Learning objectives & why we need 'em

//Learning objectives & why we need 'em

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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Zooming In and Out
50 ways to lead your lesson



  1. Paul Dix February 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm - Reply

    Great post.
    Negotiated Assessment has the right checks and balances. Students deconstruct a model to arrive at their success criteria. It is monitored and negotiated with the teacher so that criteria that are out of line are adjusted quickly. Criteria drawn from the students is listed using their own language. There is some sleight of hand but there is also genuine ownership by students. Posting a cumulative record of all success criteria they have come up with on the wall is a powerful reinforcer. I will then use it at the end of the year to level and compare with exam board criteria. Students use the rolling records to refine terminology and draw targets. Working in hard inner city comps (11% A-C) with children who could barely read this is how we accelerated levels/grades in English over 5 yrs

  2. Isobel Feaver February 18, 2012 at 1:19 pm - Reply

    Hello Learning Spy!
    Good to read such sense.
    The writing of LOs (whatever you want to call them is pointless and fruitless.) Do I need to write down the fact I have to fill up my car with petrol before I do and consequently achieve it? No.
    Savvy use of them however is essential.
    If you are an effective educator then you know your kids and the best ways to engage them in their learning. We know the kids who will derive benefits from thorough engagement in their objectives and we also know those who prefer and flourish under a more structured and guided approach. Not to mention those who may be on the spectrum and require additional strategies.
    I am coming from a Primary perspective here. Objectives yes please but only when used meaningfully and not just as a wasted pencil pushing exercise. I know that as teachers we all know how boring and demoralising that can be so lets multiply that by a thousand for those in our care.

  3. Andrew Old February 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm - Reply

    I’ve used an objective pretty much every lesson since I had an OFSTED in my first term as a teacher. I was told: “just write an objective instead of a title”. Since then it seemed to take so little extra effort that I couldn’t see an argument against doing so.
    I have often doubted how much benefit they are to the kids. Often they can only understand them after they have done the required learning. When students ask me what something in the objective means I often have to say “I’ll be telling you soon”. The most use I can really see for the student is as a guide to precisely what to revise when looking back at their book.
    I can also comment on the bad side of objectives. They can be subject to terrible guidance which makes teachers have to come up with several different interlocking objectives, at different levels. At one school we were told, pre-OFSTED, to write and explain so much in our objectives that when OFSTED came in they ended up complaining that the teachers spent too long talking at the start of the lesson.
    However I think you have it spot on in seeing the value of the learning objective to the teacher. The difference between effective and ineffective teachers is very often simply the question of whether the teacher, at the start of the lesson, had a clear idea of what was to be learnt. Bad lessons often consist of unconnected, pointless (but enjoyable) activities.

  4. learningspy February 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm - Reply

    Thanks Isobel – glad you find it sensible. Can see how writing out objectives would become even more meaningless in primary setting.
    And Andrew, you seem to be arguing that copying objectives down is one of their few benefits? I’d agree that multiple objectives is needlessly confusing and helpful to one one.

  5. Eric Wareham February 18, 2012 at 4:44 pm - Reply

    Agree with Andrew’s last point – a great blog and one that does have to be raised. LO’s are too easily as a ‘must’ because that what the school has agreed upon – it becomes an SOP with little thought. Often taken from specs or just simple instructions. I try to raise the level of learning by incorporating Higher Order Thinking tasks. It makes me really think of engagement and different ways of getting outcomes that are worthwhile.
    They need to be reviewed throughout the lesson.
    The most important thing is it makes me think not only what I want the student will gain but how will they get there?
    LO’s are not an ‘activity’ they should not be written down – use it to review and check progress.
    Thanks David, for a really good thoughtful post.

  6. Andrew Old February 18, 2012 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    “And Andrew, you seem to be arguing that copying objectives down is one of their few benefits?”
    Depends on circumstances. But certainly no worse than copying, say, the date and title.

  7. James Michie February 21, 2012 at 11:37 pm - Reply

    I think between our two posts it is clear that LOs are a useful and valid tool as part of an AfL strategy; and that the use of success criteria (particularly incremental) are useful in both formulating strategies for peer/self assessment as well as providing teachers with a methodology for focussing their students (and themselves) on learning and progress.
    I would also add that by focussing on a shared learning objective with incremental success criteria rather than the ‘All/Most/Some’ model helps to encourage teachers to move away from ‘differentiation by outcome’, and towards differentiating within the lesson itself.
    (Wow! That was a long sentence…)
    If the students are to reach the same point you will have to (as the teacher) consider different routes and strategies to help each of your students get there. This in my mind, is a much more (personalised) approach to learning. While the objective is shared the structure of the lesson can become far more open.

  8. Claire March 6, 2012 at 5:07 am - Reply

    I found this interesting, lots to think about. I’ve come from an English school, where we were required to have ‘all, most, some’ plus objectives and outcomes on each lesson plan. All objectives had to be visible on the board the whole lesson., along with titles and key words.
    I am now in Indonesia and really left to do them how I want, so I will be reading into the learning continuum- something I haven’t heard of before.
    Thanks for all the links.

  9. Jenny May 21, 2012 at 8:47 pm - Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve recently written a paper on Learning objectives and how pupils engage with them – if at all. I found that writing them down at the start of the lesson (as is the case in many classrooms across all subjects) was pointless as at the end of the lesson pupils still only believed they had learnt about the generic topic rather than focusing on the actual learning objective. I found that pupils understood and engaged with the LO when they also had a complimentary success criteria and were asked to identify early on the skill and subject key words in the LO. Interestingly, without a LO at all pupils were totally unable to identify the specifics of their lesson.

    • learningspy May 21, 2012 at 8:54 pm - Reply

      That’s interesting. I wonder of anyone’s tried to measure the effect sizes of introducing LOs in different ways?
      Also interesting that so many LOs ‘don’t go in’. Bit like feedback: 70% of it is not received by students.
      Thanks, David

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  14. MrsM May 16, 2017 at 9:31 am - Reply

    I’m leading an inset on learning objectives tomorrow and would love the scales to fall from everyone’s eyes! Any idea where I can find that David Gale clip? Thanks

    • David Didau May 16, 2017 at 1:25 pm - Reply

      Gosh, that’s from internal CPD back from 2001. Very little chance it’s online anywhere

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