On posting learning objectives …

When I taught in independent schools, no administrator or mentor teacher ever really weighed in on my teaching practice, at least not the specifics.  It would have been odd to receive feedback on something as mechanical as posting the learning objective at the beginning of class.  And yet, in my limited interactions with math teachers in my new public-school district, it seems clear that posting the learning objective on the white board at the beginning of each class is an expectation.

I haven’t actually read any of the research that no doubt exists to support this practice, but I have my doubts.  How exactly does writing “Students will be able to prepare okra” on the board actually motivate students to cook okra, or promote okra achievement? Simply writing the objective doesn’t change the actual lesson, right? Isn’t it the students who are doing the learning?  Shouldn’t they be the ones to tell us what they actually learned?  Instead, I think I might use an exit ticket as a way to assess who is cluing into the bit ideas.  The exit ticket might include two questions:

  • What was the big idea (the main topic) of today’s lesson?
  • What did you learn how to do today?

I do typically show an agenda on the board briefly at the beginning of class, and usually the heading of the agenda might say “Introduction to Okra,” but from my perspective, writing the learning target (SWBAT…) on the board—no matter how Hemingway-esque—is akin to skipping to act three, in the Dan Meyer’s sense of the term.

I want my lesson to unfold for the student.  I want them thinking about what’s important, what they think the main idea is.  I don’t want to spoon-feed them. To me it seems that writing the objective on the board is playing directly to the kid who asks on day one of a new unit, “Is this gonna be on the test?”

Also, after day one of a new unit, they might not realistically be able to do anything that they couldn’t already do before the lesson (by design).  And then you’re left with some really lame teaching objective like:  “Students will be able to notice salient characteristics of okra.” I hope I don’t come across as vainglorious, believing that my lessons are so wonderfully designed that the objectives just unfold magically, but that there objective is just plain icky.

13 Responses to On posting learning objectives …

  1. Dan Plonsey says:

    Could someone actually cite the research that supports putting objectives on the board?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Still though…no research was cited in our responses. I believe a single objective limits learning, and there is research (Fraser, 1987; Walber, 1999) to support my belief.

  3. Jesse says:

    Well it reminds me of the cliche question that parents in TV shows or movies (since it doesn’t seem to happen in real life!) ask when the kids get home from school: So what did you learn in school today?

    When I’m working with students in a teaching situation, they are normally coming to me for help on something specific, whether they realize it or not. The very first thing that I always make sure that I do is to make sure that they identify exactly what it is that they are wanting to learn and why it would be useful.

  4. gooberspeaks says:

    We too are supposed to write the daily objectives somewhere – I usually start with it on the SmartBoard and try to revisit at the end of class. Our admin wants objectives to be written in “student-friendly language” and really stresses “I can …” as the beginning. I think this leads to “cookbook math” rather than thinking because students see it as a list of tasks rather than understandings. Personally, I prefer “The student will understand …” or just a topic and list of goals. Furthermore, changing the language to more student-friendly dilutes their understanding of the language of mathematics! Just sayin’ …

    • Aaron C. says:

      in a perfect world, our goals in ‘student-friendly language’ still include content vocabulary (preferably underlined) and the same verbs as the standards from which they are taken

  5. I’m not sure what populations of students you’re working with but there is research indicating that posted objectives (both content and language) are essential for English language learners.

  6. Aaron C. says:

    something along the lines of “Students will be able to say “I can:” has been a point of emphasis for years in my district … I like the idea though of students having to fill in the at the end of the lesson (better than forgetting to change it day-to-day!) … not sure what the admins who are looking for it during a drop-in or walk-through would think of that idea … they’d like the idea of making students reflect on their learning, but they also expect to see the goal clearly posted if they visit

  7. crazedmummy says:

    My learning objective is always “learn some math.”

  8. Judith Rolfe says:

    Whilst I agree with some points, I also like the idea that the learning objective focusses the students’ minds on the fact that they are in a maths lesson (not French, or Science or wherever they have just come from).

    Then, like a good story, you have a beginning – the LO – a middle, reminding them of the objective and making links to previous and future topics, and an end – where they can self or peer assess, to decide whether they have met the LO.

    I also believe that if they leave the lesson with a clear idea what they have been doing, and hopefully where it connects to, then they will stand a better chance of remembering the ideas when they return for the next lesson.

    I also like using ‘differentiated’ learning objectives to provide motivation and support for all students. Along the lines of ‘All students will be able to…..’, ‘Some students…’, ‘A few students…’.

  9. Pingback: Round Up of Week Two of the Math Blogging Initiation « Continuous Everywhere but Differentiable Nowhere

  10. Dan Meyer says:

    Interesting take. I like Kaleb’s idea, also. It’s similar to what we saw at the end of this Japanese classroom where the teacher asked the students what to title the lesson at its end, rather than writing it on the board at the beginning. It was a nice reflective moment.

  11. Kaleb says:

    That was a fun post. My admin always wants me to tell the students the learning target. Maybe you could write “Students will be able to _________” on the board and just leave it there permanently. Then students can fill it in at the end of the period and then you can tell them what you would put there.

  12. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    I put all my learning objectives on the syllabus, along with the topics (sometimes textbook pages) for each day. They know which objectives we’re working on each day and it really helps focus the conversation. Sometimes it’s “this is our only day on this, so let’s work some more examples,” and sometimes it’s “wait, how does this objective synthesize with all the others?”

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