Learning Objectives

The learning objective is so fundamental to instructional design that it’s hard to extricate it from all our other assumptions about teaching and learning. The learning objective underlies:

  • the architecture of the course;
  • the instructional methods we choose;
  • the language we use to talk about content, to frame discussions, to structure assessments;
  • the types, material, and timing of assessments;
  • the use of media;
  • the measurement of the success of the student, ourselves, and the course;
  • our own relationship to our fields and the material we teach (i.e., what we love must become teachable);
  • the relationship we establish with learners;
  • curriculum development;
  • professional development;
  • the choice of digital tools, from LMS to video platform to open source software to social media.

The list goes on and on. But what if, as we proposed a minute ago, learning objectives are only an assumption—one we’ve made or one we’ve been handed—and not a necessary part of instructional design?

In her keynote at the 2015 Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute, Amy Collier spoke directly to the problems associated with learning outcomes and objectives, and she offered a provocation:

Outcomes. Competencies. Rubrics. Standardization. All of these are at odds with teaching and learning. Learning outcomes should be a call to exploration, aspiration, play, and not-yetness rather than Rube Goldberg-like machinations leading to a prescribed end.

She follows on this idea in blog post, “What about qualitative research in the “new data science of learning?”, when she says:

What gets missed in learning an education when we refuse to acknowledge learning that is not imminently measurable? What happens to learning when all we acknowledge is that which is imminently measurable? As Gardner Campbell (2014) argues, the push toward evidence does not necessarily result in responsible action or marked improvements in learning, instead it rewards narrow conceptions of what it means to be a good student, ‘marching toward compliance and away from more elusive and disruptive concepts like curiosity or wonder’.

Too often, instructional design depends upon the notion that outcomes both determine learning and can be conceived ahead of time—sometimes so far ahead of their delivery that we can’t know who the students are, how many there are, what their backgrounds or level of preparation are, or how their intersectionality might affect their approach to the subject matter. The learner becomes a generic factor in the planning of mechanized, scheduled knowledge brokering. The instructor, through design, becomes nothing more than a recording, a megaphone, her only nuance the occasional typo.

Ira Shor writes, “At the heart of my lecture was my search for a presentation that could unveil a compelling reality to the students.” We must ask, is today’s instructional design bent on this same unveiling? Can a course whose content circles around objectives, assessments, and recall pull back the curtain on anything? Can it, as Paulo Freire suggests, invite learners into an epistemological relationship to reality?

A very long time ago, I wore that mantle for a small start-up firm in Colorado whose nearly sole client sold courses to human resources administrators in the banking industry; and whose primary foundation for instruction was Bloom’s Taxonomy. Quite literally, software for corporate training was designed around the cognitive domain of the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. All learning, in this case, boiled down to five component objectives:

  • Remembering
  • Understanding
  • Applying
  • Analyzing
  • Evaluating

And every course we wrote scaffolded learning along the ladder of these objectives, almost always resting at application-level work… Doing what you’ve learned to do. Because that’s all that was expected of our clients’ workers. To be considered knowledgeable, all you need to do is remember what you learn, understand what you learn, and then apply what you learn.

Remember. Understand. Apply.

If this sounds familiar, if this sounds like how we’ve been trained to teach, we should be scared. Because not only do learning objectives reduce students to something operational, they reduce teachers in the same way. Down the road of learning outcomes does not lie freedom. Down the road of learning outcomes lies standardization, efficiency, replication.

Knowledge isn’t the same as recall. It’s more than that. For starters, we know that learners can create knowledge, that they can be their own best resources outside of a teacher or content. If we look at complexity theory, for example, we discover that knowledge is the result of inquiry, experimentation, feedback, and emergence. As well, the relationship of the learner to the computer can be more nuanced than the kind of “banking education” CAI demands.

Seymour Papert offered this challenge:

Most honest Schoolers are locked into the assumption that School’s way is the only way because they have never seen or imagined convincing alternatives to impart certain kinds of knowledge … almost all experiments in purporting to implement progressive education have been disappointing because they simply did not go far enough in making the student the subject of the process rather than the object.

The hard truth is that instructional design—nay, teaching—needs to start imagining convincing alternatives, needs to go “far enough”.

Scaffolding Assessment

A Problem to Solve