The Objective of Objectives, Part One: Invite

Welcome back Math Geeks!  If you’ve been a regular visitor, you know my belief that alignment between our purpose and our practice is essential for healthy teaching, inspired learning, and engaging classrooms.  (You can watch my 5-minute talk about it here.)

Why we teach must align with how we teach.  In other words, our professional identity (the reasons why we became teachers in the first place) must be congruent with our choices and our practices in the classroom.  When purpose and practice are not aligned, both teachers and students waste energy fighting needless friction in the classroom and learning suffers.

An Objection about Objectives

One habit where I continue to see a misalignment between purpose and practice centers on how we post, frame, communicate lesson objectives to our students.  All teachers want students to be inspired, motivated, engaged, and curious, yet I’ve witnessed a lot of teachers euthanize student intellect by spending the first 5 minutes of a lesson reading aloud and unpacking a lesson objective that is written on the board.  The objective often uses robust (intimidating?) language that is not accessible to students.  Furthermore, the objective sits there devoid of any context, meaning, or inspirational value.

My frustration led me to post this tweet:

Let me be clear, every practice we do as teachers should have clear and intentional objectives.  Without objectives, we have no way to measure the effectiveness of our instructional choices as teachers.  It’s our practice of how we communicate and frame those objectives to students that has my feathers ruffled.  I’ve seen many well-intentioned teachers derail even the most engaging learning opportunities with this practice, and it’s something I want to unpack in a few posts.  This post is the first.  I hope that you’ll join me in the conversation on Twitter or in the comment section below.

One Approach: Make the Objective an Invitation

I’m reading The Classroom Chef by Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens.  It’s a useful and inspiring read for teachers and principals who seek to prepare lessons with a focus on student engagement and classroom culture.  My use of the menu metaphor in my tweet above was inspired by them.

In the book, they share a story about a teacher who enters class pretending to be a magician, stands on a student desk, and performs a “magic trick” to generate student curiosity about the sum of angles in a triangle.  (Read Chapter 1 to find out more.)  In a short period of time, the teacher is able to:

  • generate curiosity and intrigue,
  • have students be actively involved,
  • set a tone of focus and fun,
  • and have students internalize the lesson objective.

Most importantly, the teacher is able to do all of this without ever having to explicitly tell students to do any of these things.  The invitation is made and the students are on board and ready to go.  Inspiration is high; brains are alive.

This teacher has aligned purpose and practice.  While having a clear learning objective in mind, the teacher is making choices that will help students internalize what the day’s learning is all about.  By the end of the warm-up, all students are amazed that the angles of (at least this specific) triangle make a straight line when you put them all together.  “Is this true for all triangles?” students will inevitably ask and the exploration can begin.

Most importantly, the students have internalized the objective and are able to tell the teacher without the students being explicitly told.

An Alternative Approach:  Make the Objective a Mandate

This teacher could have started the lesson by explicitly telling students to:

  • end their side conversations,
  • take out their notebooks,
  • and copy down the objective on the board.

That objective could look something like:  Today, you will learn that the sum of the angles in a triangle is 180 degrees and use this fact to solve problems.

The teacher could then launch into some direct instruction while students restlessly copy notes and strive to pay attention (at best) or use this experience to hate math class even more that they already do.  Some students will be earnest in their efforts because they care about good grades (which isn’t the same as good learning); some students will fake attentiveness while their notebook doodles or blank faces reveal the greater truth of their boredom; and lastly, some students will become “discipline problems” because they just can’t stand another 50 minutes of this crap.

One More Key Point

The latter half of both of these lessons may be structured quite similarly.  Students could be exploring different triangles and verifying that (at least experientially) the angles in a triangle have a sum of 180 degrees.  Students could work through examples setting up algebraic equations solving for unknown angles in a triangle.  An exit ticket could be passed out assessing student understanding.

But the choices we make at the opening of a lesson have a significant impact on the tone and energy of the rest of the lesson.  In the first approach, the teacher is able to take a risk (looking silly in a magician cape standing on a desk) that encourages other students to take risks (being curious in front of peers and willing to learn something new).  This choice invites students into the learning process toward the objective.  In the second approach, the objective is something that is thrust on to the students and the learning process makes math something that happens to them.  There is no choice for students; the learning is mandated.

Continue the Conversation

In what ways do you craft learning opportunities so that the lesson objective is an invitation for learning and not a learning mandate?  How do you have your students internalize the objective without having to explicitly tell them?  What specific examples could you offer that other teachers could use?

