objective: To be able to work out meaning using clues

Success criteria:

  • C – I can explain what words mean
  • B – I can explore alternative meanings
  • A-A* – I can analyse and evaluate words and phrases to work out the writer’s intentions and impact on the reader

The assumptions made in this example are breathtaking. If you’ve already understood the concepts of language analysis and that writers use linguistic techniques to shape readers’ responses then this is, perhaps, a useful checklist. But if you’re a novice still struggling to integrate these ideas then it’s a recipe for superficiality and low expectations.

Once, when observing a lesson, in which students were made to copy down such an objective, I overheard one student say to another, “I think I’m just going to be C today.”

In summary:

  • Learning intentions: yes over the long term, never as neat, self-contained lesson objectives. And please God, let’s stop wasting everyone’s time by forcing students to write and underline them every lesson!
  • Success criteria: yes if they’re the product of teaching and clearly modelled, scaffolded and practices. No, if they’re a vague checklist of surface features.

[i] Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment p. 65