Education

An Objection To Learning Objectives

learning objective

When you first become a teacher it’s very hard to know if what you’ve been told in your training is actually best practice or just the latest in a long list of trends to hit the teaching profession. Over the years schools all over the country have enthusiastically embraced (and later discarded): Learning Styles, Brain Gym, formal planning templates, graded lesson observations and the belief that children can only learn if they’re endlessly sipping water.

If the rumblings on edu-Twitter are to be believed then Learning Objectives will be the next thing to go and I for one am delighted at this news. Learning objectives have become an entire industry: you can attend courses dedicated to writing objectives, you can buy in objective creating software for your school and Pinterest is full of hundreds of creative ways to display objectives in your classroom. People have made entire careers out of writing about learning objectives and offering CPD to schools. So what’s the problem?

For the record: it isn’t the idea that we should have an objective in mind for each lesson that I’m opposed to it’s the need to have it written up, unpicked, and repeatedly referred to during the lesson.

1.They take us away from what’s important

I’ve sat through at least four hours of staff training on learning objectives. When I first started teaching it was W.A.L.T (we are learning to) and W.I.L.F (what I’m looking for.) I’ve also seen S.W.B.A.T (students will be able to) and my personal favourite: W.A.L.A (we are learning about.) In my third year of teaching my school streamlined objectives to a simple LO but then there was the discussion about how to word it:  should we start with “I can” or “I am learning to?” Then there is WHERE it’s best to display the objective: on a Powerpoint slide or on a flipchart? Typed or handwritten? If it’s typed what font should we use and what size lettering? And should it be underlined? You get the idea: it’s an awful lot of time spent discussing HOW to display what the children are learning rather than discussing the best way to get children to learn.

2. Where do we get the objectives from?

The answer to this should be easy. All together now: “we get our objectives from the National Curriculum!” But the aims of the National Curriculum aren’t broken down into simple “I can” statements. This means teachers are often left to make up the objectives themselves which is not as easy it sounds. Let me give you an example:

If by the end of the lesson I want my pupils to write a diary entry from the perspective of Bess in “The Highwayman” what should the objective be? Some would say the appropriate objective would be: To write a diary. Others would say the diary entry is just the task the pupils will complete in the lesson rather than the learning. Writing a diary as a character from a poem requires pupils to:

  • Write in the first person (but not as themselves)
  • Write in the past tense
  • Use complex sentences
  • Use a range of punctuation for effect
  • To recount events from the poem
  • To imagine the private thoughts and feelings of the character
  • To use the language and vocabulary from the poem

Any one of these could be an acceptable objective for the lesson. Some of those could be the objective for any writing lesson (to use punctuation for effect.) I know I’m not the only one to tie myself in knots over this. I once attended a moderation course for English leaders. As usual, we’d all brought a selection of books with us to swap with one another and assess. In one book, I think it may have been Year 5, I found this:

WALT: Write a three-part dilemma from the point of view of a pirate.

To this day I don’t know what it is those children were being taught to do. I’m assuming it was a story writing lesson. I’m guessing the story they were writing was about pirates. I’m not entirely sure what a three-part dilemma is and I don’t know what a three-part dilemma from the point of view of a pirate would look like. I don’t know what the pupils would be learning  in that lesson and I fear that particular objective would have confused more pupils than it would have helped.

I don’t say that as a criticism of the teacher. I’m sure I’ve written equally convoluted objectives in my time. It’s just a reflection of how we’ve really over complicated this.

3. Writing and underlining the objectiveusing a ruler can take up to 163 hours a year

I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed a group of six-year-olds writing out and underlining: LO: To compare and contrast characters from “The Snowman” but take it from me: military coups have been organised in less time. Writing and underlining the date and the LO can easily take up 10 minutes of your lesson when you’re teaching very young children. That’s about 50 minutes a day which adds up to just over four hours a week (that’s the best part of an entire school day.)

Some schools have tried to come up with innovative ways to get around this by asking teachers to type up and print the objectives so the children just have to stick them into their books. So now the pupils’ lesson time isn’t being wasted but teachers’ workload has been added to. Typing up printing, cutting up and sorting learning objectives for 25 lessons a week is an extra hour or so of work a week – time teachers just don’t have.

4. Who Are They For?

So who are we writing down these objectives for? It’s not for the students – there’s no evidence that suggests having a written objective is linked to attainment. If the teaching is good and the activities well planned then what the pupils are learning should be very clear to them. In the lessons where I’ve forgotten to share the objective (it happens) I’ve never had a pupil say:  “Miss, you’ve taught us the causes of World War 2 and we’ve written about them in our books but what are we learning about in this lesson?” The objectives aren’t for the pupils.

They’re also not for Ofsted, if that’s ever a reason to do anything, as they’ve explicitly stated that they will not endorse or criticise any particular teaching style or method.  I suspect learning objectives are one of those things that as a profession we’ve done for a while now without ever really questioning why.


“Learning objectives are really only useful for the people designing the learning.”
“What are they learning?” is the question every teacher should use as a starting point when they’re planning their lessons. It’s all too easy to have a great activity you want to try with your class without having thought about what they’ll learn from it. It’s also a good idea to let your pupils know what the lesson is going to be about, but that doesn’t have to involve anyone writing anything down, a simple “OK – today we’re going to learn how to measure angles” should do it. I imagine once you’ve said that and the children have spent an hour practising measuring angles they’ll have a pretty clear idea about what they’re learning. Pupils don’t need to have the specific objective in their mind for the whole lesson – teachers do.

PS: For further objections to learning objectives have a look at this rather excellent post from Mr Pink
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3 thoughts on “An Objection To Learning Objectives

  1. I remember when I was in college, the teachers urged us to take the pedagogy exam BEFORE student teaching. They said, the answers to how we are classically talk will never be the way we actually do them, so the exam would be easier before our personal experience is involved. Your first paragraph reminded me of that moment.

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  2. When asking teachers about their lesson objectives, I often wondered what else the children were learning during the “session”. For instance I think that David learned how warm the sun felt on his writing arm, as he looked out of the window…
    I recall giving a talk to teachers in a secondary school and as the teachers entered the classroom, where I was giving the talk, I heard one of them say I am going to sit where Mark sits. She promptly went to the back of the room. After the talk was underway, I asked her to repeat what she had said and then tell me what she had learned from sitting where Mark sits. She said that he rarely pays attention. So I asked her why she thought that was. She gave various suggestions but missed the fact that he probably chose to sit at the back because he had a great view out of the window and why not. Maybe in her next lesson she could acknowledge the fact but without being too sarcastic ask him to share some of his time looking into the class as well as out at the view?? Remember students have choice and they will learn something even if it is not exactly what you planned to teach them.

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