What’s the Point?

Last year, I began experimenting with learning objectives. I wrote them on the whiteboard every day all semester long. (I first blogged about this topic last February in a post entitled The Last First Day of School.)

The experiment started because my district began requiring teachers to post their learning objectives every day. The objectives, it was explained, should be clear, concise statements, written in kid-friendly language, of the learning goal for any given day in each class.

I wrote objectives all the way to the end of the year. In fact, I even took photographs of my whiteboards so I could use the examples when I was working (this year) as an instructional coach. I wrote some dreadful learning objectives and some good ones, some long ones and some short, most of them for the one day and a few that extended for several days.

Here is what I learned:

1. It isn’t as easy as it sounds.

For example, distinguishing between the activity and the learning objective sometimes tests one’s own understanding of the lesson. Consider a few simple objectives first:

Using examples from Huckleberry Finn, students will identify and explain three kinds of irony. Specific. Concrete. It’s easy to write because it’s at the recall/comprehension level on Bloom’s Taxonomy. What did we do in class? Students already had the definitions of three kinds of irony. I gave them a sheet full of examples and they had to match a type of irony with an example. The tricky part was explaining to me why an example was a certain kind of irony. Comprehension.

Or this one even: Students will understand how a sentence outline sequences information and clarifies the relationships between and among ideas in the outline. [Kid-friendly language, by the way, would have that reading this way: Students will understand how sentence outlines work.] I started by showing the students a topic outline that one of them had submitted to me for feedback. I had no idea what the student was going to say about any of the topics in the outline and no clue how one idea related to another. So, to show them how a sentence outline would have communicated the student’s ideas more clearly, I xeroxed and then cut a sentence outline into strips of paper, gave each table a set of strips, and asked the students to reassemble the outline by following the internal logic of the sentences. This one is also at the comprehension level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

But what about something more abstract, something at the analysis level? What if the assignment is to read, say, Chapter 11 in To Kill a Mockingbird? If I write Students will read Chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird, then what I am writing is the assignment. If I write, Students will discuss Chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird, then I am describing the day’s activity. I need to write something like this: Students will understand how Atticus’ definition of courage is the standard he will have to live up to. Or, if that is too explicit and gives away the discussion, Students will identify the key idea in Chapter 11 and be able to explain how it sets up a standard for behavior. Or whatever you or I, the teacher, want to emphasize. In other words, I have to think through the discussion and figure out what I want the students to take away from it.

I started to think of the learning objective as a purpose statement, or the point of the activity, and that made articulating the objective easier. It also took me longer then because it required more thought on my part.

2. The activity is the means to an end, not the end in itself.

Well, most of the time. In truth, sometimes the activity itself is the point. Write a bibliography. Park a car. Practice the music for the school concert. Dribble a basketball. In all of these activities, perfecting one’s performance is the goal. The student learns by doing: application level on Bloom’s. The clue to these is the “how to.” When you start writing The student will learn how to…, you know you’ve got a performance. The student will learn to dribble a basketball. Purpose and activity.

3. Sometimes, students shouldn’t see the objective ahead of time.

Science teachers especially have taught me that you don’t always want the objective up on the board at the beginning of the class period. In inquiry learning, they tell me, students figure things out for themselves. I, with my biases about constructivist learning, certainly appreciate that! Given our mandate about posting objectives, what can the teacher do in cases like these? My advice has been to write the objective on the board, but cover it up—or put it at the end of the PowerPoint presentation on the lesson—or write it in the plan book. Somehow, have it there so that the principal can find it if he (or she) comes in. Have it there so that, at the end, the students can check their perception of what the day’s learning was all about. As one teacher suggested to me, put it under the pull-down map. Just remember to pull the map up at the end of the lesson.

4. The learning objective is really there for the kids.

We make the mistake of assuming that kids get the point of a lesson. We know why we have them do whatever we have them do. We know what they should take away from the day’s activity. But do they? We can’t be sure even if we tell them. But stating the purpose in writing goes a long way toward assuring that understanding. Of course, the objective has to be written in letters large enough for students to read from across the room, and it does need to be written in kid-friendly language. The teacher also has to make the connection to the objective: Point it out, refer to it, match it to subsequent quiz questions. We know we have to alert students to assignments that are written on the board. Objectives are no different.

I am still learning about learning objectives, but so far, here’s my response to the multiple choice question I posed in February:

So on with the experiment. Stay tuned. I’ll let you know if A) I can keep it up, B) the principal finds it helpful, C) the kids benefit from the explicit statement of the goal, D) it continues to be a challenge to me to focus my thoughts and articulate them, E) all of the above.

The answer is E.

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