Learning Questions

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Learning objectives are a staple in most classrooms, no teacher alive would dare prepare for a lesson, especially an observation, without their trusty objectives. Teachers are told from training about the value and necessity of the humble objective yet despite these illustrious claims, it is often the part of the lesson that is planned least and valued below all else. I admit to being a teacher who, until recently, felt this way.

 Despite appreciating the logic behind objectives, I had always found these to be the part of the lesson that I looked forward to least, an arduous hoop that I woefully had to jump through. I couldn’t see quantifiable evidence that students were better informed or better educated in lessons where objectives were used. As a result, I often sped through them with utter haste and indifference, making a quick and cursory query of ‘do you understand?’ before moving on as fast as a could.

For me, it felt like the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone proclaiming their brilliance without questioning the naked man prancing before their eyes. Rarely did teachers ask and consider whether learning objectives were actually benefiting students, instead just blindly following because it was the ‘thing to do’ and to raise a question in defiance would be to open yourself up to scorn and derision. As a result of this blind, unquestioning adherence to the expectation of objectives, they became, often, valueless. All it takes for bad teaching is for good teachers to do nothing.

Despite my former feelings I do now value the objective, what I question is teachers blindly following crazes without seeing the value, doing so means they do it with little care and attention which turns something useful and effective into something inconsequential. It is important that teachers are reminded of the key reasons why objectives are used and are free to personalise them in their own way to ensure they are used properly. For me, that came by shifting from learning objectives to learning questions. 

David Didau of the Learning Spy blog explains, objectives are vital for two reasons:

“Firstly, they ensure that teachers are clear about the purpose of the lesson before they begin thinking about all the fun they want to pack into them. Secondly, they provide a very useful signpost against which progress can be checked”

I found many useful techniques on David Didau‘s blog on how to improve the use and delivery of objectives and these did help in making them more successful and engaging for students but frequently I still struggled to see their worth in terms of a students’ development and how they were benefiting my lessons and my learners. 

In an attempt to make learning objectives more purposeful I attempted to change these, at times, complex statements full of arbitrary and, for learners, often confusing terms like ‘analyse’ ‘understand’ evaluate’ into simple, into direct and simple questions.

Before:

By the end of the lesson:

  • All students will analyse how Curley’s wife has been presented in section 4 of ‘Of Mice and Men’
  • All students will understand why Steinbeck has presented her in this way.
  • All students will consider how the audience will view her.

I would vary my use of objectives, depending on the task I would sometimes differentiate them and, where timing proved possible, I would return to them at the end and asked students to reflect on how well they felt that they met these targets. However, I was always conscious that not all my students really engaged with what the objectives really meant and their reflections at the end were more to placate me rather than to really think about what progress they had made.

Now

By the end of the lesson all students will be able to answer:

  • How has Curley’s wife been presented in section 4?
  • Why has Steinbeck presented her in this way?
  • How will the reader view her?

Twisting this from a statement to a question helps to simplify the content and illuminates the key message that the objective is trying to convey. Similarly it can be a greater motivator, here is a question that students’ cannot answer but they are encouraged to believe that very soon they will. By returning to the learning questions at the end and rigorously asking students these questions and probing deeper you directly prove to students that they have learnt something, that this lesson has progressed their understanding in some way and this motivates them even further.

Whether its objectives or questions, think about the value of what we are trying to do here and target that. Only when we focus on the benefits to our students and their learning, rather than conforming to educational edicts, do such vital strategies reach their full potential.

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