I’ve been wanting to write a blog about learning objectives for some time. Whilst I think they can be a useful tool for teachers and students, they can easily be done badly. Certainly within English, they are prone to the type of genericism that undermines any shred of usefulness. There’s also no doubt that learning objectives have been complicit in the evolution lot of edu-nonsense, as Matt Pinkett discusses excellently in his recent blog.
What I’d like to argue is that if you wade through the swamp, learning objectives are, in essence, a useful idea. The problem we have in education is that often any kernel of usefulness is overwhelmed by the corrupting force of fads and trends. For the rest of this post I’ll explore some of these corrupting factors and suggest how they can be overcome.
The lesson as a unit of time.
Bodil Isaksen’s blog ‘A lesson is the wrong unit of time’ is a great reminder of how thinking purely in terms of individual lessons can be very limiting. Any talk of progress within lessons certainly ignores a much more complex and accurate view of learning. Nothing is ever fully ‘learned’ in one lesson. Yet, individual lessons are the means to this wider and more significant end.
Good learning objectives must take this into account. They shouldn’t be a sequence of statements that the teacher can consider ‘done’ after one hour’s toil. Done well, they can also help students understand that learning does not happen in neat and tidy individual chunks of time. Perhaps, words like ‘practice, recall, revisit, revise’ should be the pivotal words of objectives rather than less concrete terms such as ‘understand.’
Let’s be transparent and show our students that understanding requires a great deal of practice and revision. Let’s use objectives to make the complex nature of learning abundantly clear.
Learning objectives and Genericism
For years, English has been widely seen as a skills based subject. This was certainly my view during my PGCE year and NQT year. Therefore, many of the learning objectives I devised would have been linked to the skills mentioned in assessment objectives, or based on vague verbs from Bloom’s taxonomy (a cornerstone of my PGCE year). A typical objective for a lesson might be something like this:
To analyse the writer’s choice of language.
Several years on, my thoughts about English as a purely skills-based subject have changed. I’m of the opinion that assessment objectives aren’t especially useful for students, and the role of knowledge in English teaching is much more significant than I previously thought. Instead of this skills-based genericism, I try and make my lesson objectives a concise, specific representation of whatever students are thinking the most hard about on that particular day. For instance, when looking at an extract from The Woman in Black my objective might be:
To analyse how Hill’s verb choices establish mood.
Of course, this objective relies on recalling and testing knowledge of key terms (verbs and mood) and would be part of a wider sequence of lessons.
Objectives are a waste of time
One of the most common criticisms of learning objectives is that they are quite literally a waste of time. I’ve seen several tweets adding up the supposed time it takes a child to write down an objective, multiplying this by the amount of lessons in day, days in a school year and then pronouncing this figure as the amount of time wasted in a child’s education. An interesting mathematical parlour trick, but not a convincing argument.
A better question might be: Is getting students to write down an objective a good way to start a lesson?
I don’t have any particular strong feelings about this, certainly not strong enough to tell other teachers what to do. Personally, I like students having a title and a date (written out in full) underlined at the start of each lesson. It’s part of my routine. It’s part of helping students have pride in their work. It’s my way of being an absolute zealot over the small details so that larger problems tend to take care of themselves.
In light of the the new specifications and 100% exam courses, I’ve also been using this approach to help structure some of my students’ revision. Particularly with KS4 classes, I’ve been hammering home the message that class exercise books are invaluable revision resources when finished. Having clear objectives and dates help this process. From revising key characters, filling in gaps after some retrieval practice, or reading previous essays before attempting a new one, clear titles in books help facilitate this revision.
As for teachers, time spent agonising over the exact wording of a learning objective is probably time wasted. But if objectives are a concise expression of exactly what we want students to think about in that lesson, defining them could help focus and speed up planning.
Observers and differentiated objectives
Matt Pinkett’s blog is absolutely bang on when it comes to differentiated learning objectives:
Differentiated learning Objectives are an abomination. They suggest that what is good enough for some pupils, is not good enough for others. They encourage low expectations. Johnny, I want you to do the trickiest objective, but Joe- you probably won’t be able to do it so you stick with the tricky one yeah? Good, stupid boy.
As for observers, anyone judging a teacher based on whether the students have all met the objective in that lesson should probably not be observing lessons. Asking how the lesson fits into a bigger sequence, how it relates to previous knowledge, how it develops and extends this knowledge are much more important questions.
Only useful for trainees
The idea that learning objectives are only useful for trainees makes me feel a little uneasy. If teachers are consistently performing well, then there should be tailored CPD for those individuals. But experience alone is not enough to ensure good quality teaching. Although the research indicates that experience does correlate with teacher effectiveness, teachers (like anyone) can be prone to over confidence, and it’s difficult to know when you can just trust your gut.
For me, 6 years in, I definitely have lessons where I leave the classroom wondering why I hadn’t thought more carefully about the purpose of the lesson. I’m not ready to abandon the idea just yet.
Does every lesson need an objective? Does it matter if sometimes it’s just a title? Should we be painstakingly crafting differentiated objectives for every lesson we teach? Absolutely not.
What does mater is that we consider exactly how the lessons we teach support student’s thinking and long term learning. Good learning objectives should help, rather than hinder this goal.