…on Learning Objectives

This post expands on ideas I shared, in a series of tweets, with John Finlayson (@MrFinobi) about ‘learning objectives’.

Learning objectives can be a powerful tool in a teacher’s toolkit. At the same time they can be a teacher’s Achilles heel, either tied in with a rigid lesson structure that has been forced upon them or (as I see too often) misunderstood for being a statement of what is going to be produced rather than what is going to be learned.

Learning objectives are integral to assessment for learning

If used correctly, learning objectives can be one of the keys in developing an effective assessment for learning strategy. Dylan Wiliam (considered an expert inAfL) regularly refers back to the following two slides:

Five Key Strategies

Aspects of Formative Assessment

His contention is that learning objectives are an integral part of effective AfL strategy. He argues that sharing of learning objectives opens up a discourse about learning. (Wiliam, 2010) I am inclined to agree and would recommend that all teachers experiment with the way they share learning objectives.

One of the most effective ways to ensure that you are using learning objectives effectively with your students is to consider the work of Shirley Clarke.

Taught Specifics

In her book ‘Formative Assessment in the Secondary Classroom’, Clarke explores the value of learning objectives in significant detail. She discusses the ‘taught specifics’ inherent within learning objectives arguing that teachers need to “move away from “PRODUCT” oriented success criteria to “PROCESS” oriented success criteria” (2005, 30-31).

Taught Specifics

She goes on to argue that if used correctly, process success criteria can set the agenda for the learning and also provide a specific focus for peer and self-assessment activities. Having built Clarke’s approach into my lessons for some time now, I have seen significant improvement in the way my students approach their learning – confident in discussing what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how they will succeed in doing so.

Clarke also suggests that students should write learning objectives down. This I disagree with. I do not feel it is necessary for students to write down the learning objectives during every lesson. Nor, do I believe that a teacher needs to put the learning objectives on the board during every lesson.

Depending on what is to be learned I take a variety of approaches to introducing the learning objectives. Sometimes, I put the success criteria on the board and then ask students to discuss what they think the learning objective is going to be. Other times, I only put the learning objective on the board and ask the students to decide on what the success criteria will be. This is an important step in developing the discourse about learning that Wiliam refers to.


David Didau (@LearningSpy) in a recent blog post discussed the value of ‘discovery learning’, where the teacher does not begin with an objective or question but creates a sense of engagement and curiosity through modelling and student interaction.

So how about trying this? Stride purposefully into the room and, without a word, begin drawing a face on the board. Draw an arrow next to the head and write, “Head like an egg”. Turn to the class to see the reaction. Offer them the pen. Don’t worry if they don’t get it yet, continue by labelling the eye with, “Eye like a crater”. Sooner or later they will begin to join in and end up sputtering with delighted laughter at all the hilarious comparisons they make.

How much better is this than waltzing in with the question, “So, can anyone tell me what a simile is?” Anyone inclined to dismiss discovery learning as nonsense need look no further. The power of students discovering for themselves the point of a simile (or apostrophe, or subordinate clause or whatever) is much more likely to be memorable than their teacher just telling them.

This same approach can be applied to learning objectives. Like many good teachers I do not only spend time discussing where the learning is going but also build in time to reflect on the learning. It can be, again depending on the context, to not reveal the learning objective until the end of the lesson. Allow the students to muddle their way through – it can often be quite liberating and lead to unexpected learning outcomes alongside the ones you intended.

An Incremental View

John’s original tweet asked me if I ‘differentiated’ learning objectives. My response was an unequivocal ‘No’. The reason for this is because I subscribe to an ‘incremental view’ rather than a ‘entity view’ of intelligence and learning (Dweck, 1999). A student’s learning potential is not pre-determined. Both the least and most able students in my classroom have the potential to progress and they need to learn to utilise the same skills in order to pass their exams. As such I feel it is wrong to differentiate objectives by skill or outcome.

The box provided (on my school’s lesson planning sheet) for entering learning objectives is broken down into the following sections: ‘All, Most, Some’. I know this has been set out this way as it is something that Ofsted like to see. However, I am not convinced by it, having never seen the research behind it. I have seen lesson plans dutifully filled in, explaining how different sets of students will learn different skills.

All students will be able to describe…
Most students will be able to analyse…
Some students will be able to evaluate…

Last time I checked, every single one of my students was capable of learning to do all of those skills, if taught the right way. Last time I checked some students found evaluating easier than analysing. Whichever taxonomy you prescribe to (Bloom’s / SOLO), the skills listed do not exist within a hierarchy or on a continuum. They are not linear. Learning is messy. Based on my experiences over the last nine years, learners will acquire different skills at varying rates in varying orders of preference, based on a diverse range of factors.

None of this is to say that I don’t believe in differentiation. I do. In my mind, differentiation is not about learning objectives or outcomes, it is about teaching and learning. Differentiation takes place during the lesson. It is present in the way I formulate groups for discussion and projects. It is present in who I choose to spend my time with during a lesson and what I do with them. It is in how I deploy my learning assistant. It is about focussed differentiation; targeted support; the development of independent learning skills.

