How to start: Learning objectives or the objective of learning?

Teaching 101: Start with what you want learners to learn, your objectives, then work back from there to design the learning. I’ve written about how I think teachers should ‘start with why‘, but in ‘Making Learning Happen‘ Phil Race brings something else to this idea.

On the concept of learning objectives, he writes:

“We should not just start with some outcomes, then work out some criteria whereby we measure whether students have achieved them or not. The evidence of achievement is what it is all about – the learning outcomes are really a means of setting the scene for the area in which the students will head towards furnishing this evidence.” (Race, 2010:44)

Throughout the book, Race argues that the best way for effective learning to happen is for learners to be actively doing something, a well worn argument, but his application of this to the design of lessons and learning experiences above is one of the most persuasive arguments for a ‘maker curriculum‘ I have come across.

If learning is all about being able to apply what you have learned in different contexts then perhaps we should do as Race suggests, and ‘start with how’; how are learners going to demonstrate their learning, what are they going to do, and what will it actually be useful for. Rather than starting with the abstract learning objectives, maybe we should start with the objectives of the learning.



Race, P (2010) Making Learning Happen: A Guide for Post  Compulsory Education. 2nd Edition. London: Sage.

Photo: (cc) Ryan Joy on Flickr






4 responses to “How to start: Learning objectives or the objective of learning?”

  1. Ria Thompson Avatar
    Ria Thompson

    Being a PGCE student for post-compulsory education, this has given me food for thought. If I’m teaching a session on ‘Improvisation’ instead of going down the cliche route of “today we will be looking at improvisation” I could start the lesson backwards,identifying what I want the learners to learn from this session-e.g. the art of improvisation. I believe this is the way forward in how to reinforce learning by questioning the students at the beginning of a lesson, getting them to be responsible for their own learning!

    1. Oliver Quinlan Avatar

      Hi Ria, Thanks for the comment and glad it has given you food for thought for your practice.

      I think what Race was arguing was that we should concentrate on what they are actually going to do as a result of the learning. So, rather than saying concentrating at the planning phase on the objective of improvisation, you put the thought into how they are going to evidence this; what they are actually going to do.

      You could of course simply present it to the learners as an activity, and then ask them to identify the learning within it once they had actually done it and produced evidence of that learning…

  2. […] think there is much we could learn from this process as educators; focus on getting learners making things, mixing up different ages and skill sets, and forcing creativity with the pressure of time and some […]

  3. ShrekTheTeacher Avatar

    I think we get bogged down in learning objectives…our school spent a couple of staff meetings debating whether to use ‘Can I…’ objectives of ‘I can…’ objectives! Having just moved from Key Stage 2 into Nursery, I have been set free from such restrictions and am seeing how fast children can learn when allowed to follow their own ideas. I think the risk with learning objectives is that we try and set down a prescriptive set of learning steps that fit the ‘average’ child. I used to believe that ‘individualisation’ was some sort of mad Utopia, but now I’m managing to make it happen in Nursery my views have radically changed.

    So as an example of how I’d now want to apply this to Key Stage 2…I’d tell my class that we’re going to spend the next 2 weeks creating our own magazine and that I want it to be good enough to publish to the rest of the school (a pretty clear outcome). I’d give them a pile of magazines, and tell them they can write about whatever they want. Read some articles, find one you like and use that as a starting point. I’d then concentrate on supporting them at an individual level and moving them on to their next writing targets etc. Of course if Ofsted were around I’d feel the need to have ‘I can use full stops and capital letters’ on the board just to cover myself!

    Learning objectives go hand in hand with coverage, which is the enemy of learning!…perhaps a slightly extreme view!?

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