Saturday, February 6, 2010

To Write or Not to Write: The Ethics of Posting Objectives

I love the show Lost. I mean, besides all the twists, turns, and mystery, there is a heavy amount of allusion running throughout the show. Take this season's premiere episode. Without getting into the not-so-necessary specifics, a power shift has occurred amongst the two "beings" who live on the island. Jacob, the kind and beneficent being, has just been murdered by another, meaner, and unnamed being. Things have gone from bad to very bad. In another scene, in another part of the island, another character finds a copy of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, his treatise on "theodicy." Theodicy is the philosophical inquiry into why bad things happen to good people. The allusion introduces a theme that I think the power shift will reinforce.

But that is just it. The writers and producers of this show have spent countless hours choreographing this type of plot device time and time again. From its inception, Lost has had an ending point in mind. It is a complete story starting at the crash of Oceanic 815 and ending with...well, however it ends. How do people create such enormous, epic story lines that take six years to tell? They know where they are going.

The same goes for teaching. How do you know your students have learned the material they need to learn? When you plan, you write objectives. You know where you want to end.

Lately, there has been a push to post objectives on the front board. In my home district, that push has been translated into posting an objective on the board in the old school "SWBAT" plus objective framework. Literally, they want me to write "SWBAT ('The Student Will Be Able To')" and, for example, "read and analyze relationships among American literature, history, and culture." (This objective is the third standard from our junior English curriculum.)

We are told that this push is taken from a new "professional growth system," the not-so-new Jon Saphier and Bob Gower (1997) book The Skillful Teacher. The edition I have was published in 1997, but the original incarnation was printed in 1979, so Jon and Bob have been lending their expertise to teachers for quite some time. Does this time frame limit or otherwise nullify what they have to say? No. The time they have spent researching teachers and teaching should show us the depth of their commitment to the art of teaching. I make this somewhat emphatic statement to underline the point that I was deeply confused when they were given as the justification for such a rigid and unflinching approach to teaching students.

So, being the intrepid investigator that I am, I made the effort to open The Skillful Teacher and review the section on objectives. Shock of all shocks, no where in the text of the chapter could I find anything about "SWBAT," formulaic language, or writing objectives on the board.

I found that Saphier and Gower (1997) believe that there are five types of objectives which must all be utilized at different times in lesson or unit planning to provide students with an education devoid of "significant gaps" (p. 398). These five types of objectives are:
  1. Coverage - what the teacher will cover in a lesson
  2. Activity - what the students will do in a lesson
  3. Involvement - how students will connect with the lesson's content
  4. Mastery - what the teacher will do to increase the likelihood that students will master some curricular knowledge or skill.
  5. Generic Thinking - What strategy students will learn to apply across lessons and curricula.

Saphier and Gower (1997) even supply a graphic organizer to show the hierarchy they believe exists among these different type of objectives (p. 406). Nowhere is there talk of any objective that explicitly begins "SWBAT." Instead, the authors define a clear objective as "one that creates an image of specifically what a student will know or be able to do" when a lesson is completed (p. 408).

Additionally, Saphier and Gower (1997) discuss the idea that objectives should be inferred by the lesson. They write, "Each of us in teaching...ought to be able to infer a clear [objective]" (Saphier and Gower, 1997, p. 408) from observing a colleague's lesson; the same expectation is applied to students (p. 409).

So, so much for that logic. On a separate note, there are more important reasons not to post objectives on the board. As teachers of language, we know the power words can have. In sociolinguistics, power becomes a focal point for why people do and say certain things in certain ways. If any theorist of the past century embodies the ideas of sociolinguistics and its application to education, Basil Bernstein is that theorist. I highly recommend any of his essays or books to anyone interested in the power structures set-up by the use of certain language in the classroom. (An aside: the more reader-friendly American version of Bernstein is Shirley Brice Heath. Her book, Ways with Words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms (1983/1996), is a great resource for breaking into discussions of language, power, and education.)

