Learning Objectives: a waste of time.

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.

2.They’re limiting 

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.

University: Probably the Worst Time of My Life. 

Lying naked, face down and crying onto the scuffed linoleum of the room I refused to call home, I knew then that University was never going to be a positive experience for me.

I knew then that this thing-something I now take to be a ‘nervous breakdown’- was never going to be the beginning of the end; it was never going to be the lowest point on a road to personal epiphany or glory or intellectual triumph; it was always going to be just that: an eighteen year old boy lying naked, face down and crying tears and snot onto a scuffed linoleum floor.

University was probably the worst time of my life. In the three years I spent there I had a nervous breakdown, ballooned from 14 to 17 stone (in just 8 weeks), and found myself in (minor) trouble with the law.

I think that my schooling prior to University was largely responsible for the inadequacy I felt during my time there. In a (yes-cathartic) effort to ensure that other students don’t experience what I did, I’m going to to outline the reasons (as I perceive them) for my time at University being so stupendously shite, before going on to offer a few suggestions as what teachers and schools can do to better prepare students for the kind of University Life that doesn’t make its way onto Facebook statuses and Snapchat Stories.

So firstly, why was it so crap?

  1. The Class Issue

Whether I’m actually working class or not, I identify as such, and my experience at University played no small part in the class sensitivity I feel everyday, in my occupation as a teacher.

In the four hour car journey from home to University, I went from a world of Tesco Value Basics and Bailiffs to a world of Jack Wills and Gilets. University was a distinctly upper middle class environment and it was entirely new. If 90% of the world’s red trousers are worn by the 10% wealthiest people in the world, then that 10% went to University with me.

Signs of the enormous chasm of wealth between me and my fellow students were found everywhere: in the brand new sports cars they drove around campus; in the invites to birthday parties held at Scottish castles; in the countless sports society trips to far flung destinations. Even in the lighting. How much money did people have to spend on fucking fairy lights?  

Everyone, everywhere seemed to be richer than I was.

(Of course, this wasn’t true;  I’ve since found out that actually, 68% of my University cohort were from state schools just like me; the rest were from independent schools. However, it should be noted that this is still an unacceptably low percentage, in comparison to national data.)

My own feeling of socio-economic inferiority reveals itself most clearly in my recollection of how my manner of speaking instantly set me apart from everyone else.  Growing up in the suburbs of London, when Guy Ritchie gangster movies and Geezer culture was at its peak, me and my friends all spoke in the Mockney accent that made us feel like the geezers and gangsters we saw in the films we watched and the pubs we frequented. We couldn’t afford the 13 quid it’d take to get us to Waterloo, but we spoke like we’d been born ringing those Bow Bells. At home, calling a fiver a ‘lady’ and a suit a ‘whistle’ like made me feel like Ronnie Kray. At University, it made me feel like Ronnie Corbett. My manner of speaking made me into a caricature: a figure of fun (the working class clown) to be patronised and called upon to invoke raucous laughter by a simple greeting of “Alwight mate?”

I’m not saying that everybody from privileged backgrounds at University actively sought to make me feel worthless. But, what comes with wealth, is a arrogance of a kind that isn’t intentioned. I couldn’t stand the fact that I worked in McDonalds to pay my way, whilst they spent Daddy’s money. I couldn’t stand the pitying looks when I told them I went to Devon during the summer break, and not the Dordogne. I couldn’t stand the way they wore Ralph Lauren shirts as Pyjamas. I hated the way I turned up to every single lecture, and every seminar, regardless, for three years straight, whilst the rich kids mocked me for doing so, proudly boasting about the fact they got a first on their latest essay without even reading the book. And still, in spite of their bragging apathy, they seemed to embody a kind of success I could only dream about.

It was all too much, and my Secondary Education had simply not prepared me to face this level of class difference head on.

2. I Knew Nothing

When I got to University, I had no idea what Socialism was. Nor did I know what Communism was. Or Capitalism. I didn’t know why Right or Left Wing meant. I’d no idea who George Orwell was. I didn’t understand a word of Latin and Homer had all but passed me by. University is both an academic and a political experience. My own Secondary education, or my upbringing, had left me deficient in both these areas. During seminars, I was frightened into silence as fellow students and professors talked to each other using words I could not fathom and allusions I could not access. Everyone seemed to know what everyone else knew, and I remained throughly on the outside. My GCSEs and my A Levels didn’t matter. What mattered was a very specific domain of knowledge- of Cultural capital imbued me with.
I felt deficient in two areas: wealth and knowledge. As I referred to briefly earlier, this had a hugely negative impact on my mental health. I became depressed and my refusal to seek help eventually ended up in me taking off all my clothes and laying on the floor of my bedroom for six hours crying into myself. I put on lots of weight and I started fighting. Lots of fighting. I was a mess.
People say that anger is a weakness, but that’s not true. It was anger with my lot, that got me off that linoleum floor and into the gym. It was anger that got me through those three years. I’m still angry now.
I’m angry that my school didn’t given me the cultural capital I needed to compete intellectually with those students from independent schools who seemed to breeze through University life. Even my vocabulary was deficient. At the most basic level, I didn’t even have the words to engage with people on their level.
I’m angry that I didn’t have the strength to just give up. I was too proud. I didn’t want to let my family down. I didn’t want to admit to all my mates that never went to University, that I’d made a go of it and failed.
I’m angry that nobody-not a single person, myself included- took it upon themselves to ‘google it’ and read the litany of internet blog posts and articles that routinely condemn the University for the Sloane Square Play Pen it’s notorious for being. Surely someone must’ve known what it would be like.
As teachers in state schools, it’s important that we give students the vocabulary and the knowledge that allows them to compete with their more privilege peers. It’s important that we don’t peddle this poisonous idea that your University years are the ‘best years of your life’, because the truth is, they ain’t , always. Not really.
Personally, my own time at University is still something I look back at with loathing. There’s no sense of ‘being glad I endured it and got through it’. I’m still ashamed of how rubbish it was. As a person, I didn’t cut it there and that’s my failure.
But, as I teach, one thought drives me. The thought that the kids I teach- the kids in the tracksuits; the kids for whom football is the sport of choice; the kids with the Formica work tops- willwalk into University with a swagger-an arrogance even- that allows them to compete with the ‘best’ of those gilet-wearing, ski resort visiting, gorgeous people who wear the (red) trousers at University.

