The “I Can” statement has emerged as an essential philosophy and practice in Proficiency-based Learning (PBL). There is evidence of its use in schools across multiple states in the Northeast as they shift their educational practices. However, it is an idea that is not new in the world of public education. One of the first things I was taught as a new teacher 12 years ago was to put the aim of my lesson on the board written in student friendly language starting with “I can…” This was an expectation that all teachers in the school would do this daily. The intention behind this visual was for students to be able to explain clearly what they were being asked to know, understand, and do. It is interesting to see how the “I can” approach is now gaining momentum as we move towards measuring student learning in a PBL model. Like standards-based education or PBL, it goes to show you how long it takes for things to move forward in education considering 13 years later I am seeing this language becoming more prevalent in classrooms, professional development opportunities, and at conferences with colleagues. However, despite the pace at which things in education change, I firmly believe that it is the right approach and work that educators should be engaged in as it provides well designed, high quality curriculum and instruction starting with the end in mind.
“I can” is a shift in describing what learners are able to do towards learning outcomes, standards, and proficiencies. First, as subtle as these two words appear, the “I can” motto creates a learning environment that focuses on the positive instead of what students can’t do. Positive learning environments create conditions in a learner’s brain that allows for the release of endorphins, risk-taking and a growth mindset (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011). It also allows for the reflective process to occur by allowing learners to make connections to prior learning and build cognitive networks. Furthermore, when teachers are able to process and reflect with students about what they are able to do and what next steps need to happen in the progression of learning, students’ social and emotional needs are more likely to be met (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011).
To design “I can” statements for a learning outcome, Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) chart are used to determine what students should know and be able to do as they work towards proficiency and beyond. Combined with content, Bloom’s and Webb’s action verbs describe the learner’s level of understanding as it relates to the learning outcome. It’s important to note that the learning outcome on a learning scale is the “proficient” or “3” (in a 4 point grading system). An example from Gobble et al. (2017) put into a learning scale is described below:
I can accurately explain vocabulary terms in a written format using complex stated details from class.
Learning scales in a PBL model are clear and transparent so that a student knows exactly what they are supposed to be learning and doing. Furthermore, a well-written learning target and scale should be comprehensible to a student. In this example, notice how the depth of knowledge increases for what a student should know and be able to do as they progress towards proficiency and beyond. Also notice how this learning scale creates flexibility in how a student demonstrates proficiency towards the learning outcome. In this example, a student may write a short story, design a crossword puzzle, or construct a blog post to demonstrate their learning of vocabulary terms.
Ultimately, these two simple words “I can” are changing the way in which we think about school. “I can” is shifting our philosophy and practice as it relates to teaching and learning in the classroom and it is shifting the entire education system to a proficiency-based system here in Vermont and the Northeast. It communicates that we care deeply about student success and that we are committed to providing students with opportunities to practice and perform in authentic ways.
Sousa, D. & Tomlinson C.A. (2011). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports
the learner-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Gobble, T., Onuscheck, M., Reibel, A., and Twadell, E. (2017). Pathways to proficiency:
Implementing evidence-based grading. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.