Basil Bernstein's chapter in Sociology of Education: A critical reader (Sadovnik, 2007, pp. 97-114) is entitled "Social Class and Pedagogic Practice." This rather lengthy chapter (the font is like size 6 or something ridiculous) discusses most of the basic theory Bernstein builds his arguments upon. The one I am most concerned with is his theory of the three sets of rules that keep order in classrooms. These rules are:

  1. Hierarchical - rules that place students on a lesser level than teachers, teachers on a lesser level than administrators, and so on. These rules also teach students lessons about which culture, group, or belief set is the most valued by the society in which they are attending school.
  2. Sequencing - rules that determine the pace at which learning will take place as well as in what order content will be learned. These rules assume that the school and the home are both environments for learning. Generally, as students increase in grade, more and more learning is shared between home and school, regardless of what the home environment may be like.
  3. Criterial -rules that legitimize what is learned and illegitimize what is not acceptable as learning material.

Placing objectives on the board falls into all three of these categories of rules.

Placing objectives on the board reinforces the hierarchy of teacher as gatekeeper. Students see teachers writing the objectives on the board in "teacher talk" (that is a Shirley Brice Heath term) and they perceive a certain cognitive distance between themselves and what they are supposed to learn. Ironically, if an involvement objective were placed on the board, this relationship between student and posted objective would cancel out the goal of having students connect with content.

Placing objectives on the board reinforces the back-breaking pace of learning. How will students feel comfortable asking for help on yesterday's objective if the board says that today is a new objective? Furthermore, the student who does not have mastery of the previous day's objective is made to feel inadequate since he or she is not ready to move on. Essentially, posting objectives on the board works against treating the student as an individual learner and reinforces the feeling of being just another "jar" to fill in the assembly line.

Placing objectives on the board reinforces notions of what is and is not legitimate for school. The information in the objective is valuable; any other explorations or "teachable moments" are not to be considered. If the objective is "the student will be able to read and analyze relationships among American literature, history, and culture," any connection to literature from other countries is considered irrelevant. Additionally, the literature covered in the class is considered representative of American culture. If omissions of cultural groups or experiences occurs (for whatever reason), students of the omitted group may feel as though their culture or their experiences are not valuable in discussing what "American literature, history, and culture" stands for and is.

An unempowered and disenfranchised student usually becomes a failure or a discipline problem. And for what? So an objective can be posted on the board for an observation by a supervising principal or some such. In a democratic society, shouldn't all vices be given some validation? Can I teach only the classic "dead white guys" without including Hispanic, Italian, Polish, etc. authors in my class's reading selections? Can I do that in an area as diverse as mine (we are 45 minutes from the heart of Washington, D.C.)? As an instructor, should I blindly follow policy or should I ask questions about how that policy will affect my students?

If I was asked for an overarching answer to this question, I would say that no one should post objectives for the class anywhere. Not even the state or national standards. Teachers need to know these. I have my three thin volumes lined up next to my desk at school: the Virginia State Standards of Learning, or SOLs (I know; don't laugh too hard); the NCTE/IRA Standards for Teachers of Language Arts; and my home district's scope and sequence/pacing guides. I refer to them when I formulate objectives that I write on my lesson plans. These plans get reviewed when i have an observation. My administrator should be able to do as Saphier and Gower said earlier, infer what my goal was. When we conference after the observation, the administrator should ask what my objective was; then we should discuss whether or not my goal and what was observed matched.

