It's time to ditch lesson objectives and let kids drive the learning

27th April 2016 at 11:01
Instead of helping students to focus, lesson plans limit student potential and shut off learning

Sharing lesson objectives with our students is essential, or at least that’s what we have all been told. But I have recently conducted some action research that suggests this holy truth of education may, in fact, have some flaws.

When did the lesson objective become so important? The more that I thought about it, the more that I began to see potential flaws in sharing the learning intention in such an explicit way at the start of lessons.

Motivated to try to show that this surely can’t be the be-all and end-all for a lesson, I planned and carried out some action research within my own classroom.

I decided to begin with one subject: science. The research involved choosing a specific area such as "light and shadow" and conducting a lesson where the learning intention was clearly shared, followed much later by a lesson where it was not. I repeated this process to cover multiple areas of the science curriculum.

To gather results, I used video footage, along with written quotes of the children’s discussions and a focus group to ask specific questions after each lesson.

The results of the research were unequivocal. As teachers, we often talk about not asking closed questions but open ones, questions that require children to think, elaborate or explain. From my research, sharing the learning intention was like giving the children a closed question.

This was partly because many saw it as a target and once they had achieved it, they shut off from learning, but mostly because it affected the level of learning taking place and my role in their learning as a result of this.

Path of discovery

When the objective was shared, there was mostly "closed" discussion among the children. To get more out of them, I had to ask questions giving scenarios to extend their thinking and learning. Although the children were then suitably challenged, I had to be there to initiate the deeper learning. The lesson as a result became heavily teacher-led.

By withholding the learning intention, the children were working with much more freedom and, therefore, extending and challenging themselves. They discovered things on their own, which meant that my questions to extend their learning were centred on what they had done and what they were excited or curious about, not what I had told them to do.

This impacted hugely on their motivation and engagement. I could extend the learning through them – becoming the facilitator, not the leader.

It also meant that my questioning could be clearly differentiated to suit the level that the children were working at. The children’s desperation to continue working after I had tried to wrap up the lesson and their enthusiasm when talking about what they had learned afterwards was astounding.

One reason given for sharing the learning intention is to keep the children focused. However, the children were fully engaged in the lesson through their own excitement, curiosity and independence. You did not need to artificially "focus" them.

For example, when learning about shadows, discussions about size, shape, clarity and different light sources evolved. Their learning went beyond the planned learning, which was “To explain how shadows are made”.

One noticeable moment during the research concerned a quiet child who could not do what the learning intention was asking of her. Rather than persist in the way that her peers did, she saw herself as failing and withdrew from the activity altogether.

However, when the learning intention wasn’t shared, she was able to work confidently at her own pace.

Owing to such exciting and positive findings, I am now working alongside my peers and again within my own class to see if this approach is just as effective when used in other areas of the curriculum. As a whole school, we will be conducting a lesson study and hope to expand this approach across all year groups.

It is fully understood that some areas of the curriculum make it difficult to use this approach, but I think that we need to be aware of how positive the impact of not sharing the learning intention can be and therefore factor this into our day-to-day practice as much as possible.

Christina Dennett is a teacher and a writer.

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