Sunday, January 23, 2011

Whose learning objectives are they?

I can think of very few education models, schools of education, or teaching guides that don't stress the importance of having clear learning objectives. They have for a long time been one of the first things that is looked for when an administrator, mentor, or teaching coach assesses a teacher's performance. It has for as long as I have been in this profession an expectation that lesson objectives be stated clearly and in many cases it is expected that the teacher have them clearly posted. If I am teaching and I want my students to understand something in a lesson it makes perfect sense that I state my objective clearly.

Problem is, whose objective is it that is being stated? Whose objective will drive the learning? The student's or the teacher's? Whose objective should drive the learning? What if the learning objectives of the student conflict with the teaching objectives of the teacher? Ultimately, when the rubber meets the road the only one who can control learning is the learner. This is where the old cliche, "You can guide a horse to water but you can't make them drink," is relevant.

In most institutions of education that deal with k-12 students the objectives of the learner are not often thought about by those crafting teaching objectives for them. "What should a learner know and be able to do?" is a question that is usually answered by adults thinking about k-12 students in a manner similar to that of E. D. Hirsch Jr., drafting extensive lists of "Thou Shalt Learn and Know ____________." It is largely where content standards come from and how scope and sequence are derived. The answer most schools, teachers, school boards, and policy makers dealing with k-12 students give to the question, "What should a learner know and be able to do?" is "The learner should learn and be able to do what we tell them they should learn and be able to do." How often are our students asked, "What is it you want to learn and be able to do?"

For four years I have taught an online course for middle school students where the first assignment is for them to write two short-term an two long-term goals. Sometimes I get students answer this call honestly stating goals that sound age appropriate and authentic, but more often than not I get responses like, "I want to get an A in all of my classes." This has bothered me to no end. I usually write back and ask if they could write a goal about something they want to learn or be able to do. The response is usually pretty good and I use their responses to help shape what I do with them in their curriculum. I do my best to emphasize that their own learning objectives are just as important as the ones their teachers might have for them. The response has always been good and liberating.

So, I have to include "Learning Objective" in my list of education terms that have become problematic. I will continue to use the term but when I use it I will use it primarily to refer to the objective of the learner. Externally imposed objectives should be termed something different.

This post is sixth in my "war on words" series. Other terms in this series are: "best practices," "child-centered," "value added," accountability, and "data-driven decisions."


SteveE said...

OK, here's the story. I'm IT Director and unofficial edtech instigator. We have a new VP Academic Affairs. He's great; really mixing things up and comes up with Collaborative Professional Development sessions for PD Time (faculty lead sessions about what anyone wants to teach/learn). Last semester I held a mildly successful set of sessions on Personal Learning Networks. This semester Stephen Downes and George Siemens announce their MOOC, Connectivism and Connective Learning just in time for the start of another CPD round; so I announce that I'll be holding sessions around CCK11 ( VP and several other stalwart innovators join me.

Fine so far, right? Goal of the course is to get connected. Great! We're a week ahead of the start of the course so everybody has plenty of time to get registered, start reading the materials and publishing their blogs. Now the fun starts.

I get to the first session. People have barely looked at the materials and NOT registered for the course. Discussed it and they did not want to register for anything that would generate more email, or as far I could tell, any more information coming at them than they are currently getting. Didn't want to publish either; only one of them has a blog.

So, I say, "fine, just read the materials and we'll discuss next week." I've been doing student-led learning since my 20-something daughter was one year old in the parent-managed daycare; so I can roll with the punches.

Second session, VP brings our school guest, who is keynoting our MLK weekend events and school service day. People, barring the guest, have read the material and great discussion ensues, but not much about the material, only tangentially when I manage to tie it back to what I read and thought about.

The third session was marked by VP bringing in review of Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, this to a class about connectivism or should we call it "Connecitvism NOT" at this point? It was a great discussion, anyway and I had to leave them to lock up my office because I had another meeting.

Anyway, did I do right? Student-centered learning; and learning is taking place (they all decided to extend our CCK11 CPD for another round), despite the fact that I as 'teacher' did not have much to do with acheiving "desired student learning outcomes". ha ha

Let me finish by saying that I love these folks and am richer for having this class with them, but it's not about what I thought it was going to cover.

Carl Anderson said...


Thanks for sharing your story. I have to say that I have experienced the same frustrations regarding trying to encourage other teachers to blog. And, I will concur with the issue of email. I've heard that reason given for reluctance to participate too. Although, I wonder if there is another issue to consider. When Downes, Siemens, Courosa, or anyone else experienced with offering MOOCs run their programs, the open and online participants (I assume) are usually independent learners who join the course individually. They choose on their own accord to subject themselves to someone else's objectives. But, what you are describing is trying to encourage a small community of learners to join together. Perhaps there is a disconnect there.

What Downes et. all do with regards to course objectives largely is dictated by the small number of students they actually have officially registered in the class. Sure, the massive number of open participants help shape the direction but that might be largely out of mass persuasion and how it affects the group within the fish bowl. Your group joining as open participants then has objectives to meet by both the teachers of the course but also to some extent yours. If buy-in is key and the only objectives that really matter are the learners', you'll have a much harder time convincing them to buy two sets of externally-fabricated objectives. Just a thought.

Carmen Tschofen said...

As a pretty regular MOOC “participant/researcher” and an explorer of connectivism and networked and personal learning, I’m trying to come up with an analogy that explains my sense of why directing a PD study group, however voluntary, to explore these theories is… difficult. It’s like trying to accommodate a shift in the time-space continuum with a wooden bridge? It’s like trying to stuff fog into a teacup?

“Getting connected” can’t be a goal; it’s an experience and a process that is constantly emerging and shifting. It’s not something you “have done,” it’s something you are or embody. And I have a hard time seeing personal learning as a new method for "doing" student-directed learning... I’d also say the core of MOOCs is not based around learning objectives and learner credit, with openness and its attendant complexity as an add-on opportunity or afterthought. It’s more the other way around, perhaps-- which is a whole different perspective on learning and participation. It all makes “learning objectives” and “best practices,” including viewing blogging as a litmus for connectedness, etc. very, very problematic, indeed.

Carl—not sure what you mean with the “fishbowl” idea? And fwiw, you might be interested in this presentation that popped up on my feed this morning (, which explores the idea of teachers as research practitioners first and foremost, and does a good job at expressing the legitimacy of the ambiguity that arises when moving away from the known land of objectives and best practices… (from slide 69 onward if you’re short on time)

SteveE said...

Carl, I would say that I'm more bemused than frustrated. After 4 1/2 years of trying to get anything going here, it's finally happening. I'm thrilled; and we'll sort these things out as we go along.

Your post and the fact that I just finished re-reading "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" got me into a story telling mode that I would not normally have used. Originally, I just sent the VP and some others the announcement of CCK11, expecting that they might want to join me online. He actually suggest that we take it up as a group. Having worked with them before, I had no illusions about making it work as Downes and Seimens might imagine.

For now, I'm happy to let them take it whatever direction they want to. I'm personally participating in the MOOC and whatever happens in our CPD may lend to that or take its own direction.

Carmen, thanks for your very astute observations. In the last five years, I've saturated myself in 'virtual study'. I don't spend much time producing (blogging, etc.), probably because my job as IT Director pulls me into weeks and months of mundane projects that leave little extra room for creativity. However, I am an avid reader, commenter and connector.

I agree that (using MOOC as a paradigm of what's going on in the Internet) it's a complex, relational and open world of opportunities that lead to connected knowledge. We build the knowledge as we interact with each other.