The Map

I believe that in a classroom learning objectives should be shared; every student working towards similar goals but in different ways and at different speeds. The learning objectives set the direction of the learning. How the map (success criteria) is formulated however is sometimes up to me and sometimes up to them. Sometimes, we lose the map and get lost along the way. Together, through communication and sharing, we find our way back. And, sometimes there is no map; we get lost on purpose, excited to see where we might end up.


  • Clarke, S. (2005) Formative Assessment in the Secondary Classroom, London: Hodder Murray.
  • Dweck, C. S. (1999) Self-Theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development, Philadelphia, PA: The Psychology Press.
  • Wiliam, D. (2010) Innovation that works. Workshop at SSAT conference, Birmingham, Novemner. Retrieved 28 November 2010 from the World Wide Web: http://web.me.com/dylanwiliam/Dylan_Wiliams_website/Presentations.html

Communicative Relationships: The Purpose of Assessment

This post is intended as a contribution to the latest Purpos/ed campaign: #purosedassess.

Based on the work I have been doing in my classroom and research I completed towards my MA, I have come to the conclusion that the ultimate purpose of assessment is to help learners develop effective lines of communication. What you might call ‘communicative relationships’. The learner who can talk with their teacher, their peers and themselves about their learning will care less about what grade they got and more about what they need to do to improve.

If we consider Dylan Wiliam’s ‘aspects of formative assessment’ (2010) we can discern that there are three specific communicative relationships that are being established…

Wiliam SSAT Aspects of Formative Assessment

The first communicative relationship is between learner and teacher. It’s important that the teacher helps the learner to understand what it is they are trying to achieve. It is also important that the teacher (as expert) provide feedback, helping the learner to understand where they are at and how to progress. This is a relationship that needs to be carefully cultivated, managing expectations and establishing trust. Often, this can go wrong. Many teachers fall into the trap of feeling the need to meet the inherent expectations that I see in most learners: “The teacher is the person I go to for help; they are the expert and should always know the answers.” The problem with this is, the teacher will not always be there to provide the answers nor will they necessarily have them.

The second communicative relationship is between the learner and their peers. This relationship helps the learner to clarify their understanding and also to realise that knowledge and skills can be developed through collaboration and inquisition; not reliant on the presence of an expert. This relationship is (IMO) the most important. When we leave the confines of academic study, it is our peers who we turn to the most, be it in the work place or our personal lives.

The third communicative relationship is between the learner and themselves. Arguably, a by-product of the second relationship. If enough opportunities for discussion, collaboration, reflection and evaluation have been offered, in a supportive environment, then I believe that all learners can develop invaluable meta-cognitive skills. Like the first relationship, trust is of high importance here. Trusting yourself is difficult. It takes time to reach a point where you can be effectively self-critical, where you can trust your own judgement. Helping learners to do this is the final piece of the puzzle in helping them to become independent learners.

I suspect (and hope) that these communicative relationships occur regularly in many classrooms. What is missing is the explicit and open linking of these lines of communication, resulting in richer/deeper learning.

Connecting Communicative Relationships (How I link ‘aspects of formative assessment’):

At the start of a lesson I inform the student’s about what they are going to be learning. I then offer them some possible ways of doing this and involve them in a discussion where we decide as a collective group on the best way to proceed. As well as developing the communication between the learner and the teacher, it gives them ownership over their learning. A skill that I often return to with my students is how to write effective analytical paragraphs. I often extend the initial discussion to get them to establish with each other the success criteria for such an activity. This gives them further ownership over their learning and blends the first and second communicative relationships. With this specific activity I may then model an effective paragraph, communicating clearly what success will look like. In doing such an activity I will always keep talking and asking questions involving the learner in the process.

Too often, students are asked to do a piece of assessment, the work is either teacher assessed, peer-assessed or self-assessed, then put away; often never looked at again. This is something that I have learned to avoid. Instead I will plan the lesson (and often times, subsequent lessons/homework) to include opportunities for a single piece of work to be re-visited and all three types of assessment to take place. The different lines of communication offer the learner different, equally valuable, insights into their work.

Early on with my classes I will arrange the learning in such a way that I assess their work first. This line of communication is pivotal early on as the expert needs to model what effective assessment looks like. I will then allot some time for them to reflect on this and to make amendments. Having made their amendments I will then ask them to peer-assess each others work. This will usually be in specific reference to the criteria they established earlier on. Again, this is followed by an opportunity to reflect and amend. Finally, I ask them to assess their work themselves before making final improvements. They can start to trust their own judgement based on the modelling and sharing that has already occurred.

Time is not an excuse, this approach can be easily managed as a whole lesson or as smaller parts across a series of lessons. What’s important is the development of the communicative relationships and the opportunities to reflect and amend the work. As my students trust themselves and each other more, I push the second and third communicative relationships to the front of the queue, more and more reserving my judgement for later. While I don’t like it, we are part of an exam driven system and I won’t be there at the end to help them. By removing my input from the beginning of the assessment process they are developing the skills they need to be able to assess and evaluate their own work. Those internal conversations are imperative in the examination hall and will be imperative when they leave school.

If we value these different communicative relationships in their own right then isn’t it obvious that they can be strengthened when connected? Take the time to look carefully at your lesson planning. Are you developing communicative relationships that can foster effective learning and assessment? You probably are… all you need to do is acknowledge them and connect them. The outcome will be a strategy that has more to do with assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning.