Debate Magazine

Why We Need to Stop Deluding Ourselves with “learning Objectives”

By Stevemiranda

The traditional way of looking at classroom education is through “learning objectives.” That is, the teacher has identified what students need to know and be able to do. She has prepared lesson plans to achieve those goals. At the end of the unit, if the student passes the test, he has met the learning objectives. Then, everyone high-fives and pats each other on the back.

Another successful day at school.

But what happens six months later? If you re-test the student and ask him to recall why Peter the Great taxed beards to raise revenue for Russia, or exactly why Boo Radley was so reclusive, there’s a good chance that he won’t remember. In that case, it’s hard to argue that it was really important to memorize the material in the first place.

* * *

There are two different possible goals when working with students: 1) you’re either exposing students to something new and interesting, or 2) you’re helping students achieve mastery in a particular discipline.

When teachers present material on Tuesday then give a test on Friday, they’re engaged in the process of exposing students to (hopefully) something new and interesting. Whatever grade the students earned on the test, they all came away with the same benefit: exposure.

We delude ourselves when students get an “A” on a unit exam, and we call it mastery. Mastery is something that can only be achieved over time, and through deliberate practice.

* * *

I talked to a colleague today about a field trip she took with students. I asked her if she thought it was successful. She gave me a puzzled look and asked me what I meant.

I said, “Do you feel like the students got out of it what you’d hoped they would?”

“Whatever they got out of it, that’s what they got out of it,” she smiled.

And, importantly, each student probably got something different from the experience. Each individual student brings his own unique prior knowledge, interest, and curiosity to that field trip. The job of the teacher is not to assume she knows what the “learning objectives” should be for all students, but merely to expose students to new and interesting things.

And for students who decide they want to learn more, the teacher can invite them onto the path towards mastery, a profound process that has little use for externally imposed “learning objectives.”

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