Against Learning Objectives
Some people manage to talk in the same breath about being "student-centred" and the need to have clear objectives (even behavioural objectives) for their teaching. They may even be arrogant enough to want to specify the "outcomes" of their teaching.
Formulation of objectives, particularly in its extreme form as "outcomes" is naive, objectionable and patronising.
- It is naive because it denies the complexity of the teaching and learning task. Perhaps having objectives for yourself, in the form of "what I want to teach is..." is reasonable (if a little sad). And there is no problem in being clear about what a course is about. But to assume that you can map your aspirations directly on to what the students will learn is to lose touch with reality. The simplest models of communication, even those concerned merely with the transmission of information (leaving out of account the aspiration that the information will somehow change the recipient), show that "noise" (anything which can potentially corrupt the message as originally conceived) is introduced at every stage. Introduce the mind-boggling complexity of human interaction, multiply it by the confounding irrelevances of the classroom, raise it to the power of the variables of student motivation and capacity to understand—and it is amazing that anyone learns anything through the process, let alone that it will be what you intended.
- It is objectionable because it seeks to deny the individuality of the students' understanding. Indeed, at a technical level, it is difficult to see just how you could realistically specify objectives in the higher reaches of Bloom's taxonomy in the cognitive domain. It may be clear what counts as "knowledge", but as you move towards "analysis", "synthesis" and especially "evaluation", any attempt to specify in advance what these will look like is inherently subjective. This kind of approach buys into a curriculum which essentially oriented towards the slavish reproduction of established knowledge without taking into account any of the cognitive theory which describes how learners make knowledge their own.
- Following from this, it is also patronising for adult learners, because it is so teacher-centric. Grown-up people approach learning with their own agendas, and often with clear ideas of why and how they wish to learn. They have experience of how to do it—they are the experts on their own learning. To impose on them the teacher's assumptions about what they will have learned at the end of a class is to deny that expertise, and to put them in an excessively and counter-productively dependent situation.
- Finally, and perhaps least important, it robs the teacher of the freedom to be opportunistic, and to capitalise on discussions and flare-ups of interest in particular topics. Just like the use of presentation packages and data projectors, the prior formulation of objectives puts the teacher on rails, from which she cannot deviate, so forfeiting the ability to respond to student needs and interests.