IATEFL: A look back at the learning objectives panel discussion

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One of the standout moments for us at TESOL 2018 and IATEFL 2018 was the Learning Objectives panel discussion. Delegates from around the world were given the opportunity to speak to some of the most well-known names in ELT, and discover the opportunities and limitations that arise when using Learning Objectives in the classroom.

Sara Davila, one of the panel members, summarizes her main takeaways from the event.

A reflection on learning objectives

In the last few months, as part of preparing for discussions at both TESOL and IATEFL, I’ve had a great deal of time to think about my own views on learning objectives. It is a hot topic and I suspect it will continue to be debated for quite some time.

Prior to the conference and public discussions, I tried to summarize some of the thinking, including the pros and the potential cons of learning objectives, informed by my own experience as a teacher.

After having participated in discussion with some formidable educators (Scott Thornbury, David Nunan, Christina Cavage, and Shay Coyne), a little reflection is due.

Interestingly, we all had similar ideas during the discussion. Considering that there was a chance of debate, there was a great deal of agreement on how we can fit learning objectives into language learning.

We all agreed that while learning objectives are important, they should never be more important than the students. Rather, learning objectives should reflect and inform learning and enable teachers to be more responsive to learner needs and help them learn effectively.

Essentially, I feel the discussions can be split into two specific areas:

1. Key considerations to address challenges

2. Best practices to achieve results

Considerations and Best Practices

In our discussion, a few key elements and challenges around using learning objectives were brought to the surface:

  • Using objectives in a rigid way
  • Using objectives to try to create a “paint by numbers” approach to learning
  • Using objectives in a lesson as a demonstration that learning has taken place

Firstly, it is important that objectives do not replace thoughtfulness by the teacher – and I think Scott Thornbury was fairly consistent on this point across our discussions.

Learning objectives should instead provide guidance to teachers when constructing a curriculum and allow them to see the overall plan of how and when learning will take place, with clear goals.

Forcing specific objectives on students who are not ready, is counterproductive. Instead, the day-to-day decisions in the classroom should be informed by observation and tailored through responsive teaching, creating optimum conditions for success.  

This success includes understanding that learning objectives do not replace skillful teaching and planning. The frameworks we use to describe proficiency can help us understand the classroom, but shouldn’t dictate how and when to teach content.

Understanding this can help teachers and program developers decide where and when to scaffold content or how to target the right spot to create learning opportunities.

Finally, it’s important to remember that, of the various areas of learning, language learning is the best example where one session of practice does not equal long term mastery. So just because an activity allows learners to practice a certain skill, this doesn’t indicate successful learning.

So, what did we conclude?

  • Be responsive to students and plan accordingly
  • Use objectives to inform teaching and planning for success
  • Use objectives to understand goals and achievements

As an educator, I truly enjoyed being able to spend time researching this topic and working to find ways to incorporate learning objectives into my teaching. Through discussion, some examples, some disagreements and a great deal of laughter and joy, I think we all found something we could agree on in the end: when it comes to teaching and the learning of our students, their desires, interests and goals should be just as important as the objective at the top of our lesson plan.

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