Learning Objectives

The main issue I have today is that my laptop keyboard doesn’t have a key for the letter ‘b’ so I shall bbbbblame all spelling mistakes on that. In the mean time there mayBe quite a few odd bs floating around in this post!

Learning objectives are something that have become so much part of my every day teaching that standing back and examining them seemed like a futile and somewhat ridiculous task. I was first drawn to look at the idea of how learning objectives are used and why they are used when reading posts by Lisa Jane Ashes  about her current teaching and more importantly a study she did of how pupils responded to the different ways learning objectives can be presented. I followed a very similar approach to my own research only from the perspective of a confused GTP, without the use of SOLO taxonomy and I varied some of the approaches to make them suitable to my class and schemes of work. I am very grateful for her work, goodwill and support with this rather mini-project.  Some of which is detailed below.

Firstly, I did some digging into the history of learning objectives. I certainly cannot remember them being a staple part of my classes at school and I am positive we were never asked to copy them down at the beginning of the lesson so religiously. I read around current theory and opinion about learning objectives and was interested to find a small and quiet, but effective revolt against the predominant idea that learning objectives are required to be used as arrows at the beginning of every lesson directing us and our pupils to our final destination. I had begun to find that my intended direction (LO) and the place the pupils actually reached was increasingly distant; so that it may as well have been that I was having a great time at John O’Groats whilst they patted themselves on the back for being at Lands End.

Essentially, clear learning objectives provide the teacher with a focus which results in effective teaching.  However, learning objectives should always focus on what can be achieved in the lesson in terms of pupils’ learning. The learning objectives are often expected to be shared with the pupils at the beginning of the lesson and referred to throughout. 

Well-constructed objectives are the scaffold to an effective learning process. It has been argued that regulated use of learning objectives has led to ‘too tight a focus’ (Hussey, Trevor and Smith, Patrick. (2003) The Uses of Learning Outcomes, Teaching in Higher Education)  of specific intentions in the classroom and led to a linear approach to teaching and learning.  Hussey and Smith argue learning objectives and learning outcomes ‘should be used with flexibility so that they can include those that emerge in the practical realities of

teaching.’  The flexible use of learning objectives is something I have approached in my brief study; though this does not mean abandoning learning objectives. Pragmatically, it is necessary to incorporate different appr

oaches to delivering learning objectives based on adapting my usual practice in the classroom.

The ‘Secondary National Strategy for School Improvement ‘was part of a national drive to raise standards and strengthen teaching and learning across the curriculum. The English frameworks from this document highlighted learning objectives as one of the main principles of teaching and learning. Recently archived, the National Strategies Frameworks continue to influence the structure and planning of lessons across the curriculum. The framework states ‘teaching needs to focus on and be led by learning objectives’. The aim of the framework was to advise teachers to adopt the main principles in order to suitably challenge and motivate pupils.

A new movement against the classic use of learning objectives is emerging in educational circles. Recently, Mike Fishback wrote critically about the possible destructive nature of the way in which objectives are used in the modern secondary classroom.  Fishback argued against displaying objectives or outcomes on the board in the classroom from the beginning of the lesson claiming firstly that not doing so sends a ‘strong message about who is driving the lesson’. He also claims that supplying the learning objective is like giving ‘away the ending before the uncovering begins’; thereby suggesting certain ways of delivering learning objectives can be detrimental to the skills of investigation and discussion. Lastly, Fishbank believes showing objectives ‘discourages pupils and teachers from following potentially constructive lines of enquiry’.

In response, Canadian teacher Joe Bower ignited a controversial discussion with his article ‘Stop Writing Objectives on the Board’ Dylan Wiliam’s work on the use of effective learning outcomes and peer and self-assessment states explicitly that ‘pupils can achieve a learning goal only if they understand that goal and can assess what they need to do to reach it.’ This is a statement that a number of the teachers discussing Joe Bower’s article referred to.  The discussion of these issues proved a wide and varied field which depended vastly on subject, curriculum, a single school’s expectations and teaching style.

It was the approach by Joe Bower, Mike Fishback and the project by Lisa Jane Ashes that led me to vary the way I use learning objectives.  I taught a series of lessons where I too varied the ways in which learning objectives were used. In the first lesson I used Learning objectives in the same way as normal (up on the board at the beginning of the lesson along with a success criteria for a specific – in this case writing task). I then evaluated what the pupils thought we had learnt at the end of the lesson through a short questionnaire. Pupils were far from specific in their answers despite having a clear learning objective explained at the start and referred to throughout the lesson.  I then began varying the presentation and used four slightly different approaches:

1.    Only verbally reinforcing the objective of the lesson. The learning objective was not displayed throughout the lesson.

2.     Displaying both the learning objective and the success criteria throughout.  (The most usual form of presenting Learning Objectives)

3.     Pupils were allowed to take control of their own objectives for the lesson

4.     Displaying learning objective and success criteria but, as a group, visually separating skill from topic.

The results showed that having a learning outcome placed at the beginning of every lesson, even when it is referred to explicitly does not automatically mean that pupils understand its purpose or engage with it directly. Similarly, a success criteria available in every lesson aids pupils in achieving their outcome but they are often unable see the link to the learning objective. There is still doubt over whether or not pupils setting their own level of challenge or working towards a teacher-led outcome is more successful and this would require further research. Moreover, it would require groups and individuals to be trained in understanding their own learning in far more detail than they currently are.  Something I believe could be done through the use of SOLO taxonomy. The research did show that when pupils do set their own challenge they are more likely to reach it.

The final process gave pupils the opportunity to focus on what they were actually learning to do in that particular lesson. Asking pupils to separate skill from topic required them to understand the purpose behind the objective and acknowledge they were acquiring a transferable skill. Varying the ways in which learning objectives are presented to pupils avoids the ‘too tight a focus’ Hussey and Smith are concerned with. However, this brief research does not advocate using a different method every lesson. Instead pupil responses suggest they respond well to being able to see the learning objective and success criteria throughout the lesson and are more likely to achieve their objective if they can identify the skill as well as the specific subject for that lesson. I believe that pupils should be introduced to engaging with learning objectives at the earliest opportunity and it must be made explicit that learning objectives are created to be used rather than just included. It is important we enable all pupils to understand their own learning by allowing them knowledge and understanding of learning taxonomies. In my department pupil’s currently only assess their own learning through National Curriculum levels and targets given to them by the class teacher. I am positive it would be beneficial for pupils to understand how they learn as well as what they learn and this would allow for a sufficient overlap between teacher led objectives and pupil led challenge.  The results of this research also suggest embedding the expectation that pupils are responsible for their own learning in every lesson could increase the likelihood of engagement with the objective. This is a difficult skill to implement, in particular with classes in the upper school, but could begin with frequent assessment for learning techniques that focus on skill as well as subject. This also allows a further opportunity for differentiation by objective as well as outcome. It may also be possible to use one learning objective and vary the level of thinking skill for individuals or groups dependent on ability or learning style.

Upon reflection, the steps I have taken have led to some positive results. The introduction of skill/subject identification has led to more active understanding of learning objectives and their uses. Pupils responded well to the clearer guidelines this approach created. The class I trialed these ideas with have shown some positive responses to all the strategies employed and are now comfortable with the use of learning objectives in conjunction with success criteria. I have begun to introduce this method with my other classes.  Key to my own learning experience and use of effective learning objectives will be the implementation of SOLO taxonomy next September (once I’ve got my head around it). It will be telling to try the same variations again – only this time hopefully with pupils having more of an understanding of their own learning process.

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