Another dot in the blogosphere?

Do objectives ruin experiences?

Posted on: December 21, 2015

A question on the latest Star Wars movie prompted me to reflect on instructional objectives versus learning outcomes.

The person who wanted the Star Wars spoilers wished to know what to expect. This is like wanting to know the answers even before the questions are asked. Where is the anticipation and enjoyment?

In the mid-90s I showed student teachers how to write specific instructional objectives (SIOs). Combined with a misused Bloom’s Taxonomy — start with low level before moving to high level objectives — they were the truth of the moment in teacher education.

As I evolved as a teacher educator, I learnt what terrible mistakes those were. Bloom’s Taxonomy is descriptive and not prescriptive. It provides insight on how students might learn, but it does not (and should not) dictate how teachers should teach.

For example, there is no need to start with low level objectives all the time. Problems in life are rarely presented like the ones in school or textbooks. They are messy, not methodical. They are complex and connected, not devoid of context. Definitions and memorisation do not come first; the need to learn something does.

Teachers are often taught to be objective instead of to embrace the subjective or uncertain. This is one way objectives written from a teacher’s point of view might actually be a barrier to learning.

Learning outcomes, on the other hand, are as varied as the learners. A teacher might want to shape these outcomes, but s/he cannot determine them in entirety. This is not a bad thing.

Unexpected but worthwhile outcomes are a good thing. Teachers have learnt to call these “teachable moments”. My question is: Should all moments not be teachable?

All this is not to say that writing objectives or outcomes is bad. We should not be shackled to them.

My background in instructional design tells me to determine instructional objectives first, design assessment next, and then only determine content in between. This is putting into practice the principle of alignment.

Doing this also assumes that both teaching and learning are linear and straightforward. In practice, they rarely are. The instructional design can be robotic, the delivery can be disciplined, but the people are not.

How then might one counter this unproductive effort?

I have taught myself to design for multiple pathways, to teach my stakeholders that following old rules blindly without opening one’s eyes to current realities is foolish, and to include open-ended outcomes in my planning documents. Doing this dilutes the learning of content, but it also provides a focus on thinking.

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