What Are Your Objectives?

I recently came across this post which asks educators to step back and ask why we post daily objectives in our classrooms. Despite the fact 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 1990’s), it was district policy to write our daily objectives on the whiteboard. I think I usually did this although I didn’t give it much thought, and I didn’t always care if I adhered to them. I would tend to put vague things like, “work on paper” which was enough to shut up an administrator but still give me the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. “Work on paper” isn’t exactly a set of prescribed outcomes. In time, my students learned to ignore my list of objectives and understood that we were gonna do whatever it was that we were gonna do.

Flash forward to my life in the university and that lovely syllabus I have to write each semester. I’ve written before about my disdain for the syllabus in its current boxy format that I am expected to comply with. And one of the things I have a love/hate relationship with is coming up with course objectives.

I shouldn’t say love/hate. I should say it’s an ok/hate relationship. I’m not in love with writing course objectives.

objectivesCourse objectives are good (technically) in the sense that they get more focused and organized. I can make decisions about readings and assignments. However, I know what the larger purpose of a course is supposed to be. For example, I know that my Content Area Literacy course is supposed to provide students with experiences that help them understand how we learn to read and write within academic disciplines. Do I really need specific course objectives? I think I could just run with the larger statement.

In the posts I linked to above, I agree with what are identified as three limitations to objectives which are:

  1. Communicating objectives to students sends a strong message about who is driving the learning: If I select the objectives, then I’ve already made decisions about what is and isn’t important to learn. I can filter students’ ideas/questions/etc…through the lens of the stated objectives. I don’t need to give much air time to anything that doesn’t lead us towards achieving those objectives.
  2. Communicating objectives to students gives away the ending before the uncovering even begins: I agree with the author that once students know what the objectives are, it becomes all about the students completing the work to master the objectives. There is no room to explore or diverge because we are all working towards the same end goal.
  3. Communicating objectives to students discourages students and teachers from pursuing potentially constructive lines of inquiry that appear tangential to the objectives: I said this in my response to #1. If we create objectives, and are serious about them, then that’s going to be what drives us and how we make our decisions.

Now, do I have course objectives? Of course I do. The university requires me to. Do I really let those get in my way? No. Would this cause someone, somewhere to freak out? Yeah, probably.

But you know what? I love being in a space where I can respond to the realities of my students. I’m not going to walk through the front door of the class on Day 1 with nothing planned and just turn them loose. But I like to think of the syllabus as a framework and as a place to start a larger conversation – an on-going conversation – about what our class can look like. Some classes will love this and jump right in. They will take stuff out of the syllabus and replace it with something else.

Want to know a secret? The stuff they replace it with is usually better. My students tend to have far better ideas than I do. The only thing I ever insist on is that what we do connect back to the larger class purpose. Not a specific tiny course objective, but the larger over arching purpose of the course. They can totally play within that sandbox all they want, and I will give them all the tools and space I can to help them.

Some classes won’t run with it. Some will be pretty uncomfortable with the idea. This happens, and I get it, and I don’t really push them on it. Some classes are made up of people who are very comfortable with the schooling process and how it should look. They are not comfortable changing it. That’s ok. I’m not here to force that. I can run the show if needed giving some gentle nudges here and there.

Here’s the thing – in the end I think that we need to question why having course objectives – or daily objectives – is a mandated thing. Who’s interest is it really serving? I’m not convinced it’s serving the students. It might be doing ok by the students, but my guess is that it’s really serving administrators and people who have to check off boxes to show that standards were met and things were “covered.” It’s this type of thinking – this standardization of education – that is crushing us. It’s crushing how people teach, it’s crushing how students learn, and it’s sending a message that school is supposed to look a certain way.



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