Everyday, in classrooms across the country, many teachers begin their lessons with what are commonly known as Learning Goals, Targets, Objectives or Intentions. John Hattie defines these as “what it is we want students to learn in terms of the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and values within any particular unit or lesson.”
They are usually written on the whiteboard or projected in a PowerPoint slide. Some teachers prefer to use acronyms attributed to formative assessment expert Shirley Clarke, like WALT (“We Are Learning Today”), WILF (“What I’m Looking For”), or even TIB (“This Is Because”) or, in some instances, “WAGOLL” (“What A Good One Looks Like”). Quite often, students are instructed to copy various forms of goals into their books at the start of each lesson. Puzzlingly, some teachers even suggest getting students to recite these goals.
So far, this (mostly) all sounds like common sense; a teacher arrives at class knowing what students will do and learn about. But this practice has grown into a tired, empty routine, which is not only dull and repetitive for students, but now features as a key criteria in most classroom observations. For example, “providing clear learning goals and scales” is a foundation of Robert Marzarno’s popular Art and Science Of Teaching framework, used by eager administrators across the country.
An anonymous Head of Department on the Guardian’s Secret Teacher blog suggests it could be that when students enter a classroom, they tend to be “greeted not by an enthralling demonstration or an enthusiastic teacher, but by a whiteboard displaying the outcomes for today, which the teacher will have to read out in order to tick the ‘sharing the learning outcomes’ box on the observation.”
Is it habit that motivates so many teachers to begin a lesson in this way? Or is it fear that a superior will drop by and ‘catch’ them, *gasp*, without an observable learning goal? This endless quest for measurable learning goals in education reveals an unwillingness to embrace the complexities of teaching and the wonder of ambiguity.
Imagine a lesson that begins with no Learning Goal. Does it result in chaos, as the hilarious teacher-made video below demonstrates when, shockingly, no Learning Target is written on the whiteboard when students arrive?
I realize that Learning Goal enthusiasts might ask, “But how will the students know what they’re learning if we don’t tell them?” or claim, “Students must know what they are learning before they learn it – everything must be crystal clear!”
Let me be crystal clear: I am not suggesting that teachers deliberately confuse or mislead students, or turn up at lessons with no clear idea of what is to be accomplished. But it is worth critically examining whether the practice of telling students what they will learn before they learn it equates to the kind of deeper learning that will allow students to thrive in a rapidly changing 21stcentury job market.
Contemporary careers require students to collaborate, wrestle with open-ended problems and think critically and creatively. Accordingly, Jal Mehta states that “both experience and research has told us that teaching is not like factory work, that it requires skill and discretion as opposed to following of rules and procedures.” Indeed, this technique of oversharing technical procedures such as sharing the intention reflects the increasing emphasis in education on accountability, measurement and control.
It is difficult to argue in favour of prescriptive, formulaic Learning Goals when many educational gurus discuss their limitations. Although John Hattie’s research reveals the positive impact of teacher clarity, at no point does his research suggest that every lesson must begin with a teacher-centred Learning Goal. He laments in an interview; “Sometimes I think if I was starting the work again I wouldn’t emphasize learning intentions because too often they become very simplistic and they become almost jingoistic.”
Additionally, Shirley Clarke, who coined WALT and WILF, says that as the popularity of Learning Goals increased, there “appeared a myth that the first words uttered should be the words of the learning objective and it should always be written on the whiteboard before the lesson starts.” Clarke has since distanced herself from Learning Goals, declaring on Twitter that “WALT and WILF died in 2001” after her own studies showed it resulted in children focusing too much on trying to please the teacher. Further, Clarke suggests, “Although the learning objective might be appropriate at the beginning of the lesson (often in mathematics), its appearance before children’s interest is captured can kill their interest.”
Likewise, American author and lecturer Alfie Kohn says Learning Goals “resemble ‘training’ rather than genuine education” and that “even if a teacher has specific learning goals in mind before a lesson, which any good teacher does, why in the world would we dictate them to students rather than having students participate in the process of formulating them and deciding together what we’re going to explore?”
Professor Dylan Wiliam agrees with Kohn, saying that this dictating of the destination of a lesson to students “spoils” the learning journey itself; and “sometimes, it just makes for uninspired and uninspiring teaching.”
Wiliam also echos Clarke’s point that the learning goal should actually depend on the lesson content. For example, he explains that when “… getting kids to balance chemical equations, I do want every single kid reaching the same goal.” However, when “[reacting] to a poem by D.H Lawrence, I don’t want them reaching the same goal.” And yet, many teachers fear criticism or being caught out in an inspection if they do not maintain the status-quo of Learning Goals.
So what could teachers do instead of dictating the goal to students as soon as they walk in the room? Wiliam suggests that sometimes a question at the start of a lesson can be very effective at engaging students.
For example, I recently began a lesson in which I wanted students to compare the play Romeo and Juliet to the film Titanic. The lesson began with a thought-provoking question written on the whiteboard: “The Titanic was labelled an ‘unsinkable ship’ – so whose fault was the tragedy?” There was a certain level of confusion to start with – to some students the two topics seemed completely unrelated. But after they discussed the question with a partner, we tallied up the responses that were written onto post-it notes and organized them into categories: some blamed the crew, others blamed the engineers, a number of them pointed the finger at the captain, and there was a special column for the unique response blaming “male ego for trying to get to New York in record time.”
I had not expected this response at all! In fact, I wasn’t entirely certain about how the whole lesson would go – though I had a plan. But as I listened to student conversations around the room, I was impressed by how much they already knew about Titanic. To my surprise and delight, one student shared a complex idea with the group: she made the link between the response about male ego and the term ‘hamartia’ that we had recently discussed at length in our study of Romeo’s tragic flaw: his hasty decision-making.
I am confident that had I started the lesson with a Learning Goal and wasted class time by having them copy it down – or even worse, recite it – the inquiry-driven, collaborative discussion at this crucial time of the lesson would not have occurred in such an open-ended, organic way.
It is this spirit of explorative learning that creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson fears is not promoted enough in schools: “Our children and teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms rather than excite that power of imagination and curiosity.”
Learning goals are a habit of this algorithm and often serve to narrow the possibilities of a learning experience. These types of teacher-centred approaches harken back to behaviourist teaching where “compliance is valued over initiative and passive learners over active learners” (Freiberg, 1999). It is also tied to the idea that good teaching can be broken down into a recipe of technical, formulaic procedures.
I often wonder what the influential educational reformer John Dewey would make of learning goals. In his 1910 publication How We Think, he states that the role of a teacher is “to keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows…to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blasé from overexcitement, wooden from routine, fossilized through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things.”
While student disengagement cannot be solely attributed to the practice of oversharing Learning Goals per se, they are a symptom of an industrialized model of teaching in which a feeling of certainty and security is often valued over curiosity. Teachers are hardly fanning the flames of student curiosity when lessons so frequently begin with over-planned, habitual spoilers about the destination ahead, or when educators aim to be so crystal clear in their teaching that they risk stifling the the complexity, ambiguity and wonder of learning for students and themselves.