Posting Learning Objectives in the Classroom is Still a Dumb Idea

One of the worst problems in education is that we never let bad ideas die.

There’s always some know-nothing hack from another field who pokes his nose into the profession and makes pronouncements like he’s an expert.

And since he’s so successful at X (usually something in technology or business) we take these pronouncements like they’re holy writ.

This is why we never get rid of standardized testing, charter schools, evaluating teachers on student test scores, and a hundred other practices that have demonstrably failed over-and-over again.

However, perhaps the most annoying of these zombie practices is the demand for teachers to post their learning objectives prominently in the classroom.

This is beyond stupid and a waste of time.

Now don’t get me wrong.

I’m not saying teachers should go into the classroom with no idea of what they hope their students will learn everyday.

But the idea that we have so much control over our students that we can tell them with pinpoint accuracy exactly what knowledge and/or skills will be implanted in their skulls on any given day is so reductively stupid as to be laughable.

Anyone who still thinks teachers can post A on the wall and A is what will be accomplished has no business in the teaching profession.

Because, Brother, you don’t understand how teaching works!

So let’s begin with the reasons why this idea is still attractive.

First, we want to let students know what they’ll be experiencing in class on a day-by-day basis.

It’s a reasonable request to a degree. How many times have students walked into the classroom and the first thing that comes out of their mouths are, “What are we doing today?”

However, experienced classroom teachers know that this isn’t the real question. Most of the time when a student asks this they aren’t interested in what we are doing. They’re interested in what we AREN’T doing.

They want to know if we’re writing an essay, or if we’re reading a text or something that they specifically don’t feel like doing that day.

I hear this question most often in my last period classes because the students are exhausted from a full day of academics. They want to know if I’m going to tire them further or if there might be a chance at a breather here and there.

The second reason this practice is attractive is for principals.

Today’s principal is a frightening thing. After decades of educational malpractice at colleges and universities in creating new school administrators, principals no longer understand what their job truly is.

They think it’s to be a toady to the Superintendent or higher level administrators. They think they have to demonstrate their performance to their bosses with whatever data is available at every turn. (This is also what they expect teachers to do for them.)

This is why they tend to turn everything into something less important but quantifiable.

So demanding teachers to post learning objectives in their classrooms every day is something concrete and tangible that can be checked on and checked off on a clipboard. They can say to their bosses, “Look at what a good principal I am! My teachers post their learning objectives everyday!”

When I think of how principals used to manage their buildings and create an environment conducive for learning – for teachers to best impact their students – it makes me want to cry.

I miss real principals.

In any case, we can see why this demand is attractive.

However, it’s also really, really dumb.


Here’s why.

First, you have to understand how teaching works.

It’s not behavioralism. It’s not the 1920s anymore.

Students will be able to… WRONG! Students will have the OPPORTUNITY to, they will be ENCOURAGED to, their ENVIRONMENT will be altered to make it most conducive to…

You can’t rob them of agency. And if you think you can, you’re a fool.

No teacher – no matter how skilled or experienced – acts on her students like Gandalf or Dumbledore. Teaching is not magic and students are not passive objects.

You can’t say “Learn how to use nouns!” And WOOSH students can distinguish nouns from pronouns with pinpoint accuracy. You can’t put hands on a student’s head and say “Reading Comprehension!” And suddenly they pick up a book and start reading Shakespeare with absolute fidelity.

Yes, you can post these things on the wall. But what good does it do?

Students may see it and think to themselves, “So that’s what the teacher is trying to get me to know!” But how does that help?

When I took piano lessons, my teacher never told me the lesson was on the chromatic scale. She just gave me a few pieces to practice and helped me over the parts where I was stumbling.

Moreover, even if she had told me that, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. Because I didn’t know what the chromatic scale was!

So much of education is skill based. We learn HOW to do something. We don’t spend much time on WHAT it is or any theories of how it all comes together. And even if we did, that would come at the end, not the beginning.

This is one of the major reasons why I resent the very notion of posting my learning objectives in the classroom. It ruins the surprise!

Teaching is an art at least as much as it is a science. We aren’t programing our kids like you would a computer.

When I teach my students how to write a single paragraph essay, for example, I have them write three drafts – a prewriting, a first draft (heavily scaffolded with a planner) and a final copy.

They often complain that this is a lot of writing and want to know why I’m making them do all this when they feel they could probably skip one or two steps and still come to almost as good of a final project.

I ask them to trust me. I tell them this is the best way, and that they’ll understand later. And since I’ve spent so much time creating a relationship of give-and-take, of trust, they often just get on with the work.

What I’m really doing with all these drafts is getting the format of the single paragraph essay embedded in their minds. They’re memorizing it without even knowing it.

Moreover, writing multiple drafts is good practice when you get to more complicated and longer essays. It forces you to re-evaluate what you wrote previously and it encourages you to improve it before you are finished.

