Thoughts on learning objectives and on the way we frame learning in English
This post was originally an article for NATE‘s Teaching English (Issue 8, Summer 2015)
‘Is that what you went into English teaching to do?’ Reflecting with English teachers on their planning, whether for lessons or whole schemes of learning, I often find myself asking them this question. It isn’t asked in a despairing sense but as a sort of a litmus test of the real value, integrity or power of an ‘objective’ (or an ‘aim’, or an ‘assessed outcome’.) For example, no English teacher went into the profession to get children to ‘practise expanding adverbial phrases’. No one followed a calling to help students to ‘make comparisons between texts’. Of course, these are important but they are not really an end in themselves; they are a means to students developing power in expression and critical awareness and discrimination as readers. They should not be the start and the end of English lessons.
Yet, across the country, despite the professionalism and the intelligence of English teachers, the ‘bigger picture’ is increasingly being written out of English departments’ formal plans, which are becoming explicitly about the accrual of disjointed skills and fragments of knowledge, rather than about the whole served by those parts. They are about the trees, but not the wood. In part, this is an unintended legacy of the pixilating effects of the ‘Literacy Framework’ and of ‘APP’; in part it is the result of anxiety about measuring ‘progress’ within lessons, and about the imperative to raise results; in part it reflects a poorly-understood application of the trending ‘mastery’ model of curriculum design.
So a Year 7 scheme of learning on advertising is headed with aims such as ‘To be able to explain and comment on writers’ use of language; To understand and to use a range of persuasive techniques…’ and so on; and the first lesson’s objective is ‘To be able to identify emotive language and to explain its effects…’ There is no mention of exploring advertising‘s cultural and personal relevance to the children, or of engagement with a range of vibrant popular-cultural forms, or of appreciating the richness and power of language, or of opportunities for creativity, or of the development of children’s control over language and texts, as readers and as writers. And there is no mention at all of the pleasures to be gained by all of these things. Of course, in the teaching these things may be there; but if they are not explicit aims or objectives, then they are less likely to be properly developed, and are more likely to be diminished.
In Moving English Forward (2012) Ofsted noted that: “[outstanding English teams] identify what is needed to engage their own pupils and then construct a distinctive and original curriculum that meets their needs.” Yet in the drive to be ‘good or outstanding’ many English departments are drying out their plans and schemes, reducing English to a set of mechanistic skills and taking the richness out of the curriculum. Of course, this is not ensuring ‘rapid progress’ as intended, but is instead putting a drag on it.
The conception of English as a jig-saw of disparate but related parts, which students just fit together to make ‘progress’, is flawed. Rather, the curriculum should be fractal: like coastlines or snowflakes, the whole should be patterned in each part. Students shouldn’t just be ‘identifying and explaining uses of imagery’, but should be becoming more independent as perceptive, critical readers; they shouldn’t be learning just to ‘organise points in a series of connected paragraphs’, but should be being real writers who need to do so.
This isn’t a pedantic or ‘merely’ academic point; the ‘LO’s in teachers’ plans, which they write up on boards (and which children, if they must, dutifully copy down) shape children’s experiences in the classroom; they encode and reproduce a way of thinking about learning and about the subject; and they directly affect the level of challenge and the kind of expectations driving learning.
Framing learning for progress
To borrow the familiar image of the ‘spiral curriculum’, rapid progress should be like a stretched-out spring.
Contrastingly flat progress, in which students circle round without really moving on, results where expectations and pitching are low and when there is little attention to prior learning. But it also results from planning in which ‘aims and objectives’ frame learning in a limiting way, narrowing possibility rather than declaring it.
When working with teachers and departments on their planning, I tend to adopt the following set of questions to test whether the ‘spring’ is being stretched by aims and objectives.
Does planning account properly for prior learning?
Too often, objectives don’t account for what children already know. ‘To know how to paragraph’ or even ‘To be able to identify emotive language’ sets a very low level of challenge, even if these skills need revising, and even if there are individuals who struggle. (Many secondary English teachers are unaware of the actual depth and breadth of knowledge required of pupils at Key Stages 1 and 2, and don’t invoke this prior learning or attempt to keep it foregrounded.)
Are objectives broad enough?
Lesson objectives such as ‘To be able to use commas correctly’ appear surprisingly often in secondary classrooms where there is anxiety about students’ skills, or where there is an attempt to implement a poorly-conceived ‘mastery’ model of learning. They set an unambitious tone for the lesson, they invite complacency from those who already feel skilled, they offer no space for differentiation and they are devoid of challenge. But it is also their narrowness which is limiting, as they implicitly shrink down the scope of what students might explore.
