Getting real about Learning Objectives

I feel the need to be honest with you, ISB. I am a content and language objective convert.  I will admit that when I was first told that we would write daily content and language objectives for math I was compliant but skeptical and quietly resistant.  I looked for shortcuts, kept the same generic objectives up for days, hardly shared them with students, and kept them designated to a hard to see corner in my room. I was beginning the journey, but hardly moving.    
And, since we’re being completely honest with each other, even after my initial training with the brilliant Dr. José Medina, I still wasn’t convinced. I was inspired and enthusiastic about supporting emergent bilinguals in my classroom, but I did not see how being more intentional about objectives would positively impact student learning.  I know I am not alone in my struggle with objectives. How do we manage the seeming polarity between inquiry and creativity with COLOs? How do we balance wonder and curiosity with routines?  
My short answer? Write better objectives.  
Recently, I read this article from Lustre Education that reminded me of my initial feelings about objectives. The author posits that objectives, or learning targets, rob students of the opportunity to explore concepts and inhibit deeper learning. As the SIOP instructional coach here, I have heard the same argument made among our faculty. But I will assert that if we are not writing, posting, and reviewing our content and language objectives, we are doing our students a disservice.   

  • COLOs are proven to have a positive impact on student learning. Let’s get down to the numbers. For reference anything above an effect size of 0.40 is considered significant.*
    • COLOs enhance teacher’s clarity.  Teacher clarity has a 0.75 effect size.   
    • COLOs promote classroom discussion. Classroom discussion has a 0.82 effect size.
    • COLOs encourage self-verbalization and self-questioning. Self-verbalization and self-questions has a 0.64 effect size.  
    • COLOs are an example of student-centered teaching. Student-centered teaching has a 0.54 effect size.  
    • COLOs provide goals and outcomes for students. Goals has a 0.50 effect size.  
    • COLOs communicate learning and language expectations. Expectations has a 0.43 effect size.  
    • By contrast, teacher subject matter knowledge has an effect size of 0.09. 
  • COLOs are a differentiation tool. In posting accurate content and language objectives they give language learners and student who receive learning support the permission to focus and excel at one thing at a time.  
  • COLOs allow teachers to be more student-driven and student-focused. Because COLOs are written for the student, a teacher is thinking through what students need to learn and how they will show they learned it. It is not about what the teacher will do, but what evidence the teacher will gain from student performance.   
  • COLOs build community. Specifically, language objectives highlight the opportunity for students to communicate and intentionally listen to one another. They foster an environment where students learn from each other and from the teacher as well as promote risk-taking, learning from mistakes, patience, and empathy.  
  • COLOs promote authentic interaction. When students are communicating during a lesson with specific COLOs they already have a frame of how to interact. They know the skill they will be communicating about (content) and the aspect of language acquisition they will be practicing. 
  • COLOS provide a springboard to new thinking. For our students that are fluent English speakers or already have a solid understanding of the content, COLOs can be the jumping off point to ask themselves “and what else can I pursue within this topic?” For example, if the content objective is “I am learning to multiply fractions less than 1 whole,” curiosity might be peaked to explore areas like how patterns apply to numbers greater than 1 whole, how patterns connect to decimals, negative numbers.   
  • COLOs can help manage off task behavior. COLOs bring our students (and us) back to the intention of the lesson when we’ve gotten too far off track. We’ve all been in the situation where one student has a connection and it opens a whole parade of stories. Being able to say, “How does your connection support our study of point of view?” or “I’d love to hear about roller coasters when we’re walking to lunch, but for now let’s get back to learning about blends” validates the students while refocusing the group.

How to craft better content and language objectives  

  • Create them with your students. I saw a beautiful example in a grade 1 classroom. The teacher began by saying “Today we’re going to keep thinking about adding numbers and showing our thinking. What might our content objective be?” After listening to students, he paraphrased and wrote on the board. Students immediately saw their thinking validated. Then he asked, “How will we show we can add using more than one strategy?” which led students to suggest they could write their thinking clearly or they could talk to the teacher about what they did. COLOs done.  
  • Replace the word ‘learning’ to ‘inquiring’ or ‘exploring’. Feeling locked in or uninspired by “I am learning to…”? Perhaps try “I am inquiring into…”, “I am exploring…”, or “I am puzzling about…” as a way to open up thinking.  
  • Commit to introducing  them with students. One of the most powerful ways I grew in crafting purposeful objectives was when I became intentional about sharing them with students. I knew that if I shared the objective at the beginning of the lesson and saw puzzled looks, scratched heads, heard “huh?”, or had to further explain what they meant, then I had not crafted a student-centered objective.   
  • Commit to reviewing them with students. Sometimes our lessons go in different directions than we anticipate. Sometimes this is awesome, exciting, and enriching, but sometimes it is unproductive learning and thinking. In reviewing the objectives it reminds us and our students of the goals that still need to be achieved.  
  • Use action verbs from Blooms Taxonomy to specify what students are doing. The more intentional we can be about our language the more likely students are to reach the desired learning outcome. Do you want them to measure? Design? Generalize? Tell them in the objective.  
  • Use specific action words to specify reading, writing, listening, and speaking objectives.
    • Reading: locate, skim, find, discover, distinguish 
    • Writing: question, explain, list, revise, justify, summarize, record  
    • Listening: distinguish, categorize, follow directions, choose  
    • Speaking: debate, define, express, predict, restate, share, tell 
  • Use cultural objectives to connect skills to the real world and the hidden curriculum. Ultimately, we want our students to be kind, good hearted, accepting people. This goes beyond the discrete skills and knowledge that are emphasized through content and language objectives. Cultural objectives provide the opportunity for students to make connections to their community, their lives, and the world around them. Cultural objectives are golden opportunities to touch on learning dispositions such as curiosity, problem solving, and critical thinking. Something like “I can be curious about patterns in numbers” or “I can recognize patterns to help me solve problems in the real world.” 

To end with one more bit of honesty, I can confidently say that Content and Language Objectives, when utilized correctly can positively impact all the students in your classroom. 
*All data is taken from John Hattie et al.’s book Visible Learning for Mathematics (2017)  
 

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