It’s almost taken for granted these days that excellent teaching begins with clearly articulated, measurable learning objectives. The standard approach is to include these learning objectives in the syllabus distributed to students at the beginning of a course. In fact, such objectives are required in order for many programs to receive accreditation (e.g. see Appendix A of the ABET ASAC Self-study Template). However, over the years that I’ve been developing syllabi, I’ve come to a very important realization–no matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to come up with any set of learning objectives that I’m happy with. Take a look at this video clip from Joe vs. the Volcano and I think you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about (in particular, the stuff up until 2:35).
If I were to paraphrase this as a conversation between a teacher and a student it would go something like this:
Teacher: What would like to study?
Student: Excuse me?
T: You said you wanted to study something. What would you like to study?
S: I don’t know.
S: Well, I don’t know. What would you study?
T: What for? What do you need to learn?
S: Umm… professional skills?
T: What kind of professional skills? What do you want to do with your life?
S: Well… I don’t exactly know.
[ teacher stops the classroom ]
S: What’s going on? Why are you stopping?
T: Look, they just hired me to teach the class. I’m not here to tell you who you are?
S: But I didn’t ask you to tell me who I am?
T: So you say you want to study something, but you don’t know what that is. I firmly believe that what you know and what you can do defines how you relate to others in society and therefore who you are. So you asking me what to study is basically you asking me to tell you who you are, and I don’t know who you are or who you want to be.
S: But every other teacher I’ve had before has told me exactly what I’m going to study. I’ve never had to come up with that on my own.
T: Well I’m not going to do that for you, but if you’ll give me a sense of what your strengths are and what you enjoy, I think I can help you figure out how to spend your time studying something that will help you get where you want to go.
Educational objectives emphasize and elevate particular bits of knowledge to the exclusion of others. The mechanism by which this happens is all but completely hidden from the people (students) who are being indoctrinated into the church of “this is important” and “this is not.”
Educational objectives are, by necessity, designed for the “average” or “standard” student who is expected to be in the class. The student is an abstraction. It is practically impossible for instructors to design instruction that is specifically tailored and deeply connected to the idiosyncrasies of each individual student. As such, educational objectives represent a kind of industrial revolution factory approach to teaching and learning.
Deciding educational objectives for the students communicates to them that it is appropriate and necessary for other people to be deciding what is important for them to learn, and trains them not only to ignore their own intuitions on this point, but also to actually reject taking on the responsibility of thinking critically about what knowledge is important or not for them. Even worse, it delegitimizes their attempts to do so.
Educational objectives mislead students into an overly simplistic understanding of what constitutes “important” knowledge in any particular domain. If it’s on the syllabus, it must be important. If it’s not, it’s not. End of story.
Is it even possible to teach without objectives?
If you’re a teacher, at this point you may have a number of questions or objections in your mind right now:
- Without objectives, how am I going to organize my course?
- Without objectives, how are the students going to know what the course is about?
- My school/program/department requires me to have objectives. Are you saying I should just ignore them?
Surprisingly, given my critique of objectives above, I’m not entirely anti-objective. However, I like to think of them in the way that President Dwight D. Eisenhower did when he said:
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
In other words, I don’t think a professional educator should walk into a classroom without having given any thought whatsoever to how the class will spend its time. Mentorship and guidance are useful. Students are genuinely more efficient learners with someone to help direct their energy. That being said, it is important for a teacher not to be dogmatically committed to following a schedule designed to cover all of the objectives regardless of what is actually going on with the students in the classroom.
Personally, I am not qualified to teach about any and all subjects that students may want to learn. My expertise is limited to a small number of domains. As an instructor, it is entirely appropriate for me to develop a set of objectives that will give the class a general direction, and also inform the students about what subject areas in which I might be most suited to direct them. So, yes, I use objectives to organize my courses and to tell students generally what the course is about.
However, once the course has begun, it is important for me to communicate to students that the objectives on the syllabus are merely suggestions for how we might spend our time together. After all, I am there for the students, and not the other way around. If a student wants to come up with a different, personalized set of objectives for the course, I support that. If it turns out that this particular batch of students wants to move more slowly or more quickly through the material, I adjust.
I teach at the university level, so there is no Common Core, no Race to the Top, no set of administrators watching my every move with a magnifying glass. If I can produce a syllabus that has a relatively acceptable set of objectives on it, nobody really scrutinizes what goes on in my classroom to discover whether or not I’ve followed the syllabus to the letter. This is how I thread the needle of meeting the societal needs for objectives, while not cramming them down my students’ throats. I recognize that not everyone shares the same degree of flexibility that I do, but I have found in discussions with teachers at all levels that there is a lot more room to maneuver there than most realize.
So whose objective is it anyway?
For whom is the classroom designed? While I don’t have a problem with the idea that we, as a society, should give serious thought to what we teach in our schools, if it comes down to valuing educational objective more highly than students, I think we’ve gone too far. Bernard Bull reminds us that objective-based education is a relatively new, and more or less unproven technology:
In pre-objective schooling, students learned a great deal. In fact, I’m not aware of any evidence that they learned less in pre-objective schooling than in objective-driven schools of the past and present.
I think we’d all do well to take a look at the post-educational-objective approaches to curriculum and pedagogy design that he highlights.
A core belief of the Burning Mind Project is that every person has gifts. As educators it is our role to help people discover their gifts, support their efforts to hone those gifts, and then use whatever resources we have at our disposal to aid our students in sharing those gifts with the world–regardless of whether or not those gifts happen to fall within the narrow list of objectives we’ve put on our syllabi.