In contrast, a broader objectives such as ‘To develop greater complexity in sentence construction’ addresses the same identified need, but opens up the possibility of further, richer and more differentiated learning; it doesn’t set any limit on what students might explore or achieve; and it allows for real challenge. Perhaps most importantly, it encodes a sense of real purpose, related to students’ development as real writers with something to say, rather than as obedient accruers of pre-determined skills.
Interestingly, the broader objective ‘To develop greater complexity in sentence construction’ immediately suggests questions to be answered. What does complexity in sentences mean? What do students already know about this? Why is it helpful? It therefore fits better with the one requirement for real challenge in classrooms – a culture of enquiry, of intellectual investigation – of thirsting for knowledge.
Is learning guided by open possibilities, rather than closed outcomes?
To the same end, many teachers are having success with the framing of ‘objectives’ as questions. So a familiar objective such as ‘To be able to make inferences about characters in the story’ might become ‘How do writers tell us what characters are like?’ Immediately, there is something to discuss. What ideas do students already have about this? (They probably, of course, already know about ‘inference’.) The lesson now hinges on a question which can be made genuinely interesting, and the learning can be structured through exploration and discovery, rather than as a procedure to be followed. Students’ reflection on their own learning is now intrinsic to the lesson: how have they addressed the question, and how might they now answer it?
In some classrooms, this is the ‘big question’. In others, it’s the ‘key learning question’. It may set the agenda for just one lesson, or it may hang over two or more. It may never get answered to the class’s satisfaction, in which case it can be revisited, or ‘parked’ for further investigation.
Used skilfully, questions can frame the learning in any lesson, even the ‘redrafting lesson’, or the ‘reading lesson’. ‘How can we improve this writing when we redraft it?’ ‘How is reading the next chapter different from reading the last?’ A question rather than a ‘goal’ sets up more cognitive challenge.
Is learning rooted in real response, rather than bound to assessment objectives?
A typical learning objectives is ‘To be able to use different sentence lengths to create tension’, for a lesson in which a text is being used to teach students to create effects by controlling sentence lengths. But, as well as being narrow, this objective ignores the text, jumps over response and takes away the opportunity to discover the technique. In contrast, a key learning question such as ‘How does this writer create tension in their writing? What can we borrow?’, as well as opening up more possibilities and more differentiation, puts the text first. Of course, the lesson plan and the teacher may steer students towards the specific skill of varying sentence lengths, if that is appropriate; but the objective encodes more possibility, more challenge and more value placed on independent thought. It points to the reflexivity of reading and writing – to the importance of students reading as writers and writing as readers. Most importantly, it puts response at the heart of learning.
In Moving English Forward, 2012, Ofsted described how…
…a new class novel was introduced by the teacher to a Year 8 group. After reading a few pages, which failed to engage many students in the class, they were asked to write a PEE paragraph on the author’s presentation of characters in relation to the historical context of the novel. There had been no opportunity for students to provide a personal response to the opening of the novel; to discuss its impact; whether it worked; what they liked/disliked; what might happen next; or what reaction they had to characters or events.
What appears to characterise lessons like these is an emphasis on the GCSE skills of analysis at the expense of personal response even in the early stages of Key Stage 3. … little attempt in these lessons to encourage an exchange of views about ideas in the text or to explore students’ reaction to what they had read. … Inspectors believe that teachers often try to teach these skills before students have had the opportunity to become confident, independent and mature readers. Inevitably, this leads to learning that is heavily reliant on the authoritative, teacher view.
Ofsted, Moving English Forward, 2012
Do course overviews look to the ‘big picture’?
A mechanistic approach can sometimes define whole schemes of learning, as well as individual lessons. Course aims such as ‘To analyse poetic techniques in a number of poems; to make comparisons between poems with reference to a range of features; …’ and so on, reduce the students’ experience to the preparation of a performance, defined in terms of assessment. In contrast, a poetry course which is headed with the aims ‘To enjoy reading and discussing a number of poems; to explore personal and critical responses to a range of poetry; …’ and so on, is emphasising the students’ experience, their agency as readers and the possibility of pleasure. It suggests possibility and openness, rather than closed, predetermined outcomes. (It is, in fact, what most English teachers actually went into the profession to do.)
Is success framed in terms of real achievements?
In their 2014 report for CfBT on educational blogging and its effects on writing, Myra Barrs and Sarah Horrocks noted a discrepancy between primary teachers’ views of what makes ‘good writing’ and that of their pupils. The teachers valued “good content and ideas”, “real meaning and purpose”, “imagination, originality and creativity”, “fluency and momentum” and “a strong sense of a reader/audience.” In contrast, pupils’ conception of ‘good writing’ “reflected the teachers’ marking of their books, and the learning objectives and targets that they were used to: ‘It would need ‘wow’ words to impress me’; ‘Good sentences full of adjectives’; ‘Describing. Good punctuation’; ‘Vocabulary that catches attention’ ‘Description and similes.’”