Finally, it instills a process into your mind. You start to feel like this is the right way to do something and you resist taking the easier road because the way you were taught has lead to success in the past (and it will probably serve you well in the future as things get more complex).

Do you really think I should stop and explain all that to my students before we begin? Do you think it would help?

Absolutely not! Children (like tech entrepreneurs and business tycoons) often think they know everything when they really know nothing. If you explain everything to them at the beginning, they can get contrary and refuse to do all you ask to demonstrate they know better. This often leads to dead ends and reteaching – if possible.

These are things teachers like me have learned after decades in the classroom. So when a new administrator starts spouting the shallow dictums they were taught in a corporate dominated college course, it’s beyond frustrating.

Education is the one field where experience is considered a detriment. Classroom teachers are all fools. We must control educators top down with administrators full of ideology and little to no actual practical knowledge.

Teachers have far too much to do already without kowtowing to a worthless mandate to post their learning objectives in the classroom.

That, along with writing formal lesson plans, endless faculty meetings and thrown together professional development, compound to make a teacher’s workload unmanageable.

With so many experienced teachers running for the door these days, wouldn’t it be better to stop and listen to them once in a while?

Maybe it might help encourage some of them to stay in the profession?

Maybe that might actually help student learning?

Huh? Maybe?


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Modernizing Education Starts With Questioning Our Assumptions

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When it comes to education, we take an awful lot for granted.

 

For example, we look at learning almost entirely from a behavioral standpoint.

 

Teachers provide inputs. Students give outputs. And those outputs demonstrate the intended learning.

 

Yet this framework was developed in the early 1900s. Using it today is to ignore a century of subsequent psychological advancements. It glosses over the impact of the unconscious, the social nature of understanding, physical differences, even the mediating thought processes between stimulus and response such as memory and problem solving.

 

Instead, we force students into inauthentic laboratory conditions (i.e. the classroom) upon which they are passive actors to be molded and shaped by expert educators.

 

Every time we post our learning objectives on the board or when we write our lesson plans beginning with the old chestnut – Students Will Be Able To (SWBAT) – we are hearkening back to early 20th Century thinking a hundred years out of date.

 

We are enshrining a host of assumptions long past their fresh by date:

-Learning is observable.

 

-It happens immediately.

 

-It is measurable.

 

-Once you learn something it never goes away.

 

-Most problems with learning are attributable to inputs provided by the teacher.

 

None of these assumptions have been proven.

 

In fact, there is considerable evidence against each and every one of these premises, yet our entire system of corporate education is based on them like a house built on a foundation.

 

If we are truly to create a 21st Century school system, the only place to begin is here. Recognize our bedrock beliefs are mere speculation and question whether we should really support everything else that’s been built on such shaky ground.

 

WHAT IS LEARNING?

 

It is an empirical fact that human beings are capable of learning. It’s something we do every day. But what exactly does it consist of? What happens when a person learns?

 

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition. We generally characterize learning as the acquisition of knowledge; the possession of facts, information or skills.

 

But how does one gain knowledge? How does one possess the intangible?

 

It seems that learning always involves thoughts – usually conscious impressions but sometimes unconscious ones, as well. However, not all thoughts qualify, only thoughts of a certain kind.

 

The notion must be true of the world. And often it is an idea that has surfaced before but that now can be recalled at will and used to create new concepts.

 

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems that no matter how you flesh it out, we’re talking about internal mind states.

 

Learning takes place in and of the brain. And this has consequences for our education system – an apparatus designed to make these brain states more frequent along certain prescribed lines.

 

IS LEARNING OBSERVABLE?

 

That depends. Can we lop off the top of students’ heads and peer at the gelatinous mass inside?

 

Not really. And even if we could, we wouldn’t understand what we were seeing.

 

Even if learning may be reducible to a complex set of on-and-off switches among synapses, that does not make it generally observable – certainly not without greater knowledge of how the brain works and advanced neural imaging equipment.

 

As such, the idea that learning is directly perceptible is not necessarily true. It may be evident in some second hand manner, but this is not the same as first hand experience. At best, what we see is a pale shadow of what’s actually going on in students’ gray matter.

 

That alone should send shock waves through the edifice of modern corporate education. We’ve built an entire apparatus to label and sort kids based on observing students. If those observations are inadequate to give us the full picture of these internal learning states, our system is likewise inadequate.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF TEACHER INPUT?

 

To answer this question we must start further back – when and why does learning takes place.

 

A student experiences a new neural state that constitutes the acquisition of knowledge. Why?

 

Does it happen because of the input made by a teacher? Is it the result of experience? Is it the result of some other input – reading, interacting, writing, doing something? Or is it the result of something even the student him- or herself cannot easily identify or explain?

 

All of these are possible. All of these (and more) are the catalyst to learning at various times.

 

Thus we lose another premise – that teacher input is the essential cause of inadequate learning. If we cannot place a primacy on the teacher, we cannot wholly place blame there either.