A Simple Timeline for English Teachers

The Essential Timeline for English Teachers.

Above, is a hastily drawn Timeline that all students of English Literature could do with knowing. I’ve found that giving my students a basic understanding of the literary periods- and the rough (okay-very rough- a discussion regarding dates etc can be found by accessing this Twitter thread) times during which they occurred has proved valuable, particularly when it comes to context questions such as the Eduqas poetry anthology exam, in which candidates are expected to know the contextual information of 18 different poems, spanning 3 centuries.

Here’s an explanation of each of the movements:

The Industrial Revolution

It’s important that students know that in the mid 1700s, Britain began to become industrialised. The invention of the steam engine, and mechanised textile units, meant that Britain saw a surge in factory buildings and of course, factory workers. Whereas Britain had previously largely been an agrarian society, the Industrial Revolution saw a surge in people moving to cities which is where factories were being built. This, of course, led to a more rigid class system: after all, you needed someone to own the factories (Upper Class); someone to run the factories (Middle Class), and someone to work/be mutilated in the factories (Lower Class). 

The industrial revolution, with all its technological advancements also saw improvements in science and medicine. This was known as ‘The Enlightenment’ and saw a move away from religion and beliefs previously considered outdated towards scientific reasoning and though.  The world was becoming more transparent…

The Romantic Poets

…which really pissed off a group of chaps we now refer to as The Romantics. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, and William Blake really hated all this technological stuff. John Keats believed that technological advancement and the scientification (I literally just made that word up) would ‘clip an Angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line’ (Keats, Lamia). That is, in getting to know how everything works, we are ruining the beauty of it. Kind of like students who used to love books until you made them take part in endless ‘Quotation Explosion’ sessions. In reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the Romantic Poets wrote lots of poems about feelings and nature. They believed in the awesome sense of inferiority one gets when faced with the brutal power of nature. They called this the ‘Sublime’. They believed that getting in touch with nature was the only way people could get back in touch with themselves.

Notable Writers: William Wordsworth, William Blake, John Keats.

The Regency/ Victorian Period
The Victorians thought the Romantics were a soppy bunch. In fact, in reaction to the sensibility of the Romantics, the Victorian Period came just after what I’ll call the Regency Period. This literary epoch saw the introduction of what is known as ‘The Novel of Manners’. The Novel of Manners, rather than being a literary construct focused on the magical and supernatural (such as might be found in the works of the Romantics) was a realistic novel focusing on the social codes of the Victorian period. High on the agenda was social restraint; feelings were a no-no; etiquette and refinement were in. Think anything by Jane Austen. 

Shortly afterwards, came the The Victorian Period proper. This, of course, also saw Charles Dickens’ rise to superstardom. His novels were an angry reaction to the, now all too evident- impact of the Industrial Revolution: poverty, injustice, and crime. 

Notable Writers: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens

The Modernist Period

Victorian literature was all about structures: education, law, government. Those things which make the world run as they should (or shouldn’t be). Then, in 1914, a war started that messed all those structures up a bit. All of a sudden, your government would lead you into war. Your education couldn’t protect you from being shot through the head. And what good was the law, when the crime of war was perfectly legal? The world was turned on its head. Everything people believed was turned on its head. This is reflected in the literature of the Period. Reliable narrators? What good were they before. Get rid. Punctuation? What good was that before? Get rid. Society? What good was that before? Get rid.

Modernist literature saw writers experimenting with weird and wonderful forms. Stories told in reverse. Stream of consciousness. Strange mixtures of prose and poetry. 

And most striking of all? The cynicism. Love was no longer wonderful; it was dangerous. Family was no longer reliable. They f*ck you up your Mum and Dad. The law would no longer protect you; it would kill you.

Notable Writers: James Joyce, F.Scott Fitzgerald, T.S.Elliot

Once kids know all this, ask them to place some unseen poems, or extracts from texts, within a Timeline. May I suggest:

Love is Not All, Edna St Villay. (MODERNIST)

Ode to Autumn, John Keats. (ROMANTIC)

Chapter 1 of Bleak House, (VICTORIAN)

Hope this helps.