Pupils tend to define success in terms of such mechanistic attributes because these – rather than the real purposes of reading, writing or talking – are so often the starting point in lessons. They also dominate the checklists of ‘success criteria’ given to children when they embark on tasks. A description will be ‘successful’ not if it ‘makes the reader feel as though they are there’ but if it contains at least one metaphor, at least one simile, some adjectives, and so on. A persuasive letter will be successful not if it is ‘powerful’ but if it contains all the elements of ‘AFOREST’ or ‘SPEARFACTOR’. And a response to a poem will be successful not if it convinces or is interesting, but if it contains P.E.E. paragraphs, quotations and at least three ideas. All of these elements may be useful, but they are ingredients not recipes. Checklists of features can limit, rather than raise, attainment, if they are allowed to define success.
It is often easy to spot where such features are being deployed by children, keen to ‘move up a level’ rather than, perhaps, to be real writers. In this piece, a Year 5 boy steeped in the excitable rhythms and language of football reports, writes:
All the fans were booing around the ground. We got a free kick. Our striker was taking it. He whipped it past the wall. We were level at half time. He celebrated by sliding on his knees. The goal was fantastic to watch – curved it to the top corner, wow! The ref blew his whistle for half time. The fans were singing.
Redrafting it, he dutifully writes in more detail, adds description and uses more adjectives, with ruinous results.
All the fans booing really loud around the ground. We got a free kick. The striker was number 10 and had orange boots. He took a run up at the football. He struck it. It went around the wall and went into the top corner. The player celebrated by sliding on his knees through the wet green grass. It was nearly half time. We were levelling. The ref blew his whistle for half time. The manager gave the number 10 a high five. The team went into the big changing room to talk about the plan for the next half.
For years, I have used in training an extract from a Year 7 girl’s writing, which I was given by Simon Wrigley. In her first draft, she introduces the reader to her main character like this.
His mates called him Flash Harry because he was a rich photographer who liked to flash his cash around. They weren’t really his friends, of course, because he was too horrible to have any friends. He had yellow teeth and always smelt of beer. He was also very rude.
In her second draft, she ‘improves’ her description.
His friends called him Flash Harry as he was a wealthy photographer who loved showing off his money. They were not really his friends due to the fact that he was an extremely rude alcoholic with yellowing teeth.
The feedback that she was given on her draft, the objectives that she was chasing and the ‘success criteria’ that she was following are long lost. However, it is quite fun to guess. What is very clear is the way that her second draft, although ticking off such ‘higher-level’ features as more sophisticated language (‘wow words’?), a more formal register and more varied connectives, has lost the vitality and the narrative richness of the first. A great piece of real story-telling has become a performance of skills, dislocated from real purpose.
In his inspiring blog on the National Writing Project website (www.nwp.org.uk), Simon Wrigley reflects powerfully on the teaching of writing through “lists of things”.
I hobbled young writers by enumerating lists of things I thought they should learn and targets they should aim for. When I rewarded only their obedience to my instructions, and ‘what the test requires’, I lost sight of writers’ authority, energies and needs. I closed down the learning when I thought I was opening it up.
In another entry, he recalls discovering that “…for his English homework, my 6 year old nephew has been asked to write a sentence about each of 6 nursery rhymes. Each sentence should contain a ‘subsidiary clause’.”
Recently, I worked with Sophie Cunningham, Head of English at King James’s School in Knaresborough, to put together a short training video demonstrating a range of ways in which learning might be framed for students at the start of a lesson. With a helpful mixed-ability Year 10 class, we took it in turns to begin the same lesson in seven different ways, at least up to the point where the first activity was well under way. We tried having no objectives at all. We got the students to write down an objective with no comment at all. We gave them an ‘All… Most… Some…’ objective. We gave them an over-elaborate objective in the language of GCSE ‘AOs’. We have them a clear objective and discussed it with them, teasing out its implications. We gave them a poorly formulated ‘key learning question’. And we gave them a well formulated one.
We had clear expectations about which approaches would work best. However, we were interested by the way that, despite our intentions for the video, we both found ourselves compensating for the weaker or duller ways of introducing the learning. A skilled and experienced teacher may well recruit learners’ engagement, secure their intellectual or emotional investment and ensure that there is challenge, despite any formal codes or procedures for the setting of objectives.
However, in the real world of classrooms, the way we frame the learning for students will always affect the way they then learn; and the way we encode aims and objectives in schemes of learning will always affect the way we teach.