Objectively Speaking

Posted by Alythea on October 24, 2011

Author: Mike Fishback

Conventional wisdom holds that effective teachers write the objective of each lesson on the board before class so that the students are aware of what the teacher intends them to accomplish. This premise seems like common sense, yet if we view it through the lens of critical exploration, we can see several ways it is flawed.

First, communicating objectives to students sends a strong message about who is driving the learning. In a conventional classroom, the teacher has the unquestioned authority to make decisions about student learning. Yet in an exploratory classroom, learning is driven by the students themselves, with the teacher facilitating the learning by listening carefully to the students’ observations and questions and helping them uncover new paths of inquiry. Stated objectives work against the aim of critical exploration by implying that the teacher will control not just the topic of the lesson but also the outcome of the students’ thinking.

Second, communicating objectives to students gives away the ending before the uncovering even begins. In a conventional classroom, the teacher reveals the point of the lesson ahead of time in order to motivate the students to work toward mastery of a predetermined skill or concept. Yet in an exploratory classroom, motivation arises instead from the students’ curiosity about the materials and about where their ideas might take them. Stated objectives work against the aim of critical exploration by focusing on the work required for students to achieve a goal rather than on the mindset required for students to immerse themselves in details, reconsider their assumptions, and construct theories that might help them make better sense of a topic.

Third, communicating objectives to students discourages students and teachers from pursuing potentially constructive lines of inquiry that appear tangential to the objectives. In a conventional classroom, where the priority is getting through the required material, students’ questions are valued to the extent that they allow the teacher to clarify concepts or instructions. Yet in an exploratory classroom, where the priority is constructing understanding, students’ questions create the pathways through which they are able to explore a topic deeply, leading to more meaningful learning. A question that seems misguided, silly, or off-topic when posed in a conventional classroom might, when posed in an exploratory classroom, provide the spark that lights an intellectual fire and helps it spread throughout the room. Stated objectives work against the aim of critical exploration by limiting the breadth and depth of questions and, consequently, of learning.

None of this is to suggest that teachers should not prepare their lessons ahead of time, have ideas about what they would like their students to understand, or conduct lessons in an efficient and time-conscious way. Indeed, anyone who has practiced critical exploration knows how important these responsibilities are to effective teaching. Yet in critical exploration, the most important responsibility is to help learners learn. The three reasons discussed above for abandoning the practice of writing lesson objectives on the board all prioritize student inquiry over teacher control. And when teachers are more attuned to the observations and questions of their students, those teachers are better positioned to enhance the quality of both the teaching and the learning in their classrooms.

Mike Fishback earned his Ed. M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2006 and currently teaches seventh grade history and English at The Potomac School in McLean, Virginia.

Categories: Classroom Teaching, Critical Exploration

11 Responses to “Objectively Speaking”

  1. johnhiltoniii says:

    Thanks Mike. Great thoughts! I wonder what would happen if I did more to explicitly communicate the objective of having students become curious and immersed in the work. I’m not sure how such an objective could be communicated, but you’ve given me something to think about. Thank you again.

  2. Mike Fishback says:

    That’s a great point, John. Now that I think about it, I communicate that type of objective all the time. For teachers who are required to post objectives in writing, they might consider a format like “Students will think about…” or “Students will immerse themselves in…” or “Students will play around with…” Yet these formats, while perhaps more empowering, still give away some of the mystery that is essential for true exploratory learning. And of course, the more a teacher “instructs” a student to become curious, the less likely that student is to become authentically curious!

  3. ematthes says:

    This is great, Mike. You could add that writing objectives on the board in secondary education trains students to expect it in higher ed. My students at Berkeley often ask that I write the objectives for our discussions on the board, which is problematic for all the reasons you list. This is true especially in Philosophy (though I imagine in most other disciplines as well), where a large part of the goal is to teach the students how to think critically and ask incisive questions. When students expect that the point of a text or discussion is going to be explained to them up-front, they have a harder time developing their own questions.