 

Certainly teachers are important. They can have a tremendous impact on their students. But they are not strictly necessary. They are not even the prime cause of learning. They facilitate learning in the way a doctor facilitates healing. The surgeon may set the broken bone, but it is the body that actually does the healing. And in the case of learning, the action is not entirely involuntary. It is much more active and intentional.

 

In short, teachers can call students attention to something that sparks learning. They can bring about optimal conditions for learning to take place. But they are not by themselves sufficient for that learning. They cannot make it happen. Insofar as it is voluntary at all, it is up to the student. To give teachers sole reward or blame for student learning is absurd.

 

IS LEARNING IMMEDIATE?

 

Learning may be a response to stimulus of some kind. But when does that response take place? Is it immediate?

 

There is no evidence that it must be so. Certainly there are times when one has learned something immediately. When a child first puts her finger in the flame, she quickly learns to remove it. However, there are some lessons that we don’t learn until many years after that stimulus. For instance, that our parents’ advice was often more sage than we initially gave it credit.

 

Thus, again it is inadequate to place reward or blame on teachers for their students’ learning. You can judge a teacher for what he or she did to help, but not what you take to be the result. Just because the teacher’s input may not have sparked learning in the student now, that doesn’t mean that the same input might not engender learning at a later date, given time.

 

IS LEARNING PERMANENT?

 

Which brings up another question – once you learn something, does it remain yours forever or is it susceptible to degradation?

 

If learning is an internal state – if it is the result of neural connections like any thought or memory – it is susceptible to fading. It can be lost or degraded.

 

Therefore, when students enter a class without prerequisite knowledge, it is not necessarily the fault of their previous teachers. Like any skill, memory or thought – recall is enhanced through repetition. Using the knowledge often results in greater retention.

 

If we want a more intellectual society, we should habitualize critical thinking and reward intelligence in our public interactions. Not the exact opposite.

 

CAN LEARNING BE MEASURED?

 

And finally, we are brought to perhaps the most vital question in the field of education – measurement.

 

What did students grasp and to what degree was it mastered?

 

There is an entire industry based on providing accurate accounting of learning.

 

There are corporations making billions of dollars based on providing this service. Moreover, the school privatization industry is almost completely predicated on the “failure” of public schools as shown by the measurements of these testing corporations.

 

As such, there is a tremendous amount of economic pressure to keep this premise that learning can be accurately measured. However, when looked at logically, it cannot be supported.

 

When we measure learning, what are we measuring? And how are we quantifying it?

 

If learning is an internal state, how do we calculate that? Possibly at some point in the future, we’ll be able to look at real time pictures of the brain and be able to tell which information has been learned and to what degree. But we are not at that point now. Perhaps we will never be.

 

Even if we were, what exactly would we be measuring? What units would we be using? Volts? Amps? Some new element susceptible to subdivision?

 

The fact that we can’t give a definitive answer to that simple question illustrates how vast our ignorance is of learning. We do not understand what goes on in our own heads that constitutes understanding expect in the broadest possible terms.

 

Yet how much importance we put on these crude attempts to measure the ineffable!

 

Grades and test scores are but the rudest approximations of the real phenomena hidden inside our skulls. Yet we sort and rank students on the pedagogical equivalent of cave paintings.

 

“It is easier to measure the number of semicolons used correctly in an essay than the wonderful ideas contained within it,” said Alfie Kohn. “The more focused you are on measurable outcomes, the more trivial your teaching tends to become.”

 

Or as Linda McNeil of Rice University famously observed, “Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning.”

 

Kohn has repeatedly suggested that McNeil’s statement ought to be printed out in “36-point Helvetica, framed, and tacked to the wall of every school administrator’s office in the country” for these same reasons.

 

When we talk about knowledge and learning, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

 

CONSEQUENCES

 

That should make us reluctant to say anything definitive about learning beyond our own ignorance of it.

 

Yet, as in so much of human affairs, when has ignorance ever stopped us?

 

We have to go about the business of educating. We have a society to run, markets to establish and consumers to exploit.

 

Imagine if, instead, we approached learning like explorers or scientists, mapping the shores of our ignorance and determining what helps us comprehend more and better.

 

There are so many tantalizing clues about what helps students learn, ways to foster the spark of inspiration, creativity and critical thinking.

 

I wish we were invested in that activity instead of a capitalist sham of education. We talk much about the skills gap between white and black kids without doing anything constructive about it – a chasm predicated on the fact that one category is predominantly poor and the other privileged.

 

Perhaps we would do better to talk about the ignorance gap of our own understanding of what it means to understand.

 

Perhaps then we wouldn’t be so bold as to monetize that which is fallacious and foolhardy.

 

Perhaps then we would be more curious, thoughtful and kind.

 

Perhaps then we could build a truly modern system of education that values students and not just how they can be transformed into profit.


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