Learning Objectives

Here’s a response that I wrote to an editorial in the Berkeley High School Jacket (our student newspaper). The students claimed that learning objectives lead to ineffective teaching. Here’s the link to the editorial.

And here’s my published response. If you have any ideas for stronger arguments, let me know.

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In The Jacket’s December 6th issue, the editors argued that “structure-based” procedures such as learning goals and objectives are “restricting teachers from teaching to their full potential.” These “formulaic” methods, the editors continued, don’t work for all teachers or for all students. We members of the BHS Professional Development team find it thrilling that The Jacket’s editors are thinking critically about what’s happening in the classroom. But the Jacket’s critcism was way off base. Having your teacher have clear learning objectives that guide his or her lesson plan, as well as the way she or he assesses your learning, is not only essential to bringing about effective learning–it’s also a right that every student should be demanding every period of the day.

Let’s start by considering the alternative: a teacher doesn’t have objectives for his or her lessons. What that means is that he or she is not clear on what he or she wants you to learn. If that’s the case, then at the end of each period, you might leave feeling bored, or entertained, or inspired. You might even have learned something important. But over time, it’s going to be difficult for your teacher to lead you to acquire complex skills, or to master deep ideas. Sometimes, it’s fun to just wander around. But if you want to get from point “A” to point “B,” it’s useful to have a compass (or a GPS). A learning objective lets a teacher keep his or her students moving in the right direction.

As with everything, implementation matters. If your teacher, as the editors suggested, is still writing the objective on the board five minutes into the period, then they’re being very inefficient. The objective can be nothing more than “At the end of class, you should be able to describe the steps by which cells make copies of their DNA.” Or, in an English class: “you should be able to craft an effective counter-argument.” And, if the teacher isn’t coming back to the objective at the end of the lesson, and demonstrating how he or she has given you a new skill or a new way of thinking about something, then he or she has missed one of the most important steps in the process. In fact, we would argue that at the end of an instructional unit, when it comes time to test students on what they’ve learned, you, the student, should be able to clearly connect what’s on the test to the objectives in the lessons that led up to that test. Otherwise, you’re not being properly prepared. And that’s why a clear objective should be thought of not only as a good teaching practice, but as a student right.

We’d also like to address a second point made in the December 6th editorial. The editors criticized the recent constructed response writing assessments, arguing that these assessments took too much time, and, because the assessments tested “students with all different learning abilities on a single narrow subject field,” it made many students see “disappointing grades and subconsciouusly base their worth on that unimportant score.” Again, while we appreciate the empathy the editors are showing towards students who received low scores, we feel that this criticism was uninformed. The whole purpose of our critical reading and persuasive writing program is to make sure that every student at BHS can read text, annotate it, summarize it, and respond to it. As shown by our passing rates on the CAHSEE (High school exit exam), many of our students aren’t acquiring these skills. The goal of these assessments, and the instruction that led up to them, was to make sure that every student at BHS had the opportunity to acquire these skills. And while some might not have that skill yet — which might feel indeed feel bad — our plan is to make sure that they have these skills before they take the CAHSEE, or other high stakes tests (like SATs), where the score really does matter.

In closing, we want to thank the editors of The Jacket for addressing these issues that are so critical to our school. We invite you to talk directly with us about our efforts to improve instruction at BHS, and we hope that dialogue happens soon.