IATEFL: Sara Davila and the role of Learning Objectives in language learning

iatefl sara davila GSE learning objectives

One of the highlights of this year’s IATEFL and TESOL conferences has to be the panel presentation, where leading industry experts and teachers from all over the world will discuss the effect that Learning Objectives have on Learning Outcomes.

Today, Sara Davila gives us a taste of what to expect by exploring the opportunities and limitations of using Learning Objectives in the ELT classroom.

Catch Sara and the rest of the panel at TESOL 2018 on Thursday 29th March at 13:00 (in the Burnham Room) and at IATEFL 2018 on Thursday 12th April at 19:00 – 20:30 (in Syndicate 3 & 4).

Visit our dedicated conference page to stay up-to-date with Pearson’s involvement at IATEFL.

What is the role of learning objectives in language learning?

“Learning, too, takes place in the here-and-now. What is learned matters. Teaching…should centre on the local and relevant concerns of the people in the room…” (Thornbury, 2000)

What does it mean to be a teacher today? When we, as educators, are asked to demonstrate our learners’ successes through quantifiable means such as assessments, outcomes, curriculum, course book completion and objectives, it can be a difficult question to answer.

Objectives are possibly the most challenging of the crowd. They encapsulate the objectives of governments, accreditors, institutions, administrators, parents, future schools, and employers.

In fact, there are so many voices proclaiming the need for objectives in teaching that it seems almost unreasonable to question them.

Some challenging questions

I often write about the use of objectives and how they can inform our teaching – in particular, highlighting the benefits of the Global Scale of English (GSE) and its role in the identification of learning goals. I talk a great deal about how to plan a lesson around objectives, how to measure achievement in terms of objectives, and how to use objectives to drive progress.

With the constant discussion around learning goals and the regulations and requirements that govern them, is it even possible to have a classroom in which the teacher can do the job based only on the interests, thoughts, and ideas of their students? Is it feasible to have a modern, organic, student-centered, and objective-free approach?

This is a difficult question to answer and one that leads to a number of further questions.

Without objectives how do we measure accomplishment? How can we quantify what our learners are doing and the progress they are making – beyond our personal opinion? If there are no objectives, and we concentrate solely on our learners, when it comes time for standardized tests, how can we be sure that our methods will achieve results? Is a love of learning and a knowledge of our students enough to ensure they are successful?

A debate with hidden depths

We end up with a debate that can be very black and white: either we use objectives, course material and assessments and trust that these are in the best interest of our students, or we don’t.

It can be easy to dismiss those teachers who subscribe to the latter view (no objectives, no planned materials, no assessments) as being uninterested in what is best for students and too focused on what is easy for them.  

In reality, both approaches have their share of challenges. Teaching with objectives can lead to a constant, unchanging cycle in the classroom. This is a trap many teachers fall into, myself included.

Looking at the day of the week and finding the unit of the book I was supposed to cover, I would plow through lesson after lesson, regardless of whether students knew the content or even understood it by the end of the class. I continued to push on because, well, those were the objectives.

After a year or so of this, I was rather burnt out and threw myself into the entire opposite end of the spectrum. I spent the next two years trying to study and observe my learners and plan content that would be interesting and relevant to them. I’d address their interests and needs, with many triumphs and an equal amount of abysmal failures that descended into games of bingo and hangman. The games came as a result of complete exhaustion from constantly trying to create new, original, interesting content on the fly without a clear goal in mind beyond: get them talking about things they like.

Perhaps there’s some middle ground

I’m ten years away from both of these experiences and, looking back, considering the research I have engaged in over the last four years, I wonder if it isn’t possible to find a middle ground – that is, using objectives and courses to respond to my learners’ interests and needs in a way that allows all of us to see progress and improvement. Is this a utopian fantasy or something that can actually be accomplished in the classroom?

That final question is the most challenging one, and one that is worthy of more in-depth discussion with others who have spent time thinking about the intersection between teachers, learners and learning objectives.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring this at both the TESOL conference in Chicago and IATEFL in Brighton, with thought leaders who have their own personal experiences and research-informed ideas around the topic.

At TESOL you’ll find me and the following renowned ELT experts:

And at IATEFL:

Of course, teachers from the audience will be invited to add questions and contribute to the discussion, so if you are attending either conference, we hope you’ll join us.

Keep an eye out on the blog as we’ll be sharing a summary of the main ideas and takeaways. We hope this will inspire the dialogue further around how to find a balance between the expectations of clearly defined objectives and the reality of being a thoughtful, engaged and responsive teacher.


Thornbury, S. (2000). A Dogma for EFL. IATEFL Issues, 2.

Read more about the Global Scale of English (GSE) Learning Objectives or try our GSE Teacher Toolkit and save time when you are planning your next course or lesson.

For more information about all the talks from Pearson ELT visit our dedicated IATEFL page.

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