But I am not one for nice neat answers. I don't post objectives, but I do post an outline of what we will be doing in class. I write up the date and then I list the steps we will take throughout the lesson. Being mindful of my friend Basil Bernstein, I write them up in ways that are flexible, but I also make sure they are definite enough to actually guide the class through the period. On any given day, my board may read:

"5 February 2010

English 11

  • Warm-up: [Instructions] (I walk around and check on students during this time, but who doesn't, right?)
  • PowerPoint and Notes: [Title]
  • [Name of Culminating Activity for that Lesson; I usually try to be catchy]
  • Wrap-up"

So, that is my way to keep students on the path to the goal. I would really be interested in reading what some of you use in your classrooms. How do you keep your students on the path to your lesson objectives? What types of objectives do you think you favor? What do you think about Bernstein? I look forward to reading some of the responses. Just don't expect a reply on Tuesday nights. Lost is on.


Dana Huff said...

I am a fan of UbD and share the essential questions with students, but not the objectives. I side with you on that: those are for the teacher rather than the student. However, I do think the essential questions show the students where we are going.

Dan Bruno said...

I have used essential questions before. I liked them, but the students I was teaching kept wanting everything in the lesson to fit into the question as though it were a direct answer. They were AP students, so they are always looking for that big picture thematic thing.

Kay Parks Haas said...

First, thank you for such a scholarly and thought-provoking post! We, too, encourage teachers to post objectives on the board with each lesson; however, I do agree with some of your points.

I agree that teaching ELA does not lend itself to a single objective for a lesson; however, I think it's important to provide students with a focus or purpose upfront, perhaps with the understanding established from the beginning that the posted objective is not the sole objective.

More importantly would be for students to make their own connections at the end of the lesson by reflecting on what they learned in terms of content and/or skill. In other words, on an exit slip, I would ask students what they gleaned from the lesson. Reading their responses would be insightful to see, among several things, if what they learned was in line with my intentions. Some days it would matter that we were on the same page, but some days it might not. Regardless, encouraging students to make those connections helps them to see beyond the activities themselves--a push that many students need.

Would my putting an objective statement on the board at the beginning of the lesson interfere with their exit slip response? I'm going to have to think about that.

Again, great post! I plan to share it with the teachers I work with.

Josh Stock said...


Could the posted objective interfere with the students generating their own understanding of the lesson? There are days when my class goes a completely different direction and the lesson doesn't come anywhere close to the objective. Does a posted objective discourage students choosing what is important?

Just a thought. The article was definitely thought-provoking.

Kay Parks Haas said...


That's exactly my thought. And if my objective is truly important, yet the students don't make the connection, although I can appreciate the students' connections, I would know to reteach from a different angle.

Dan Bruno said...


Looking at what is being said here, I think this brings up a whole different angle on this objectives issue.

We know even the laziest student we teach will put forth a little extra effort to avoid doing a particular assignment, etc. Could putting the objective on the board and then asking the student to fill out an exit slip end up with students just rewording the objective regardless of what they have or have not learned? I hadn't even thought of this angle.

Kay Parks Haas said...

I agree that that could be the case. As a result, if the objective is posted, it needs to be done with the understanding that it is merely one objective driving the lesson. Students could then respond to what else they gleaned from the lesson. If I were to follow this practice, I might deliberately place an objective on the board that I don't consider to be the main objective to see what students come up with.

I'm still thinking about all this, and I've caused quite a stir among our teachers by sending out your post--a good thing! Like so many practices, balance is the key.

Again, thanks for causing so much food for thought! Kay

Tara said...

I like your idea of posting an outline on the board. It is what students really want to know anyway: What are they going to do today? An outline makes more sense than SWBAT. It almost seems like I am referring to someone else, and not my actual students that I know by name, when I write SWBAT on the board, very impersonal. I am also going to start watching Lost now. Great post!

Becky said...

