Less is more……….learning objectives or whatever you want to call them.

Stylish lighting.  (Image courtesy of Camborne Science and International Academy)

Stylish lighting. (Image courtesy of Camborne Science and International Academy)

As I write the news is arriving that Michael Gove has suggested that all schools start taking the Common Entrance exam, used by private schools to select entrants for their establishments.  He seems to be oblivious of the fact that not very long ago all schools were taking something similar called SATs and that for a number of good reasons these were abandoned.  Scratch a little beneath the surface and you will discover that the syllabus for the suggested exams is agreed between private schools and the marking remains in the hands of the schools.  Now of course if you were seeking to select children for your school it is entirely up to you what criteria you sue and how you apply them, pause a moment and imagine what would happen if state schools were to be judged according to performance in such an exam and if the marking were left up to them.  If you think you have seen system gaming just wait!  On the other hand as the private education sector is responsible for agreeing the curriculum for these exams perhaps this is a simple way for Mr Gove to achieve what seems to be his ambition; to create a universal model of what he experienced at school, because after all it hasn’t done him much harm.  Now that last phrase is arguable for all sorts of reasons but set that aside and consider this.  A school near you has decided to be at the cutting edge of this reform and is going to give the Common Entrance exam a go.  It will of course need to let all it’s feeder primary schools know what it is doing and in good time for them to prepare. (Well not if it wants to follow the Govian model in which case it will announce sometime in late June that it will be administering the tests in early July and that the results will be final.)    The chances of this school having any input into the agreed curriculum for the exam are so close to zero as to be impossible to calculate, so of course they will have to assume that their primaries will be following that curriculum.   At a stroke the entire educational system will be delivering just the sort of curriculum that Mr Gove subscribes to.  Neat, huh?

Enough of that.  Another looming problem that everyone is keeping rather quiet about is recruitment and retention.   I would be prepared to embark on a small wager that the DfE will assure us that things have never been better on that front but more measured evidence suggest a bleaker picture.   Almost 50% of teachers leave  teaching in five years or less and significant numbers are leaving in their fifties.  Of course the reasons vary with many saying that they are taking a career break for one reason or another, it would be interesting to do a long term track of them to see how many come back and face the challenge of catching up with the latest regulations and ideas.  For those of you who read this and thought that the over fifties were probably past it anyway have a read of this: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/feb/01/secret-teacher-left-dream-job-teaching?CMP=new_53&et_cid=63079&et_rid=1598881&Linkid=Secret+Teacher%3a+I+miss+the+feeling+that+being+a+teacher+meant+something  You don’t have to be over fifty to find that you are not up to it, I have met quite people in their twenties who have found the same thing.  The average age of teachers is falling and schools are losing a wealth of experience, highly developed skills and expertise, sometimes for budgetary reasons.

A case in point arose in conversation with a colleague in her NQT year.  She had gone from the high of having her new head feedback to her after a learning walk that being in her class was a great pleasure and the best thing she had seen all day to the yawning chasm of a low after another leader had told her she was doing everything wrong.  As the conversation developed it focused on the way she was using lesson objectives.  It should not need saying that children make progress  when they are clear about what they are learning.  Now for Design Technology teachers and perhaps others too, the challenge has been that we have been very clear about what children will do, less sure about what they will learn by doing it.  It is easy to fall into the trap of spelling out what will happen during the lesson rather than what your children will learn, especially for those of us who work with process rather than knowledge, a simplistic distinction but one that you will recognise if you teach Design Technology.   My colleague worked in a school where this seems to have dropped off the radar.  I have sat listening to school leaders tell colleagues about lesson or learning objectives and give examples which were clearly about what children would do and not about their learning.

So what has happened?  Simple really, you introduce a transformational practice to teachers quickly, check up on it for a week or two and then some other priority rears its’s head and you focus on that instead rather than ensuring that your first initiative has really taken root.  Some schools, driven by the compelling need to show Ofsted that they are taking account of literacy, numeracy, SEAL, differentiation and a host of other things are mistakenly cramming these in to the lesson objective so that rather than a clear direction for the learning we end up with three, four, five or six things to focus on.   By the time your children have written all these out in their books, something else that lots of schools are insisting on, then half the lesson will be gone.  A little regarded study of how schools implement change pointed out that a training day and making something school policy will do little to impact on day to day practice.  Another colleague explained that her school has so many leaders, all of whom were  so anxious that their area of responsibility should not be the one to let the school down that they were all chasing teachers to meet deadlines.  Result: burn out, three year careers and a good Ofsted.

Lastly, something to cheer you up, have a look at these responses to today’s speech.  http://www.parentdish.co.uk/2014/02/03/mums-dads-and-teachers-condemn-michael-gove-education-reforms/?ncid=wsc-uk-parentdish-image

4 Responses to “Less is more……….learning objectives or whatever you want to call them.”
  1. lucy says:

    interesting read… but oh no the link doesn’t work…. ! One of my 6th form students (the head boy) fed back in a student voice meeting to SLT how pointless learning obs were in his DT coursework lessons as they new what they were doing and just wanted to do it and it was a waste of time me writing on the board! (we’d had no prior conversation about this!) i’m waiting for the questions to start from up above!
    Hating the idea of ‘new’ entrance exams, labeling and testing our students further!!

    • Hi Lucy, thanks for your comment, (I’ve fixed the link so try it again, it will cheer you up.)
      Yes KS4 coursework is a challenge . I think that if coursework has sufficient value to justify the time we spend on it, and I think it does, then we need to do some work on what it is that is being learnt. I know they are all learning wonderful things by doing it, for me SEAL was really useful in this one.

  2. kevin jones says:

    Hi Geraint, interesting read as usual, learning objectives (or intentions as I prefer to call them) are tricky, as you say, because very few teachers have had clear PD on how to identify the learning that is intended. Indeed, what is learning? is it the process of learning or the output of learning, or is that evidence of learning???? But you’re right the learning objective (intention) has to be crystal clear rather than the doing.
    As far as coursework in concerned, I find it really useful to put the responsibility onto the student, so that they identify the learning they are in the middle of for each lesson, otherwise, they drift and coast, thinking they have ‘loads of time left Sir’.

  3. Hi Kevin, glad you liked it. Your comments about KS4 objectives are useful; to some extent a group might be more or less in the same territory at the same time with their coursework but making students identify their own objective in terms of what they are going to learn is very good as a way of focusing them. And of course discussions about the way they are learning, how the particular episode fits with their overall learning and so on increase the focus on the student as being the one responsible for their own learning.

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