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Mick Waters – “Learning objectives can make teaching less effective”

Respectfully, Mick Waters would like to question why on earth a school might persist with a strict diet of LOs…

Mick Waters
by Mick Waters
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Tentatively, with a heightened degree of trepidation, I am going to criticise, though with some hesitation, the overuse of learning objectives.

Additionally, I am going to express some worries about the formulaic writing diet of many upper-Key Stage 2 children. Happily, most teachers appreciate a professional challenge as a way of reflecting upon their practice so I am hopeful this will be taken in the right spirit.

Traditionally, primary classrooms have been subject to practices that seem to come through on the tide and then ebb away again, with smaller pools of activity remaining here and there. Probably, most teachers will recall brain gym, circle time, regular hydration and plenary ideas as examples of practices that ‘everyone was doing’.

Interestingly, whilst many of these ‘truths’ have passed, the use of the Learning Objective (LO), or the WALT (We Are Learning To…) and his friend WILF (What I am Looking For), have remained for some time as part of many primary children’s daily diet.

Predictably, each teaching session seems to need to begin with the LO, occasionally pre-printed on a worksheet, most often copied down as a ‘settler’ by each child. Obviously we can see the logic – tell them what they are about to learn, and the learning juices will start to flow. The mind is focused.

Worryingly, when asked why they use LOs or WALTs, teachers tend to use other justifications – commonly, because it is what they believe inspectors want to see. Consequently, it is a key practice to be noted in their regular teaching observations by the SLT. Naturally, if the SLT is looking for a WALT, there is an imperative for a good LO.

Increasingly I wonder about the sense of using the LO all the time. Particularly, I wonder whether the LOs are understood by so many children and sometimes even the staff who write them. Undoubtedly they take up time.

Recently, as part of some analysis of children’s writing in enthusiastic primary schools, we measured the length of a month’s LOs. Approximately, we estimated that during Key Stage 2 the average child copies 1600 metres of LOs – his most extensive piece of writing by a mile!

Sadly, the effect of these LOs can make teaching less, rather than more, effective. Briefly, here are some LOs observed in classrooms during the last three weeks.

LO: To practise writing for a purpose Would there be another reason to write?

WALT: To acquaint ourselves with the initial ‘p’ sound For a whole hour? And if you could read and understand the objective, would you really need the lesson?

LO: To build a geographical understanding of the countries of South America In just an hour? It sounds like a briefing for an early explorer from Europe.

LO: To increase our use of prepositions in writing We don’t set out to use prepositions, do we? Surely we use them appropriately in our writing. Prepositions are not spices that we sprinkle around to add flavour.

Predictably, the latest trend to run through on the tide is grammar, with a particular focus on modal verbs and fronted adverbials. Increasingly, we tend to favour children’s writing that is ultra-formulaic in readiness for tests.

Rarely, in real life, does a sentence begin with an adverb or an adverbial clause. Occasionally a sentence might (modal verb), but an analysis of novels, newspapers and inspection reports will show that fronted adverbials are rarely employed.

Oddly, every sentence in this article starts with an adverb; you may have noticed. Ultimately though, it is not normal or even sensible, and nor are Learning Objectives such as the one below:

LO: To employ fronted adverbials within our writing about Tudor England. Additional challenge: to add extra punctuation, including exclamation marks.

Honestly then, why are we doing it?

Mick Waters is Professor of Education at Wolverhampton University

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