Over the past week I’ve gotten myself snarled up in a number of increasingly heated debates about the efficacy of the humble learning objective. The view of many seems to be that they get in the way of students’ learning and are some sort of top down imposition which autocratic teachers foist on their unwilling classes. There seems to be a movement which believes that learning objectives kill creativity and spontaneity. Whence cometh this bile?
I remember the first time I saw a learning objective being used in a lesson. My school had just been placed into Special Measures and things were looking grim. I’d only joined the school a few months previously and was wondering how to get out. Then, at an INSET event organised to rally the troops I watched a video of David Gale (a maths teacher who tweets as @reflectivemaths) writing the learning objective on his white board, questioning the class about what they might learn and then getting them to learn it. The scales fell from my eyes. That’s what I was supposed to doing. You see, I’d bumbled through my Oxford University PGCE with absolutely no idea about what to do with objectives. In those days we called ’em teaching objectives and as far as I could see, you put together some, fun engaging activities for the kids and then worried up an objective from the national strategy and scribbled it on your lesson plan. Until watching Dave in action not only I had never considered sharing my objectives with students, I barely understood what they were for. This experience changed the trajectory of my teaching and my career. I became an evangelical convert.
Fast forward 10 years and learning objectives are now the norm. Every lesson I have observed in the past 5 years has objectives (or aims, or intentions, or outcomes, or whatever) dutifully written up on the board and copied into students’ books. Does this mean that the learning objective has become mere white noise; a meaningless routine enacted in thousands of classrooms with very little impact on learning? Well, sadly, yes; this is probably all too often the case. The use of learning objectives has, all too often, become a reflexive box ticking exercise with little or no thought behind it. David Weston makes the point that, “Teachers need to understand theory and evidence of learning and make informed judgements, not comply with rules.” I concur. We have far too many ‘how to’ guides in schools but far too few ‘why to’ guides.
James Michie wrote this a couple of days ago in which he takes up the learning objective baton and reminds us that they are an integral part of assessment for learning. He reminded me of Dylan Wiliam’s assertion that sharing objectives (or intentions as he prefers) opens up a discourse about learning and that students need to know where they’re supposed to be headed if they’re going to have a chance of getting there. Fair point. So should we go back to dutifully copying them down so that students can tick them or draw smiley faces next to them at the end of the lesson? No, of course not.
It is my contention that learning objectives are important for two reasons. Firstly, they ensure that teachers are clear about the purpose of the lesson before they begin thinking about all the fun they want to pack into them. Secondly, they provide a very useful signpost against which progress can be checked. Now, I know progress has become a bit of a dirty word and I’m not suggesting that Ofsted’s apparent insistence on students visibly making progress every 20 minutes is a good thing. Even Ofsted seem unclear about this. But no one can seriously want to make the counter argument that students shouldn’t make progress, can they? Make no mistake though; simply writing your objective on the board is not good practice. There are many more creative ways of introducing objectives and if you’re short on ideas have a look at the ideas discussed here, here, here, here and here.
The effectiveness of learning objectives is seriously hampered by a paucity of success criteria. Any teacher worth their salt needs to be able to break down their objectives into incremental, achievable steps. Please note: I do not advocate the all/most/some heresy here. Informing students that only ‘some’ of them will get around to the hard bit is a recipe for low expectations and thus to be avoided. My advice is to use something along the lines of the learning continuum which allows students to make progress without suggesting a point at which they can opt out.
Another point made by Paul Dix was that students should have a hand in designing their objectives. He advocates a negotiated assessment grid in which the teacher and students arrive at a set of ‘task specific criteria’. Now, I’m not against this per se, I just worry about giving the students too much scope for coming up with stuff which clearly isn’t going to be useful. At best, I think student negotiated success criteria are a sleight of hand in which the teacher fools the students into coming up with the point that they, the teacher, would have come up with anyway.
To summarise:

  • DO have a learning objective clear in your mind before you plan your lesson
  • DO feel free to share it with students in as creative and interesting a way as you’re capable of
  • DO have success criteria against which progress can be measured
  • DO refer back to your learning objective at various points in the lesson and get students to explain how far they’ve met it.
  • DON’T just get students to copy them down in their books and tick them at the end of the lesson. Damian Ainscough tells me that copying objectives for 3 mins per lesson = 10 school days (50 hours) ‘wasted’ per pupil per year. We need to avoid the dreaded ‘copy these in to your book so that we can sit and tut at the slowest writer’.

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