To post or not to post? That is really NOT the question! Literally posting the objective on the board, overhead, etc. doesn't ensure good teaching and learning. I know, having been an administrator (and former English teacher) in the very district where you currently teach! First, I have observed teachers who clearly didn't even understand their own objectives; thus, writing them on the board certainly didn't ensure that they taught their students the objective. And from experience, students don't pay any attention to them anyway. As Tara says, they simply want to know what they are going to do that period. (Does "What are we doing today?" ring a bell?)
Rather, it seems to me that some administrators like to see those objectives posted because they are a visible clue to those who pass by the classroom that "teaching and learning" are occurring in the room. And when those same administrators enter the classroom to conduct an observation, they don't have to focus as hard to figure out what the students are learning. They are to be forgiven for the latter; they do, after all, have very limited time to do the super-hero jobs they are expected to do -- and I truly mean that! Moreover, they have content expertise in one, maybe two, subjects.
The truly gifted teacher knows the content, curriculum, and pedagogy well, has a passion for sharing them with others (students, colleagues, parents, and administrators), and creates a classroom experience that cultivates and challenges "what students know and will be able to do." Writing an objective on the board or overhead has little to do with that magical effect.
Besides, the objectives in the English curriculum and SOL's are what I frequently described as "kitchen sink" objectives; in other words, they are so big and broad that they include everything but the kitchen sink! To think that any teacher would be able to address one of those objectives or even just one of the descriptors for any one of those objectives is ludicrous. Posting one part of the objective might even be misleading to a student or visitor to the classroom.
Do I believe that the curriculum objectives should be posted somewhere? Absolutely! The teachers should know those objectives and post them in their lesson plans. It is sometimes easy to lose your way in planning and wander through (even with good intentions) literature or grammar exercises (egad!) wasting valuable time. The curriculum is a valuable map developed by the very people with whom you work to help you manage time and emphasis. But posting the curriculum objective by objective will not ensure that you or your students reach the destination.
I agree with Kay's suggestion to use exit slips at the end of some sessions to monitor student understanding and achievement. I introduced those to teachers in Stafford way back in the '80's and used them myself, along with some others (PMI, ADD, 321, etc.--I've got a million). If exit slips are structured, teachers can discourage simply copying the objective from the board as an indication of what they've "learned."
Ultimately, posting objectives makes some administrators "feel better"; the exercise is a visible example of attempted accoutability. But merely posting objectives is really not effective. As always, the facile, obvious attempt falls short. Where should the emphasis be? Administrators should aprovide teachers with the time, training, and tools to do their jobs so that when they enter the classroom to do the their observations, what and how much students are learning will be soooooo obvious.

Denée Tyler said...

I am a roaming teacher, so I never have time to write objectives on the board. I would much rather spend my time at the beginning of class meeting and greeting the students rather than standing at the board writing. I do take time to do a quick agenda, and that seems to be sufficient for the kids.
I'm curious--who are we writing these objectives out for, the students, the teachers, or the administration? Because, if we are really doing it for the sake of anyone but our students, I think we are basically wasting valuable time.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a great article. I am an orchestra teacher, and while I agree there should be clear objectives each day, I struggle to post them even though I am supposed to. This is partly because I travel among 4 campuses and sometimes I simply forget, but also because my school/district asks for the objectives or "targets" to be "learning based." This isn't a bad idea, because of course we want kids to learn something each day, but I sometimes struggle to fit that into the standard rehearsal structure which is in several ways different from a math or English lesson. We may have specific pieces/sections to work on, but music is so abstract that sometimes it doesn't specifically come down to one objective I want them to learn. We also don't have a particular curriculum, rather our rehearsals and goals are based around our performance and competition schedule. There is always a goal of playing better than we did the day before and of putting on a good performance in the future, and I always discuss with students at the beginning of class what we will be working on that day. But honestly most of the time I post objectives I feel silly. I know the students don't read them. They are much more engaged in actually playing their instruments than reading the board - and who wouldn't be? So who do I post it for? My evaluator, on the off chance they walk in (which always seems to happen on the few days I forget to post the objectives- go figure). It seems so backwards to me. Shouldn't everything we spend time doing as teachers be beneficial to the students? My students learn even when I forget to post the targets, and yet forgetting to post can earn you poor ratings on an evaluation here in TX. Does posting objectives make you a good teacher? IMO, it does not. Sigh. So many questions.