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  • Sharon McCormack

Learning intentions are only intentional if students understand their WHY


The education experts have told us that for every lesson, we must have learning intentions and success criteria:


"Learning intentions describe what it is that we want students to learn" (John Hattie, 2012).


Hattie and Timperley (2007) describe three questions that guide learning for students:

Where am I going? (Learning intentions)

How am I going? (Success Criteria)

Where to next? (Feedback)


I find this a limiting way in which to consider learning. The learning process is far more complicated than what is found in learning intentions and success criteria. It is crucial teachers set the scene for students, so they are attuned to the learning within a lesson or series of lessons. Teachers are required to know and build upon students 'funds of knowledge' this entails their way of being and knowing situated in the context of students' cultural and social environments. Teachers need to be aware and mindful of what each of their students brings to the learning for each lesson, such as, prior experiences, understandings, knowledge, skills, vocabulary. But I do find learning intentions and success criteria a restrictive view of learning for students.


Often learning intentions are directly lifted from standardised curriculum outcomes. They also commonly relate only to the specific content areas of the curriculum rarely do they encompass the capabilities required in learning. Generally, in classrooms, there is a singular learning intention that has been devised by the teacher up on display for the lesson. In my experience, when teachers write learning intentions, they mostly relate them narrowly to the task/s that students will be doing in the lesson/s. Also learning intentions can establish a ceiling for learning which students can safely stop as they set boundaries and parameters of the learning process. On the flip side learning intentions and success criteria do not always cater to the learning diversity within a classroom of culturally and linguistically diverse students. The following are some examples of learning intentions:


We are learning to:

  • count a collection.

  • clarify the meaning of words.

  • visualise when reading.

  • retell a story.

  • identify shape with symmetry.

  • write a colour poem.

  • write a complete sentence.

  • be a scientist.

  • conduct an experiment

  • write research notes using key words and phrases


Who's intention is it?


When we design the learning intentions, it is the intention of teachers and only the teacher. While I am aware that curriculum is standardised and at times lessons can be predetermined, this is not so for our students. They are not standardised, so I wonder about the intent of learning intentions. When teachers plan learning intentions I consider the following to be considerable problems that impact the learning process:


Problem 1: Learning intentions are only intentional if students understand the WHY of learning.


Problem 2: Learning intentions are often narrow in their intent in the process of learning.


Problem 3: Success criteria only provides one pathway to achieve success in the process of learning.


Problem 4: Students do not have agency, voice and choice in the process of learning.


I question the thinking of the experts as the 'we' is our intention as teachers of what learning we want to take place in the classroom. There appears to be an important aspect missing from the professional conversations regarding learning intentions. It is the students. If students do not have the opportunity to explore the WHY, and if they do not have input into the HOW and WHAT they are not empowered. If students are at the centre of our classrooms then we need to create learning environments where there is a willingness and commitment to honour student agency, voice and choice.


Students need to have the opportunity to understand the WHY in learning. A different way of communicating learning intentions is starting with the WHY in the form of questions as this provides the possibility of opening up learning conversations with and amongst the students promoting a focus of learning conversations. Some examples:

  • Why do we need to learn......?

  • Why do you think we need to learn how to......?

  • Why is important to know/understand......?

  • Why is ...... important for our learning?

  • Why is ...... important in ......?

  • Why might learning ...... be important for you now?

  • Why might we need to learn?

  • Why might ...... help us in ......?


They also need to understand the choices and pathways - HOW - they can make and take in the learning process and the actions - WHAT - that are necessary to achieve growth in learning. Focussing on the process of learning in comparison to the product of learning is far more powerful.





Supporting the learning conversation of WHY, HOW and WHAT


Supporting students in understanding the learning process that they will undertake requires teachers to support and scaffold students during the learning conversations of the WHY, HOW and WHAT. This can be achieved by:

  • Unpacking the big ideas (key concepts)

  • Showcasing the pen & rich learning task/s

  • Using prompts and questions to inspire thinking and discussion

  • Utilising provocations to tune in student thinking, e.g. photos, videos

  • Spotlight student thinking making it visible and explicit

  • Feeding back and forward during the learning conversations

Below is a suggestion of a process to conduct these learning conversations in the classroom and these ideas can be adapted to any grade level with facilitation and support by teachers.



Benefits of exploring WHY, HOW and WHAT


Providing the opportunity to explore the WHY, HOW and WHAT is beneficial in the following ways:

  1. Develops a shared and collective purpose for learning

  2. Makes the learning process visible and transparent to all students

  3. Focuses on the process of learning rather than the product

  4. Encourages and deepens learning conversations

  5. Opens the potential of wondering and discovery

  6. Promotes critical and divergent thinking

  7. Fosters creativity, imagination and visualisation

  8. Provides the possibilities of creating different learning pathways

  9. Provokes student thinking about their own goals in learning

  10. Incorporates not only cognitive aspects of learning but also affective, e.g. capabilities, SEL

  11. Promotes self-regulation, self-motivation and self-direction within the learning process



Engaging students in the learning process is considerably essential; however, this can only occur if teachers, together with their students develop a shared purpose for the learning. Constructive alignment means that student and teachers' energy, motivation, and commitment are aligned to the intended learning goals within the lessons. This can be achieved if we ensure that space is provided for relevant, authentic and powerful learning conversations around the WHY, HOW and WHAT of the learning process. Aligning learning intentions with students own intentions of their learning through WHY, HOW and WHY is sure to increase engagement and motivation within our lessons as students make deeper connections to the learning process.




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