Pedagogy Postcard #2: Learning Objectives vs Tasks

Very often, in the busy flow of every day school life, although I have an overarching idea of the broad learning goals, I plan the individual lessons in terms of tasks.  I think about what my students will do.  For example, in an electricity topic, they might make some circuits with different components,  measure voltage and current readings, plot graphs, discuss their findings, answer some follow-up questions…. And so on.  Some students will get more done than others and that’s the crudest form of differentiation there is.  At the end of all of this activity, I’m working on the assumption that they will have learned various relevant aspects of the science topic in hand.

Although task planning is a common, practical way to think about your lessons for the week it’s just hit and hope…. It’s far from ideal. It can lead to a lot of dissipated energy, wasted time and unfocused learning. My experience is that my lessons are much better when thelearning objectives are very clear in my mind; when I’m really clear about the purpose of all the tasks and I’ve got a reasonably tight goal in my mind for that specific lesson.

So, the learning objective for the electricity example above might be:

for students to recognise:

  • that voltage and current vary in direct proportion for a fixed resistor
  • that the curve for a light bulb shows that its resistance changes as it heats up
  • that the resistance increases as shown by the gradient of the curve.

This sounds obvious enough but it makes quite a difference.  It makes you ask yourself ‘why are they doing what they are doing?’ which can then lead to a more efficient use of time, cutting out activities that don’t support the learning objectives directly; it helps sharpen your questions and provide more focused assessment feedback.

Alom Shaha makes this point really well in relation to science demonstrations and class practicals.

Nuffield Foundation: Practical Work for Learning

If you want students to develop practical skills, to become familiar with apparatus and gain an understanding of the complexities of measurement, then a hands-on experiment is an essential task for that objective.  But, if you want them to make a connection between an abstract idea and its manifestation in a real setting, then a teacher-led demo is likely to be far more effective.

The same applies in other subjects.  For example, in History GCSE, it’s  useful to make a distinction between a learning objective about the historical understanding the significance of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam…versus an objective to understand the assessment requirements of a 10 mark answer on a source paper.  These things may overlap in the source analysis task, but what is the main learning you are after?

In English, it makes a difference if you are focusing on knowing and understanding Falstaff’s character development in Act II in broad narrative terms rather than the more technical ideas about Shakespeare’s use of structure and language in the text. And each of these can be developed more sharply if your objective is clear during the task of ‘reading and analysing Act II’.  Of course these things interact and overlap, but students get a firmer grasp if the focus in any given lesson is precise.  The terms ‘narrative’, ‘structure’ and ‘language’ need to be learned clearly before students can use them.. obviously enough… but that requires some sharp sequencing of learning objectives.

In Maths, if you want students to know how to learn how to solve simultaneous equations by substitution, then it makes sense to show them how, give a few examples and get them to practise their own before checking how they’re getting on. A group task or long lecture wouldn’t be as effective.  The specific learning objective helps to identify the most efficient and effective strategy.

If you want students to practise their ability to use language spontaneously in French, a role play or group task is going to help deliver that learning objective because they need interaction in that form.

I’ve seen plenty of must/could/should Learning Objectives in classrooms that are really just a list of tasks. Is that helpful? It can be.. but it’s not the same thing at all.  The most important thing is that you, the teacher, know what the learning objectives are; getting that very clear in your mind.  You really don’t need the students to write them down slavishly. I don’t understand why schools make teachers do that.

1 Response to “Pedagogy Postcard #2: Learning Objectives vs Tasks”

  • I’ve always found the CfE speak of “what do you want your students to know/understand/be able to do by the end of the lesson” to be a helpful tool when planning learning objectives in my diary. For me the distinction lies in the difference between “To read Act 2 of Macbeth” (Task) vs “To understand the key events of Act 2 of Macbeth” (LO). Additionally, I think it helps clarify that sometimes lessons are about demonstrating your learning about something (perhaps in a new and unfamiliar context a la CfE) than learning something new.

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