Monday, November 20, 2017

Singular Objectives

In the classroom, objectives are important. I remember my own painful experience as a student teacher (replicated by several of my own student teachers), imagining that we would simply read a book and the magical educationny things would just sort of happen, somehow. I had to learn to answer the question "Why are we studying thing?" I had to know what I wanted students to get out of the unit, and once I understood that, then teaching and instructional strategies and assessments all just kind of fell into place.

So do not imagine for a moment that I don't see the value of objectives. No teacher can function well in a classroom if she can't answer the question, "What is the point of any of this?"

But the modern reform era has given us objectives that hamper teaching rather than enhance it.

The standards movement has given us objectives that are strikingly narrow and literal, as well as completely blind to the content of the material that we teach.

ELA objectives (standards) are strictly skills based, so we approach a work like Hamlet focused strictly on items like this:

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

Nowhere in the standards will you find any reference to grappling with the major topics and themes of Hamlet, like mortality and coming to grips with death and the search for meaning in existence. Nope. Find some words and figure out what they mean.

And the Big Standardized Tests double down on this objective myopia. There will be no questions about the content of Hamlet-- not even simple recall of plot and character, let alone the kind of deeply considered ideas that could only be examined in lengthy writing produced over a thoughtful period of time. No, the BST will say, "Remember how you figured out what some strange words meant in that one thing you read? Here are some strange words-- do that figure-them-out trick again."

In fact, many of us have been ordered to put up posters in our room reminding our students about their singular objectives. And many of us are now required to do the same with each and every lesson-- to focus our students on the one-and-only objective of the day's teaching. "This is our goal, our only goal, and our all-consuming goal."

This is education as a ride on a train, with only one destination, one purpose, one target. This is standardization at its very worst. This is a prospector who sets up his equipment to drill for oil on his property and declares himself a failure because all he found was silver, gold, and diamonds.

This is bad teaching. This is the kindergarten teacher who flunks Pat for coloring outside the lines. This is the English teacher who teaches that there is one-- and only one-- correct interpretation for every work of literature. In fact, this is not just bad teaching, but bad living-- the people who think there is only one correct way to be in the world, only one True system of belief, only one correct way to react to a given situation. This is rigid fundamentalism at its worst.

Should we have objectives? Absolutely. Should we be open to the possibilities of many objectives? Should we be open to the possibility of opportunities arising in the classroom? Also absolutely. We certainly shouldn't suggest to our students that there is only one goal and then tell them what it is in such a way as to suggest that all other possible discoveries should be ignored. We should never throw away diamonds because we were searching only for oil.

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