Should Teachers Post Objectives?

Last week I shared a little resolution: to post more questions on the blog.

I also put out a call for questions, and within hours Chase Orton delivered, sharing a question he had been discussing on Twitter:

Is it better to clearly post/state a lesson objective at the start, or to allow students to discover it during the course of the lesson?

Feel free to treat this as an always/sometimes/never, or to suggest a third approach not described above.

Comments 20

  1. My preference is to see teacher use questions to focus the learning for the day. Also, I like to say you don’t want to give away the punch line before you tell the joke.

  2. I’m in the ‘sometimes’ camp in this one. It depends on the purpose of the lesson. Where a very specific model is introduced, for example, it might make more sense to lead with the objective. Generally, I like the lesson to speak for itself.

  3. Although it’s an interesting idea, I don’t like this as a practice. Students are trained from elementary school on to view lessons in all content areas through the lens of the objective. I tried this one semester, and my students felt that I was denying them helpful information, with which they could self-assess their own understanding. Moreover, I’m not sure I would want to participate in a class in which the objectives were not clear. Aren’t we doing this to assess ourselves as teachers? If that is the case, there are many other formative assessment tools available.

  4. Somewhere in between: “Find a way to _________.”
    For example: rewrite a quadratic function into vertex form.
    Previous day, teacher set up might be able to get kids to the point of noticing that vertex form is much “friendlier” for certain things, and wondering if there was a way to make standard form quadratics more friendly.
    That way they are ready and care about your “find a way” objective. Stating the objective explicitly will help students be patient with explorative activities you do to help bring ideas to the surface.
    I think one of the problems people have with “giving away” is in part because we want to fit all that thinking into one day.

  5. I’m in the “it depends” camp here. I believe students should be able to articulate the path they have taken, summarize the skills they have learned, and reflect upon areas where they need to improve. Making sure students understand the objectives of a lesson or a unit is important, but does this does not mean we need to peel back the curtain and “spoil” lessons. As an example, today in my 9th grade class I used a Mathalicious lesson to introduce inverse functions. But there’s no way, no how, that I was going to post “Today SWBAT find inverse functions” (also, I despise SWBAT). But I would be comfortable starting my lesson by making sure students are clear that today we will continue our exploration of functions and their operations. Tomorrow, I’ll make it clear that inverse functions are now part of their toolbox.

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    Here’s a common theme I’m seeing in the comments thus far: It’s important for students to know where they are in a learning progression, and teachers play an important role in helping them understand/navigate. I can dig that.

    I’m still left with a question of “How can we do that well?” The link Robert shared goes a long way toward answering that. Thanks for sharing!

    Another question I haven’t quite resolved (one that comes from the “it depends” and “don’t spoil the lesson” camp) is this: “What well-intentioned moves might work toward that goal (of understanding one’s place in a sequence of lessons) but against others?”

    I was intrigued by something I heard in Bob’s comment, namely, that one way we can help students understand where they are in a given learning progression is to point backward at the start of the lesson, and forward at the end of the lesson. Apologies if I’m putting words in your mouth, Bob, but this idea is helping me balance the tension between “don’t spoil” and “help navigate.” 🙂

  7. Those are tasty words to put in my mouth Michael. I rarely give away what’s about to happen in class, but hopefully my students understand where the path has taken us.

  8. So many amazing thoughts here!

    I love how this prompt is generating interesting reasoning regardless of the answer. I think there’s so much value in thinking about our OBJECTIVES for the learning objectives. I think it’s important that we always have clear OBJECTIVES but that doesn’t mean they have to be made explicit to students as learning objectives. (I hope my use of the caps there adds clarity to my point, and not sound like shouting…there’s just two layers of objectives here…OURS and what we tell our students.) I have some more thoughts here:

    I love Sharon’s use of the structure of a well-crafted joke as a way to think about the structure of a well-crafted lesson.

    I like Andy’s pithy phrase “I like the lesson to speak for itself.”

    I think Robert has an extremely useful tool for helping teachers to think of using the language in the math practices as language for the objectives. Keeps kids focused on the process of learning, rather than the destination. (Elizabeth Raskin had something to say about this on my blog post and uses a nice quote from Robert’s blog.)

    Wendy speaks to the need for clarity and intentionality in lesson preparation so that all learners can be successful.

    Leanne’s “find a way” sentence frame makes for an simple structure to frame objectives. It focuses students on the both the thinking and the solution…and it has an open feel that invites students in to making choices…and when students make different choices, they have something meaningful to talk about.

    I think Bob is right on point. Our OBJECTIVE should be clear to us…but we need to be thoughtful about how we “spin” that objective to our students to best promote the type of mathematical thinking/action we want to see from them. He also brings ups a point that the amazing resources in the #MTBoS world requires us to think more deeply about the OBJECTIVES behind lesson objectives.

    Michael, I agree that we want to reflect on the technical instructional moves we’re making and how to align our practice to our purpose. I also like how you’re pushing the importance of helping students understand where they are in a learning cycle.

    So much good stuff here! Thank you for helping expand the dialogue. I’m digging it.

  9. I teach elementary and my experience might be different from many here. I wonder though if any of my structures would work with older students.

    I was contemplating this same question recently and I came to what I think is a useful distiction for me. I have objectives that come from the program if study, my curriculum. They are not written in kids friendly language and often use vocabulary that has to be introduced throughout the lesson. I plan my trajectory with this in mind, and at some point of the series of lessons might share it. “By the way, as we figured out what perimeter is and worked through some challenges, we will continue exploring the topic”.

