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."