Understanding learning objectives

According to @TeacherToolkit, pupils lose up to 32 hours per year simply writing out the learning objective. And that probably sums up the mess we have got into with this business of WALT, WILF and the rest of the menagerie of introductory devices. We probably have to thank Shirley Clarke and her work on assessment in the 1990s for this idea of displaying the Learning Objective (or Learning Intention, as Clarke prefers). This thinking, in turn, emerged from that seminal work, Inside the Black Box, by Paul Black and Dylan William, where the principles of Assessment for Learning were first laid out and disseminated.

And Clarke was right; teachers had spent far too long being vague about the focus of the lesson and the new focus on assessment meant that the learning had to be sharply focused if the assessment was going to mean anything. This has led to a culture of learning objectives that has caused immense stress to teachers hoping to get them ‘right’ and equal stress to headteachers who are nervous that, if teachers don’t each do the same thing then they won’t do it at all. Now, Ofsted have never stated that they expected to see a particular style of lesson presentation yet isolated inspectors have probably helped to create the idea that, ‘this is what Ofsted expect’.

Times have changed. Not only does Ofsted make it very clear that they don’t expect any pedagogical approach – they are interested only in outcomes. Also, we are at last beginning to realise that we can be a bit more flexible about lesson objectives.

A clear focus on the learning

This is a first principle – however we express it – every lesson needs to have a very clear focus on what knowledge or skills pupils will develop or consolidate during the lesson. This is not for the pupils; it’s for the teacher. Unless you are clear about the learning, then how can you assess it?

A focus on the learning means the learning and not the activity. A lesson objective that says, ‘we are learning to write an autumn poem’ is not about learning. It’s about doing. You need to identify what outcomes you are looking for and be clear about it. Unless you know what you are expecting as outcomes, you cannot guide pupils to achieve it.

Displaying the learning objective (LO)

Although many schools and headteachers are nervous about this and this may lead to a school-wide expectation that all lessons must include a shared LO (or LI), the reality is that, while it helps pupils to know what they are learning and it may sometimes be appropriate to express this as a LO, it is not essential. What is essential is that you know what you are teaching.

Phrasing the LO

The trouble with using a formula like WALT or ‘I can..’ is that is can anaesthetise pupils against learning objectives. They say things like ‘can I write the WALT?’ which misses the point somewhat. If you are displaying the objective, try writing it as a question. This is because, as soon as you make it a question, it must focus on the learning. The nice thing about questions is that they also help you to populate the plenary through assessment. ‘What was the question we were answering?’ Then ask yourself whether the objective will engage the pupils? How interesting is an objective that says, ‘we are learning to identify the key features of a playscript’? Not very! Now, turn it into a question, ‘how can actors remember all their words? And it’s both more interesting and more intriguing. Dylan Wiliam says. ‘why can’t we just ask, ‘why is it colder on top of a mountain when it’s nearer the sun?

Questions are good but keep it fresh by varying your practice. Remember, you don’t actually need to display an objective. Pupils could just have a heading (‘The Roman invasion’ is arguably better than ‘I can describe Caesar’s landing in Kent’). Or, how about having ‘the question of the day…’ You could write it up at 9.00 but not address it until after lunch. It’s about keeping the kids intrigued. Or how about ‘hidden in a golden envelope is a question. Find the envelope and discover the question.’?

With the new appreciation that Ofsted are not looking for any particular pedagogical style, schools can afford to relax. There is nothing magic about a learning objective and sometimes they get in the way. However, there is simply no excuse for not being clear about what you expect pupils to learn or consolidate in the lesson. If you do write a learning objective, make sure that it is rooted in the learning and not the doing.

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