    I also subscribe to the idea that in order to learn a skill, concept or a new word, students should feel a genuine need for it. I am not about to start my lesson with “I will show you how much you need perimeter measurement in your life”.

    Now my learning intentions for the lesson are different from the learning objectives for the lesson. The focus of my lesson can be developing questions, developing and testing claims, uncovering our misconceptions, practicing skills, or analyzing mistakes and many more. They are non content specific, and often come up in the end of the lesson reflection questions but sure, if we are practicing a particular skill, I might just say so. I like students to connect the dots in the reflection, and if they don’t…that’s a great feedback to my lesson.

    I see lessons as co-created narratives. When does it make sense to reveal the twist? Depends on the story and on the lesson. I suppose I am in a “sometimes” camp, though never through writing it on the board and pointing at it.

  10. From my perspective, it depends, but since most of my lessons are discovery type lessons, I prefer not to post the objective. Posting the objective ahead of the lesson has two potential harmful effects. First, it can dilute or even kill the discovery aspect of the lesson, and second, it can prevent the introduction of other important mathematics, that although not the intent of the lesson, becomes a golden opportunity to introduce an important concept in a meaningful situation and thus reinforce how connected mathematics truly is.

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    David, thanks for weighing in. That’s makes a lot of sense. Two things I’m curious about in your classroom…

    1. How do you then help students understand how what they’re learning on one day fits into the big picture of a week/unit/year?

    2. Do you discuss objectives in the closure part of a discovery lesson? If so, what does that typically look like?

  12. I do not remember ever having objectives posted when I was a student, but I am old and may just not remember. I know I have never posted objectives as a teacher and I hope I have not been robbing my students. What I do try to focus on, and I fail at this too often, is to reflect at the end and point out what we have accomplished. I struggle with the idea of an objective in a way that is similar to how I struggle with SBG. I feel that good, organic conversations in class will rarely focus on a single objective/standard/skill. I hope our objective each day is simply to continue developing as learners.

  13. Sometimes. If the lesson starts with problem-solving (PBL) then don’t share the learning target to start, but make sure it comes out in the consolidation / debrief. If the lesson is more discovery or exploration based, then I think you can phrase the learning goal as a question at the start of the lesson in such a way that it does not give away the punch line. Still important to make sure they’ve understood & met the learning goal at lesson’s end.

  14. Hopping in late here. Let’s assume I do not list the objective, and I end the lesson. Shouldn’t I as a teacher be checking for understanding throughout, and especially at the end of the lesson to make sure the objective has been met. If the students do show they have met the objective, haven’t I accomplished my goal?

    Another issue I have with posting the objective is the idea that I am usually hitting multiple objectives in 1 class. In addition to hitting objectives for that class period, I am reinforcing ideas from previous lessons and previous chapters, which are all part of my design of the lesson. Should I make students aware of all of them?

  15. Now I’m hopping into this conversation even later. It’s interesting to me in particular because I was just in a few classrooms in a school in which all the teachers were told that they *must* have their objectives on the board, at the front of the class, at the start of the class. In one class I even saw that there were empty boxes next to each of the objectives, waiting for the check to be dropped into them, after they’ve been ‘covered.’ (I HATE using the term ‘covered’ to talk about what’s been learned – or not learned – in math class.) To me, this practice lends itself more to the *telling* part of teaching and less to the *facilitating* part of teaching. Teachers prioritize getting through all of the objectives – covering them – than ensuring that students learn mathematics deeply. What if we don’t have them there at the start of class and then when the objectives have been discovered/revealed by the students, teachers can put them on the board as reinforcement and framing of what has been learned?

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  17. We (schools in my area) are basically told to post objectives at the beginning of every lesson from the Ontario Ministry of education. In addition to this we should also co-create success criteria with the students… according to the Ministry. These criteria are basically descriptions of what success looks like.

    Many teachers in my school are resistant to this. I am not fully sure how I feel. I do think that the most authentic learning takes place when the student has a goal of what they want to know. Canned objectives usually aren’t fruitful whenever they occur. But if your starting point is something the students wants to do then objectives just become something the student needs to accomplish the larger goal.

    Teaching then becomes you add an expert guide helping the student reach the goal they are already motivated to achieve.

    This is one reason I am a big fan of problem based stuff. When it is real, challenging, nuanced, and there is risk (possibility of failure) students seem to wake up.

  18. The faster you can make it clear to students what it is they are supposed to be learning to know and be able to do, the better. Posting learning objectives, though, doesn’t usually accomplish this. Imagine I posted the following learning objective:

    “Today you will learn how to scrum a gabob whose denominator has been rationalized.”

    Even if this is accurate, it does not clarify anything to the learner. Without any direct experience watching someone “scrum” or seeing a “gabob”, the sentence is meaningless.

    Students will not be able to understand the learning objective until they have seen someone do it*, with appropriate terms identified throughout the process, and have done it themselves a number of times. At this point, posting the objective is useful as a scaffold to have students practice internalizing the language used to describe what they are learning to do. Having students practice saying it, first while looking at the learning objective and then without looking, helps them internalize the language. But only after they have had direct experience with the objects and actions the words refer to.

    *in a problem-based or discovery lesson, the person they initially see perform the learning objective could partly or entirely be themselves

  19. These last two posts have me thinking:

    Student desire to know the objective should often precede the statement of the objective.

    Students should experience the objective well before they read the language of the objective.

    Language in the objectives can be formalized as the lesson evolves.

    And the need to evolve that language can structure the learning experience at the tail end of lessons through reflection on learning.

    I’m enjoying this convo. I wrote a second post about objectives here:

    Would love to hear thoughts.

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