  4. [...] tweets a couple of days ago and came across an interesting one from @alfiekohn which linked to this article about not letting students know the objective of each lesson at the start. The reasons are quite [...]

  5. Chris Lowry says:

    This discussion is interesting. I hear two thoughts/questions: One is how to communicate that curiosity, questioning, critical thinking, and helping students become immersed in their subject are the heart of the work in the classroom. The other is how to write an objective on the board that doesn’t undermine the work being done in the classroom. The two are related, of course, because having to state an end result on the board can keep students from feeling they are free to investigate or that there is anything to investigate in the first place. They are separate, though, in that I would like to hope that even teachers who are evaluated on writing clear, end-result curriculum objectives on the board will have some freedom in deciding how to help their students think about the work of the day.

    I think the central question is: What would you (or any teacher who recognizes that students learn through their own thinking) do in class on that day, after the objective is written on the board, to foster curiosity and thus help them come to better understandings of the subject at hand? For example, some teachers might be able to write “students will immerse themselves in essay writing,” while others might need to write “students will learn the elements of rhetorical essays.” In either case, would we hand out samples of various types of essays, or perhaps only of rhetorical essays, and begin by asking what they notice about each one, or would we write a controversial statement on the board and ask them what they think about it, etc? Some students might enjoy the game of trying to figure out how the day’s activities have anything to do with the objective listed on the board!

  6. Mike Fishback says:

    Chris, your last sentence might solve the problem I posed in my earlier comment (“the more a teacher ‘instructs’ a student to become curious, the less likely that student is to become authentically curious”). If a teacher can figure out how to make the stated objective part of the exploration itself, part of the mystery or the fitting together of ideas, then that objective can serve a constructive purpose and help to increase curiosity rather than stifle it.

  7. Alythea says:

    Mike’s post has sparked discussions on at least two more blogs:

    Joe Bower links to “Objectively Speaking” and reproduces all three of Mike’s bullets in Stop Writing the Objectives on the Board. Bower writes, “At the very least, teachers should be afforded the professional responsibility to decide whether writing the objective on the board is pedagogically appropriate.” His post has 24 comments.

    GB_Jeff responds to Joe Bower in Posting Objectives? GRR? True Learning? My Head Is Spinning Again! GB_Jeff writes, “I also get what Mr. Bower and Mr. Kohn are also saying here. Perhaps, by giving away the ending, you’re losing the opportunity for true learning to organically evolve? My relief (and vindication that I’m justified in being torn) came from Mr. Bower’s last line: ‘At the very least, teachers should be afforded the professional responsibility to decide whether writing the objective on the board is pedagogically appropriate.’ This showed me that there certainly are two ways to look at this and I’m interested in finding out more.”

  8. Jen Killpack says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this discussion! I’m going to throw out this idea and would LOVE some feedback from anyone interested.

    I’m working on my M.Ed. right now and my research interest is along this line. I’m wondering about the success of CE with students who have Executive Function deficits (e.g. ADHD, TBI). My thinking is that it will be (is?) highly beneficial in allowing the natural tangential thinking that sometimes occurs to the student’s benefit. I think that CE might also allow these students to strengthen their executive function capabilities. Eric Amsel and I were talking about it tonight (he’s on my committee) and he agreed that it might work counterintuitively… I think it’s a natural fit. Am I way off base? What do you all think? Have you any experiences that might speak to this?


  9. E.D. says:

    This sounds very good to me, but I don’t know of any studies. People have used critical exploration in various special ed classes — emphasizing figuring things out, instead of following pre-designed exercises — and have found it very helpful.

    Eric Amsel is an old buddy from the Piaget Society.

  10. [...] that this post was published in 2011, I think its point is still timely (note the author links to this post as well). When I was a classroom teacher (a very, very long time ago – ok, the late [...]

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