What’s the point of learning objectives? 5 myths about learning objectives.

Sometimes in life, the point of being there is very clear. In this image, we are heading to Snowdon (the pyramidal peak ahead of my 8 year old son).  A big pointy mountain is a clear objective, but it’s only a step on the journey. So far it’s taken me 8 years to encourage him.  The future? Much lies outside my sphere of influence but I hope that by introducing the awe and wonder of this environment; covering the knowledge and skills required to avoid death and stopping to stand and stare, he may consider a life long relationship with the outdoors.

Continuing on the outdoor theme, watch this:

THE LAST GREAT CLIMB from Posing Productions on Vimeo.

I once had the pleasure of listening to Leo Holding at the Geographical Association’s Annual Conference after his return. What struck me were his objectives. In order of importance:

  1. Get everyone back alive.
  2. Capture high quality photography.
  3. To climb the mountain.

These clear objectives directed Leo’s decisions and team leader; the tools and strategies that were employed and ensured that everyone knew what they were there for.

As a teacher I know that clear learning objectives are vital. Clear learning objectives come before a curriculum is written. Clear learning objectives mean that everyone knows the point of being in the school. Clear learning objectives allow teachers, students (through meta-cognition and self-regulation) and teaching assistants to select the best strategies that support learning. Clear learning objectives and a clear curriculum mean that young people achieve well. If students don’t leave a school without good qualifications, then I haven’t done my job. Qualities are as important as qualifications, although qualities do not sit solely within the realm of school*. Teachers without a curriculum cannot be held accountable. In particular, novice teachers can use learning objectives to plan effective sequences of lessons that use appropriate teaching strategies.

But let’s not get carried away. Every now and again I am humbled as a former student makes contact and lets me know that they are doing what they are doing, a decade later, because of the nudge that I gave them. Learning objectives should exclusively not be limited to the academic, accountability driven agenda.  In addition, learning objectives can create a tunnel vision effect where opportunities to enrich the curriculum are missed. My Mam has always told me that life is like a corridor of doors. Each leads to a new adventure. Some are open and other may be more difficult to budge. I may be accused of being a muppet, but we can blend the research around cognitive science and direct instruction with the excitement, passion and wonder that is the beautiful struggle for learning. I didn’t sign up for clinical, scientific and formulaic lessons that follow the same routines and patter. I signed up to change lives. Great teaching changes lives. In any case, I am yet to read any research that calls for the removal of joy and wonder from lessons. I’m a trad-prog continuum slider.

My final world of warning, written as someone who is struggling to figure out where I fit in life at the moment, is that an objective driven life can be detrimental for mental health. That’s not to say that we don’t need learning objectives, but that we shouldn’t be slaves to the accountability regime and the demands of having a life plan. Having a life plan sometimes is pants.

But I digress, hopefully I’ve outlined that learning objectives are important in  order to put together effective sequences of lessons at the heart of this post and I now want to tackle six of the core myths around learning objectives. These were shared with staff this week. **

1. Learning objectives only last a lesson

Lessons have a serious problem. Teachers must think in terms of sequences of lessons. Some key concepts and knowledge may take years to develop. If learning is a change in the long term memory (Willingham) then a learning objective can not be met within a neat section of time. I’ve had learning objectives that last for an hour. Some for weeks. That’s OK. Teachers need to contextualise learning objectives as our knowledge of pedagogy, the young people in front of us, the context in which we work and of the assessment are all needed. Off the peg resources and plans can be great but everything, educational research included, should be tweaked and nudged so that they are right for our place and our students.

2. Learning objective have to be written down by students.

This bonkers practice still occurs in some places. It’s a waste of time. Yes, objectives should be shared with young people, especially if we are to develop meta-cognition by encouraging students to choose their own strategies. The learning objective helps all of those involved in the learning select the best strategies and activities that get young people to think about what it is we want them to learn. In addition, sharing the overarching learning objective reduces cognitive load as the purpose of being in the room is clear to everyone concerned.

3. Learning objectives have to be differentiated.

I’m a lazy man. If you give me an opt out by using ‘most’ or ‘some’, I’m going to stay at ‘all’ and switch off and take it easy. As Allison and Tharby argue, single, challenging goals are what we are after. Also, writing learning objectives isn’t easy. I still have a template in front of me in order to write them. As a middle leader, they were provided within schemes of work. One is enough. Furthermore, from experience, a directive to set differentiated learning objectives encourages a task-driven (as opposed to learning-driven) approach and increases workload.

4. Learning objectives are always shared at the start of the lesson

One of the most effective ways I’ve used to evaluate my own learning is to ask the students to identify the point of the lesson. This is when I realised that students were often focused on the task rather than what I wanted them to learn. Learning objectives don’t have to mention a location or give the game away. They can also be shared at the end of a lesson.

5. Learning objectives should be revisited at the end of the lesson

This myth comes about mainly through the crazy, Ofsted driven, craze of the mini-plenary and measuring progress within the lesson. If you haven’t already explored Professor Becky Allen’s excellent post around the futility of trying to measure progress, it’s worth a detour. Learning is about practice and learning is long term. We can’t tell if a learning objective has been met until well after the students have left the room. Retrieval practice is a great way to do so.

6. Yours?

What have I missed? What other myths are there around learning objectives?




*Although my involvement with Primary Rocks, a leader in an all-through setting and being the Chair of Governors at a Primary school does lead me to believe that the qualities set, shared and lived from EYFS through to Year 6 can provide a strong steer through life.

** Professional development is a drip feed of information and, if retrieval practice and interleaving are important for young people, they are for adults too. I can’t understand staff development programmes that herald the importance of cognitive science but don’t actually follow any of the principles. This is why, this term, I have attended several sessions on cognitive science and taken part in an online course: building on what I already know. Training programmes often do not allow opportunities for staff to practice.


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