Why telling them doesn’t work

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.



  1. Lana

    Sam I couldn’t agree more BUT I do think the big idea – which is different to a lesson’s learning intention- needs to be displayed for students and teachers to constantly refer to as they explore and question. I adore your questions “what are we doing?” and why are we doing it?” I’d like to take it 1 step further: what? So what? NOW WHAT? This encourages action and transfer. Thanks for a great post.

    • Paul Dunbar

      I agree – and I’m sure Sam does too – it is having the anchor of a big idea that allows the students to ‘drift’ (as a naive observer might see it) in their own directions and into what the jargon calls their own ‘zone of proximal development’. So it’s also about having the right anchors, the right ‘generative ideas’. Which is what I’m writing about over on ThinkRethink at the moment – http://pauljdunbar.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/the-what/

    • sherrattsam

      Definitely, knowledge of the big picture needs to be alive and well in the classroom. You may also decide to have dynamic displays that reflect the students learning intentions as they move forwards with their inquiries. I like this video that shows how simply giving students a few moments to relax and then to consider what their intention is for the next few hours can be a very powerful exercise. https://timespaceeducation.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/relaxation-with-intention/

  2. Pingback: Following Instructions | lonely among us
  3. Isaac

    I absolutely agree that students should be learning with intention, but I don’t think it’s fair or accurate to condemn learning intentions on the board. The learning intention is a tool and, as with any tool, it is the skill of the user that determines its usefulness. Written up to satisfy management and dryly copied down by students, a learning intention will probably do nothing to help learning. I do believe, however (and this is supported by Hattie’s research), that learning intentions can improve student learning where students see the relevance and buy into the learning – I guess, as you say, the challenge is to get the intention to be the students’ as well as yours!

  4. Mark Walker

    Well this topic as a principal is slightly off. What I mean by that is that I do insist teachers make the intent of the learning in that lesson clear (sometimes its the same intent for a series of lesson as its related to a big idea) and how the success criteria is going to be applied (for both student and teacher).

    Part of the intent is displaying the WALT (What am I learning to ….). There are other goals – some of them skill based – some of them chosen by students from their skill banks – so lessons can be multi layered e.g. I am learning to infer meaning from key words ( e.g. in a non fiction text) and my individual goal is to actively listen to others (within a literature circle) and be able to restate their opinion.

    I as the principal when I walk around and provide feedback to teachers do look for the WALT displayed but I also sit down and talk to students and about what they are learning and why.

  5. jrea1973James

    From the post I feel that the understanding of a WALT here is knowledge driven or task specific. A quality learning intention should be applicable across many learning contexts and activities. The audience for the laminated WALT is not just the class. As teachers, parents or other students come across the learning on blogs or in class the WALT allows for specific feedback or deeper engagement in follow up conversations. In a modern context learning on a blog accompanied by a WALT makes much more sense to me.

  6. naini singh

    You speak of culture…I think there is a clash of culture between the school administration (at times ) and the teachers! They need to see certain things in place and then proceed to tick them off their checklist and are simply doing their job, while teachers grind their teeth …:)
    I’m with you here!

  7. Susan

    I have found that writing learning intentions on the plan helps me to direct the activities more. I run my class using a personalised list of must do’s for the week. It starts off as one list of learning intentions and activities. I make little changes to intentions and tasks to differentiate them. I believe that the situation where children can work out what they are learning and why for themselves is the end goal. I think each teacher needs to come up with ways of scaffolding students to recognize the learning in the way that works for their class. I think walts on the board, my method, learning intentions in books are all just ways to scaffold students into having increasing amounts of control over their own learning. In my opinion Senior Management Teams would do better to ask how teachers are moving students to this end goal rather than dictating that learning intentions should always be on the board. Some classes don’t need this much scaffolding to have control and motivation.
    It was very interesting at ICOT 2013 to hear the father of learning intentions apologise for inflicting the “walt on the board” on all teachers. His desire was for students to know what and why they were learning. He didn’t want to be p[rescriptive about how this was achieved.

  8. jjholroyd

    “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.”

  9. jjholroyd

    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 actively enquiring and thus constructing learning objectived – by all means, give yourself a personal maxim that it’s always written on the board. But don’t inflict the necessities of your mediocity on everyone as a matter of principle.

    • Paul Dunbar

      I have similar misgivings about current trends, and while I’m not an elementary teacher, the WALT debate sounds like part of the general tendency towards conformity and horizontal integration, ‘consistency’ and ‘accountability’ being the buzzwords, and greater top-down control of what happens in classrooms, I suspect, the real agenda. The pursuit of ‘consistency’ between teachers can have an extremely retrograde effect – with sophisticated practitioners being hamstrung by the process. It’s a chimaera, anyway – you’re never going to achieve it. Except perhaps, as JJ Holroyd argues, by melting into the warm embrace of mediocrity.

  10. jjholroyd

    n.b. typo/clarification:
    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 necessities of your mediocrity on everyone as a matter of principle.

  11. Pingback: The Difference is HUGE | APreachasKid

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s