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. 

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Author: PositivTeacha

Whole School Literacy Coordinator and Lead Practitioner

35 thoughts on “Learning Objectives: a waste of time.”

  1. I was initially against what you had posted on Twitter, however, after reading your rationale, I am in full agreement with you. I can imagine abandoning learning objectives to be highly frowned upon in my place of work though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great points, and I agree that differentiated learning outcomes can be dangerous when they are used to block some students from full participation

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  3. I have never made kids write learning objectives. I don’t believe that by telling kids what they will have learnt by the end of the lesson, will make it so; in fact, it’s more likely to turn a lot of fixed mind thinkers off before they start. Some would be, ‘I can’t do this’, others, ‘I already know this’, and bam! You’ve lost some, and the others won’t think outside the box. I tell them what we’re doing and why, but not what they’ll learn; how do I know what they’ll learn from it – that WOULD be restrictive!

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  4. If you’d done your Hattie research properly, he says a success criteria is more important than a learning intention anyway. The visibility of the intention is for coherence, not to formally register the completed understanding. Heard of differentiation? Maybe a student entered your room with some understanding of metaphor and moved further in their continuum of understanding after your lesson? I could go on, but need to get back to 2012.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One could also argue that any learning needing a teacher explanation or justification might be missing the point. Would goid evidence of learning be if a learner could articulate why they are learning what they’re learning?

    I don’t know if telling learners that it’s important to learn this now because in x number of years you may need it is a good enough reason for most learners either.

    We need to know that what we’re doing in our classes matters now and is about making learners successful now. Not just for the future.

    I agree that copying learning intentions into books has had its day but it kept me honest as a classroom teacher as I had to justify the point of what we were doing.
    Sometimes as teachers we can see the bigger picture of how this all fits together and need to find ways for it to make sense to students too.

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  6. I enjoyed reading this and agreed with some of your points. However, I think the main problem with the examples above is that you have used ‘understand’ as the verb in these LIs. This is obviously something which is hard to define and therefore to achieve. As a result, an ‘understand’ LI will always be a problem.

    Targeted learning intentions with skills based verbs can facilitate learning if used correctly. I.e not always copied out, not always revealed at the start, etc. I would advocate for a more flexible approach to learning intentions with a more specific learning focus, not for removing them altogether.

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  7. Great article 🙂
    I have developed my own system… I emailed John Hattie about it and he said it ticked all the boxes – combining both Visible Learning and a chance for the children to self or peer assess. Easy to manage.
    I trialled it in the classroom, it worked like a dream and cut out virually all my marking. All my marking could be done with the children in the lesson :-). The children loved it. Instant feedback.
    Mr Pink – get in touch and I can run it by you. You can trial it and maybe there will be a revolution?!
    lizbaran11 followed by the gmail bit 😉
    Kind regards
    Liz

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  8. Very interesting ideas! I completely agree about the restrictiveness of them, some of the best learning has happened in my classes when we diverge from the prescribed topic!

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  9. I’ve been working with an arts-based higher education institution developing a new, radical, whole-institution approach to assessment. You’ll be pleased to know that we have banished learning outcomes, for the reasons that you describe, plus some more. The new system will be in place in September. Watch out on my blog: Stumbling With Confidence.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I was once told after an observation that I hadn’t shared the learning objective, I was adamant I had and said that the whole introduction was explaining why we were doing what we were doing and linking to what we’d previously done. I was then told I had used the word focus rather than ‘today’s learning intention is …’! 🤣🤣🤣

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  11. I love how you trash learning objectives and then end the article by basically giving a learning of objective (“Today we are learning X…”). I think your core message is in the right place (the frenzied obsession with Learning Objectives led to people using then arbitrarily and without purpose), but your conclusion demonstrates that, in fact, it’s useful for both student and teacher to have context for the lesson i.e. What are we learning today? If a teacher is not confident enough to fluidly digress from that to delve into the links between rhythm and understanding iambic pentameter, that’s a different problem.

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