No Objectives; No Standards

I’ve been taking a lot of brain trips through lesson planning and trying to visualize what certain things might look like before I start jumping into them next year.  As a simple example, how do I want to introduce myself to my students?  How do I want them to introduce each other?  Just running through the logistics in my head.  You all do that, too, right?

Here’s a tougher example–one that I’ve really been wrestling with this summer.  Follow standards, or follow competencies?  Guide students with objectives, or let them reach their own goals?  It’s so tough because I’ve heard lots of brave teachers and principals discussing project-based learning and authentic assessment, which are (at best) loosely aligned to state standards and are never planned around a specific and thoroughly thought-out objective.  And it hurts a little to deviate from the way that I was brainwa– er, trained to teach.

My best evaluations from administrators came when I had the day’s objective conspicuously posted somewhere in the room and I continuously referred to it throughout the lesson.  I even had a little strip with each standard written on it, so I could post the standards we were learning that day, and they fit right next to the objective.  I would give little informal quizzes at the end of the period to help me gauge mastery and the need for further learning of that objective.  It was all very classic, very textbook, and administration just loved it.

There was one person in the room who didn’t like the way it felt–me!  Sure, the accolades were nice and the pats on the back were reassuring, but my reflections made me feel like I had missed an opportunity.  There are so many times I have cut off a curious child who wanted to dig a little deeper into something; and there are many times when I really wanted to go in that direction.  But then I would look at the objective posted on my wall, which would remind me that we had to get on task.  We had an objective to accomplish!  So I became, at that moment, a cog in the wheel that Line Dalile described in her recent blog post, where she suggests that schools are actively killing curiosity in kids, right?

Now, I look back and I wish I had given all of my students the opportunity to go in a new direction.  I’ve had so many of those moments come up, where I wanted the students to think about something individually, talk about it as a group, and see where it all ends up.  No coaching, just a little bit of guidance to stay in the general field of the discussion.  But then I was stopped and reined back in by the objective on the wall.

Tell me some stories–both supporting and negating the idea of throwing objectives and standards in a desk drawer and letting the students’ competencies and curiosities take over.  Can’t we make the objectives much less specific and see how many different answers come from the same question?  Is there solid research here?  Let’s talk.

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About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

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