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:
- Coverage - what the teacher will cover in a lesson
- Activity - what the students will do in a lesson
- Involvement - how students will connect with the lesson's content
- Mastery - what the teacher will do to increase the likelihood that students will master some curricular knowledge or skill.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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]
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.