Debden Minds 1: The importance of Learning Objectives (Yes, Yes we’ve heard it all before)


Learning objectives: The forgotten light in the classroom.

Last year Debden Minds was primarily concerned with bringing staff together to consider “Visible Learning” Each session was designed to give teachers time to think about their lessons and in particular the problems of the “hidden classroom.”  It attempted to concentrate teachers’ minds on making sure we all consider our actions and “know thy impact”.  We considered how we might “lighten up” our classrooms, via traffic lights and other AFL techniques. We explored the idea of “Meta-cognition” and how to develop independence in our students. Mind sets began to think of looking at lessons “Through the eyes of students”.  Green pens, mark schemes and stickers improved written feedback. A* and A grades were up, headline figures and levels of progress increased. Overall students and teachers were happy and rightly proud with the results. Learning is improving.

This year in Debden Minds we will continue to reflect on this idea of “Visible learning”. Together we will build upon our skills as teachers and what we know works. We will also try out new methods, and devise our own to make sure that learning is as visible as it can be. This is an attempt to make sure that students become “assessment capable” and “self-regulators”. The format of this will be change little; we will discuss and collaborate. However, this year we will go into more detail, look at effect size and generally “try and analyse”.

How will we make Learning more Visible in 2015?

Old ones are the best ones: Learning Objectives

“Teaching is the art of asking questions” (Socrates)

Learning objectives are merely the question (s) fulfilled (or not) by students. Therefore the well-considered LO’s and the effective use of them is paramount. They are the bedrock of formative assessment, which we know has the largest impact on student achievement.  In addition LO’s often “hide in plain sight” just like questioning. Because we set LO’s all the time they become formulaic, simple and overlooked.

The complexities of Learning objectives

Let me recall a conversation I had with an ex-headteacher and experienced Lead Ofsted inspector, called Graham:

Ian: Would you look for a lesson to have visible Learning objectives on the board?

Graham “There is no need for a lesson to have clear Learning objectives on the board. I have done well  in education, as have you. I bet not once were we told to write down the learning objective”

The OFSTED inspector did continue of course:

Graham: “ That is not to say that it is very clear when the learning objectives have not been well considered, well-crafted and aid students learning. It’s just that you have to be very careful not to think that good practice in your eyes is preferable practice for that teacher, class or school”

It is probably fair to say that by now the “Wallpaper” learning objective (where students copy down the LO as a matter of course and never look at it again) is long dead at Debden. However, if we do not engage students in the learning objective(s) we are in danger of confusing students with what we want. We could end up with this situation in many lessons:

 “The analogy that might make the students view more comprehensible to adults is to imagine oneself on a ship sailing across an unknown sea, to an unknown destination. An adult would be desperate to know where he is going. But a child only knows he is going to school…The chart is neither available nor understandable to him…very quickly, daily life on board ship becomes all important.. The daily chores, the demands, the inspections, become the reality, not the voyage , nor the destination”

As Joe and Andy’s INSET session on the consolidate phase demonstrated (where teachers had to do 5 lessons in 5 minutes to demonstrate the difficulties of school life for students) students have an awful lot to contend with.  If you have ever shadowed a pupil for a day you will understand how tough it is to be a student. The argument is that without clear learning objectives you are potentially harming the ‘Visibility’ of learning to students.

This is not to say that we should ever pursue a policy of having students write down the objectives, but we should pursue a policy where students know what they are attempting and have an idea at least of how to be successful. Crucially this has to be throughout the lesson.

Learning objectives often “hide in sight plain view”. They are there in the teachers head, they may even been on the board or in the planning, but for numerous reasons they remain hidden.

Lesson observations last year revealed that as a school we are very good at structuring interesting lessons which aid student progress. We are great at creating an atmosphere where students feel free to ask questions and we know what good progress looks like. However, observations also revealed a number of weaknesses with the wording and subsequent sharing of Learning objectives.

Below are some of the weaknesses observed:

  1. LO’s which were different from the lesson
  2. LO’s which students found difficult to understand because they were badly worded
  3. LO’s and lesson questions which did not stretch.
  4. LO’s that were rarely referred to or used throughout a lesson, and this prevented maximising progress.
  5. LO’s which decreased in difficulty as the lesson progressed
  6. LO’s were rarely shared effectively with students. 

How can we make learning more Visible through learning objectives?  

Top tips for using “Learning Objectives”

Making Learning Visible

Separate the Learning objectives from the context of the learning“The clearer you are about what you want the more likely you are to get it, but the less likely it is to mean anything” (Kohn)

So often in lesson observations the Learning objective is so clear, so measurable for fear of students not making progress that it becomes shallow. It is not only in lesson obs that this happens.

Take this example from my year 11 History class.

LO: “To be able the explain the impact of US bombing on North and South Vietnam”

I also included these hints:

Refer to: effects on people, buildings, infrastructure.

Most students after some group work, individual work and teacher input could do exactly that. I was happy. But should I have been? Probably not. The reason for this is although students did exactly as I asked they did very little else. More importantly the context of the learning was almost entirely lost. Although I wanted the outcome to be about Vietnam, I also wanted them to consider the IMPACT of something (in this case bombing) on people’s lives.

What I should have done is separate the LO from the context. What I was attempting to do was to get students to explain the impact of events on people’s lives. What I got was students who were able to explain the impact of one event.


  • Co- construction :One way to engage students in the learning objectives is to construct them together. This does not mean allow to create their own LO’s and success criteria, but I does mean setting activities which help them understand what you want them to do. So for example give them the overarching question on the lesson/unit and give them time to talk about and create the LO’s and success criteria. This was they are more likely to apply the Learning objectives in the context of their own work. Another way is to set a number of LO and get them to pick the one which they think is the hardest/ complete – discuss why.


  • Exemplars  Often used, but not to create the Learning objectives. Give out exemplars and get students to write the Learning objectives for the unit of work/ lesson.  Get students to create their own set of “success criteria” which they can then use as they go through their attempt.


  • Traffic Lights! Have specific times where students have to show their traffic lights against the Learning objectives. Use whole class questioning such as “Have we achieved what we set out to do?” “How far are we all away from green?”  Pair students up according to their progress 
  • Sell the outcome.In pairs get the students to imagine that they are market traders and they have to “sell” one or more of the Learning objectives. They have to stress how important it is to their learning and how ‘easily’ they can be successful
  • 30 second briefing Once students have spent some time on trying to complete their learning giving them one minute to create a 30 second briefing on the LO they are working on
  • Post it note questions  At the start of the lesson students write down three questions they have about the lesson on a post it note, get students to initial notes. 40mins into the lesson give back the post it note, those who can answer the questions give you the post it back! The ones left you answer at the end.

Learning objectives, are they important?

Learning objectives are crucial in making learning visible. They allow students to interpret the activities which teachers set them in the context of the learning. This enables students to measure their success, analyse their strengths and weaknesses.  As we attempt to create students who are “assessment capable” and who can “Self regulate” we need to share with them the “road map” of learning.


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