Find Part Two here and Part Three here.

7 thoughts on “The Objective of Objectives, Part One: Invite

  1. Invitation over mandate in my experience has been more effective and meaningful for both teachers and students. In our lessons, we utilize a Notice and Wonder as an invitation to the exploration and learning of the day, week and or unit. Providing opportunities fir students to explore, investigate and share as active particpants gives them a chance to utilize their metacognitive skills. The best measure of the success of a lesson is when students are able to express the purpose of the task (lesson) and what new leaenings were gained. Learnings are usually evenly split between content and practice standards. Majority of the time the objectives are articulated in a much more meaningful fashion than what the teacher had written down.

  2. hi Chase
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I have been thinking about the same thing recently – How do I balance my intentional teaching with cultivating student ownership of learning. One thing I have done a lot this year is frame the lesson objective as a question. Yesterday I was in a Kindergarten class and I started the lesson by trying to count all my tiling turtles – they were in a big pile. I double counted a few. The students said “you already counted that one.” Then, I said, “sometimes counting can be challenging. Can you explore this me. I wonder if today we can explore the question ‘When is it hard to count things and why?’. They jumped right in and told me that snowflake are hard to count because they move and they disappear really quickly. After we counted my collection of transparent shapes, we revisited the question and they had a lot of input – counting is hard when you have a lot of things to count – it helps to move the objects or put them in groups – maybe put them in a bag or a bucket.” I like using questions. So far, it feels okay. I am excited to see what other ideas people come up with. The Classroom Chef is on my “to read” list. Thanks again!

    • Thanks for sharing! Your example of counting is great example of helping students internalize the objective. You’re helping them feel a headache that “counting by twos” is the aspirin. I’m hoping to write more about that soon. I appreciate your insights! And yes…Classroom Chef! It’s amazing!

  3. Chase, thanks for sharing your thoughts on objectives. I love the contrast between invitation and mandate. I’m still wrestling with how to create engaging invitations that lead to focused and productive work in the classroom, but I find your framework here very helpful. Looking forward to Part 2!

  4. Hi Chase,
    First, I’ve watched your (I assume it’s an ignite) video before, but I feel like I could/should watch it at least once a month. So much greatness packed in there!

    I love the example you pulled from The Classroom Chef. I remember when I read that chapter that I sped through it pretty quickly because at the time, I thought “I’m just not that kind of teacher.” I still think I’m not that kind of teacher (I really do NOT like to be the center of attention in any way shape or form) but now I’m looking at it differently. It’s not about making a fool of yourself in front of kids, it’s about capturing their attention so they’re ready to engage in whatever activity I have planned…and I’m excited to read about the more reserved ways people do this.

    I also do a lot of notice and wonders as well as 3 act tasks that typically get the students interested. I’m reminded of this blog post (also) from Robert Kaplinsky http://robertkaplinsky.com/two-ways-integrate-problem-based-learning-unit-another-avoid/ . In it he says, “Imagine that on the very first day of a unit, you introduce students to the sinkhole problem. Clearly they should not be able to solve it. After all, if they already have the skills to solve it, then why are we teaching this unit? So, by introducing it to them, they get engaged in a context that the find interesting. They realize that it is something they want to figure out but currently don’t have the skills to do so.” This is something I’ve been utilizing a lot this year…Dan Meyer’s headache before the asprin mentality.

    I also typically talk about objectives at the end of class. “What did we learn today?” “What are you now able to do that you couldn’t before coming in today?” This not only focuses the students on reflecting about their learning but allows me to see if I met my objective of what they should have gotten out of the activity.

    I don’t post my objective on the board and I felt guilty when I stopped doing it because I’d always been taught students need a clear objective…but I figured if they aren’t learning what I want them to learn without an objective posted that’s on me and my lesson, not because the students were’t told what they were going to learn.

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful comment Elizabeth!

      You have me thinking more. Some questions/thoughts I’m pondering from your comment:

      How does our identity as a teacher impact our instructional style?
      When launching an exploration, the objective can be about student questioning, wondering, sense-making…and not so much about a SWBAT skill.
      It’s essential to include a reflection for students at the end of the lesson to capture data for us as teachers about how they’re internalizing the objective we’re striving for.
      How do we help teachers internalize this truth: “they aren’t learning what I want them to learn without an objective posted that’s on me and my lesson, not because the students were’t told what they were going to learn”? What supports do teachers and principals need to help foster this type of reflective culture?

      Thanks for sharing what you shared and for adding value to this conversation!

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