Recently, I posted the following tweet:
A few people have been asking the reasoning behind my scorn for learning objectives, and I felt it prudent to outline my thinking here, in a blog. So here’s why I think learning objectives are ridiculous:
1. They’re Clunky
Learning is complicated. Really, really complicated. Take metaphor for example. A full and proper grasp on the complexities of metaphor takes years to achieve. It requires understanding-and retention- of a wide range of abstract concepts and domain knowledge. (Don’t believe me? Look Here).
The idea that learning can be reduced to a single lesson target perpetuates the myth that learning is something that can be visible within the arbitrary units of time we call lessons.
Take this learning objective for example:
To understand what a metaphor is.
That’s your aim is it? To have all students in the class ‘understand’ metaphor? Okay, so…
- What do you mean by ‘understand’?
- Do they all need to ‘understand’ it today?
- What if they don’t?
- You’ll need to revisit this concept again and again in upcoming lessons- will this be the target then, too? What about other targets?
- Do you have enough space on the board to keep writing this learning objective-and new ones- up?
The fact is, the accumulation of knowledge in the Long Term Memory takes repetition, testing, interleaving and spaced practice. These are solid principles based on cognitive theory and the single lesson learning objective does not take these into consideration.
As a trainee, I became obsessed with the learning objective. Once I’d spent a disproportionate amount of time coming up with an objective (Does ‘To understand how Shakespeare uses iambic pentameter for effect’ actually mean anything?), I’d then fly into a blind panic whenever a discussion or activity went in a direction that diverted from the learning objective.
What’s rhythm? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter!
What other words feature the prefix ‘pent’? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter!
What does ‘effect’ actually mean and how can you write about it? We don’t have time to talk about that today! We need to understand iambic pentameter!
3. They facilitate the abomination that is differentiated learning objectives
‘Must, should, could’; ‘Tricky, Trickier, Trickiest’, ‘Green, Amber, Red’.
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.
They also encourage students to take the easy way out. After all, why would you do the trickiest option, when you could do the tricky one and still have time to piss about?
The fact is, you should have the highest expectations of all your students. You just need to accept that whilst Sarah may have a grasp of the root causes of the Wall Street Crash within 10 minutes, for Matthew it may take a while longer. Like, six weeks longer. Learning Objectives- particularly differentiated learning Objectives- by definition, are contrary to this understanding of how learning actually works.
4. They’re a waste of time.
Time spent coming up with a learning objective for your lesson is time you could’ve spent reading something clever.
Time spent writing a learning objective on the board is time that could be spent writing something interesting on the board.
Time spent writing learning Objectives in books is time that could be spent doing punctuation drills.
5. They’re a stick to be beaten with
You’re being observed and your learning objective states that all students must understand how to use dynamic verbs to create pace in their writing.
Your observer is someone that doesn’t know what a verb (verbs are doing words) is, let alone a dynamic verb and yet, you see them frowning as it quickly becomes apparent that a number of other students don’t know either. But the learning objective says all students must understand. And clearly, they don’t. Not yet, anyway.
Thing is, your observer is only here for twenty minutes and they want to see progress against the learning objective. You’ve set yourself up for failure. Go easier on yourself- abandon the objective.
Okay, so what?
Hattie said that targeted lessons have a positive impact on student attainment. This does not mean Learning Objectives. What this means is, teachers knowing what they want students to understand within a given time frame (lessons, incidentally, are not a suitable timeframe with which to measure understanding).
In other words, don’t just rock up and teach anything. Lessons that have been designed with a bigger picture in mind, that have a purpose and a place within a wider scheme of work, are more effective than those that aren’t. So know why you’re teaching metaphor.
Yes, it helps students if they know why they’re learning iambic pentameter. Or the causes of the Wall Street Crash. Or quotations from Genesis. But, rather than wasting time with Learning Objectives, just tell ’em.
“We’re learning about X today because it’s going to help you with Y next week and one day you’ll be able/need to use it for Z.”
That takes 20 seconds.