Why telling them doesn’t work

Image Sam Sherratt is PYP Coordinator at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City. This article first appeared at Time Space http://timespaceeducation.wordpress.com

When I first got into teaching, about ten years ago, there was much talk about setting the learning “objective” or “intention”, writing it on the whiteboard, telling it to kids at the start of the lesson and then reviewing it at the end of the lesson. This all made perfect sense to me back then.

Back then, when I was teaching the National Curriculum in a small comprehensive school in England. Back then, when we were trying to get our students to pass some tests so we were not humiliated in the national press. Back then, when all the students had the same learning objective. Back then, when there were lessons that had beginnings and endings.

I believe learning has evolved since then.

These days, the idea that all of the students in the class have the same learning objective seems like a complete disregard for differentiation. When teaching dynamically and responding to both the needs and interests of the students, moments in which they are all doing the same thing in the same way are rare. I am not saying that they don’t happen – occasionally, and I mean really, really occasionally, a finite lesson in which they all focus on just one thing does happen. However, if you’re looking for that kind of thing on a regular basis in my teaching, it just ain’t going to happen.

These days, the idea that we should teach in little chunks of time and content seems to go against everything we have learned about learning itself. The  notion that you can draw a line under it and say “they’ve learned that” is as archaic as little kids sat in rows copying bits of text from a blackboard. Learning, like life, ebbs and flows. Lessons take days and the ends of “lessons” may only be enforced by the need for them to eat or run around, not by our own vanity in believing the learning is “complete”.

As far as I am concerned, telling or displaying the learning objective is ineffective… a bit like telling them or displaying “the rules”. It ticks our box, it satisfies our need to believe we have done our job. It does not improve learning. Instead, it is much more powerful to develop a culture of intentional learning, a culture in which students are constantly considering what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Culture doesn’t come from the mouth of an authority figure. Culture doesn’t come from lamination or words written on white boards before students come in the room. Culture comes from habits, from practice and from involvement. Culture comes from within.

So, next time an administrator wants to see the learning objective… tell them to watch the students. Tell them to put down their clipboard, notebook or iPad and watch what the students are doing or listen to how they are talking. Are the learning objectives evident in the room? Do the students know what they are doing and why they are doing it? Are they involved in the learning because they have been part of setting it up? Are they learning with intention, their own intention… not your intention? Do they have their own objectives?

That is when the magic happens.

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Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

4 thoughts on “Why telling them doesn’t work”

  1. “We still do not yet know where the drive for truth comes from. For so far we have heard only of the duty which society imposes in order to exist: to be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors. Thus, to express it morally, this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone.”

    Nietzsche, in talking about the ‘usual metaphors’, is expressing precisely the shortcomings of these reductive schema so beloved of poe-faced, accountability-obsessed administrators.

    Nietzsche argues that mankind invariably becomes trapped within these schema, these usual metaphors. So the learning objective becomes a reductive prism through which learning is stifled. It’s expeditious for these neurotic ‘walkthrough’ observations so beloved of administrators – tick a box, designate a reductive statement: job done. Offsted, IB accreditation team etc duly placated. The fixed conventions demanded of the herd.

    This beautiful essay (On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense) then concludes in a call to humility: we must be prepared to relinquish our neutrotic strangle-hold on reductive schema for designating the world, and take things on their own merit. Engage in the learning experience where you find it, don’t try to force your tick-box criteria upon it. If you are going to be guided by ‘learning objectives’ and other reductive aspects of pedagogy, try to – at the very least – ensure that they, or your approach, is of sufficient sophistication to permit divergence or subversion. For, as Nietzsche again expresses it far more eloquently than I:

    “The free intellect copies human life, but it considers this life to be something good and seems to be quite satisfied with it. That immense framework and planking of concepts to which the needy man clings his whole life long in order to preserve himself is nothing but a scaffolding and toy for the most audacious feats of the liberated intellect.”

  2. “We still do not yet know where the drive for truth comes from. For so far we have heard only of the duty which society imposes in order to exist: to be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors. Thus, to express it morally, this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone.”

    Nietzsche, in talking about the ‘usual metaphors’, is expressing precisely the shortcomings of these reductive schema so beloved of po-faced, accountability-obsessed administrators.

    Nietzsche argues that mankind invariably becomes trapped within these schema, these usual metaphors. So the learning objective becomes a reductive prism through which learning is stifled. It’s expeditious for these neurotic ‘walkthrough’ observations so beloved of administrators – tick a box, designate a reductive statement: job done. Offsted, IB accreditation team etc duly placated. The fixed conventions demanded of the herd.

    This beautiful essay (On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense) then concludes in a call to humility: we must be prepared to relinquish our neutrotic strangle-hold on reductive schema for designating the world, and take things on their own merit. Engage in the learning experience where you find it, don’t try to force your tick-box criteria upon it. If you are going to be guided by ‘learning objectives’ and other reductive aspects of pedagogy, try to – at the very least – ensure that they, or your approach, is of sufficient sophistication to permit divergence or subversion. For, as Nietzsche again expresses it far more eloquently than I:

    “The free intellect copies human life, but it considers this life to be something good and seems to be quite satisfied with it. That immense framework and planking of concepts to which the needy man clings his whole life long in order to preserve himself is nothing but a scaffolding and toy for the most audacious feats of the liberated intellect.”

  3. Similar issues surround the debate regarding the use of Critical Theory in teaching Literature. While the curriculum fully supports it as offering students different critical lenses through which literature can be seen, the subject report for HL Literature this year specifically counselled teachers against using Critical Theory. Why? Because it is usually done badly – meaning that students uncritically regurgitate received wisdom. So, again, we see a movement towards dumbing down to the level of the worst teachers – rather than an aspiration towards the practices of the best. Sure, if the teacher can’t grasp the way to counter-poise third-wave feminist criticism with essentialist humanism to provoke deeper thought their own position, they shouldn’t touch it with a barge pole! They should adopt the safe, if intellectually unambitious, position of purely a closed-text analysis of the text. Likewise if the teaching and learning environment in your classroom is so unengaging that student’s are not actively enquiring and thus constructing learning objectives themselves – by all means, give yourself a personal maxim that it’s always written on the board. But don’t inflict the compensatory necessities of your mediocrity on everyone as a matter of principle. Must the cart always lead the horse in educational policy?

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