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Whatever Happened to Lifelong Learning?: The Dangers of Measurable Objectives.

  • Written by Andrew Elliott McBurney
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One of the innovations of 21st century education driven by NCLB is the widespread adoption of measurable objectives to be achieved by systems of improvement promoting the development of measurable, attainable goals.

However, we unnaturally limit ourselves if we limit our learning only to measurable objectives. Learning, by its very nature, is a process of exploration and discovery. Reducing it to mere training—which limiting ourselves to measurable objectives does—will correspondingly stunt our nation by inhibiting creativity and real innovation.

I’m not suggesting we abandon measurable objectives. We ought to have them. Just the same, we ought to encourage learning beyond the objectives. After all, we are a society that is supposed to value creativity, innovation, and original thinking.

I worry that with our profession being driven now by the pursuit of measurable objectives, newer teachers, just like our students, will be more concerned with knowing “the right answer” rather than viewing learning as a process of discovery. Guiding the process of exploration and discovery is an important skill—perhaps the most important—in the art and science of teaching (though right now, the “science” of teaching seems to be discouraging it). What a shame it would be if the current emphasis on measurable objectives were to stifle this skill in teachers—particularly new teachers.

Here are two examples of learning that occurred not in the pursuance of any measurable objective, the first shows the benefits of going beyond measurable objectives, and the second shows the dangers of not seeing learning beyond the classroom.

First, my 8th grade U.S. History teacher mentioned one day that letters between Adams and Jefferson had been collected and published in a book that we could read (The Adams-Jefferson Letters). We had been studying the Constitution and the early republic at the time. I don’t think it had occurred to me before that moment that there were any writings by any of the Founding Fathers other than the official laws and documents they authored. From that moment, it became very important to me to find and read the letters of not only our Founding Fathers, but of other Americans, and then later other historic personages. This made history “come alive” for me, and later influenced my decision to use many primary sources in my Government and History classes—sources that, admittedly, do not always directly support the attainment of a measurable objective.

My teacher’s by-the-way comment inspired a lifetime of unplanned learning. (For anyone who is interested, besides more easily purchasable compilations of the writings of the Founding Fathers, the collected writings of several of them are available for free as downloadable PDF’s at the Online Library of Liberty’s Major Collections page for Founding Fathers of the American Republic.) This was not a stated, and certainly not a measurable objective. Nevertheless, this unplanned learning has had significant value. I would not want to deprive my students of similar experiences, and I would hate to think that the modern emphasis on sticking to the stated, attainable objectives would discourage any teacher from allowing such experiences for their students.

The second example is the story of David Hahn, which, however you read it, warns of dangers that could result from learning that is discouraged or unguided. The story was written about in a Harper’s article and then expanded into a book titled The Radioactive Boy Scout, which I highly recommend to new teachers (there is also a pretty good review of it titled “The Pitfalls of Self-Guided Science” by Albert Ghiorso).

To the author, Ken Silverstein, this story comes across as a cautionary tale—particularly toward the end—about how easy it is to obtain nuclear materials and how dangerous some people can be if they put their minds to it. As a teacher, I don’t see it that way. I see it as more of a cautionary tale of what can happen when schools don’t do all that they could—and should—be doing. Now, I don’t know of course that this was the result of teachers making sure classes “stayed on task” to meet planned objectives, but I do feel strongly, as a teacher, that the case of David Hahn is one in which his talents and abilities were missed by his schools, and, rather than being actively encouraged and guided by responsible adults into what might have been a promising college experience and career, he was instead left to his own devices.

In the absence of encouragement and guidance, people will nevertheless make their own way, but perhaps haltingly, or rashly, certainly confused and with little confidence. With encouragement and guidance there is a greater potential for people to be creative, confident, innovative, and successful. Adhering only to measurable objectives risks the former. We should promote the latter.

Here are some suggestions:

  • • Teachers should encourage students to go beyond finding “the right answer” as is usually suggested by a measurable standard, by posing open-ended questions that ask students to analyze and evaluate. Good administrators already encourage this, even though it may go beyond the scope of the measurable objectives. There is often a big stumbling block however: the number of state standards for a course, divided by the number of days of the course, may create some pretty serious time constraints. Consider, however, that “going beyond” doesn’t have to occur with every lesson, and the teacher ultimately has control of how long it would continue. Imagine lesson planning where the focus is not the “direct instruction,” but rather a “guided practice” or “independent practice” that transforms into student exploration. It won’t necessarily work very well the first time you do it, but, as with everything, it will take practice.
  • • Teachers should further encourage students to think beyond stated objectives by planning projects that allow students to learn on their own and to be creative. (This may be obvious, but notice how many state standards are written merely for a knowledge or comprehension level.) These are not new ideas of course, and many administrators encourage them as well.
  • • Teachers should be prepared to go beyond the initial student responses and products by posing additional questions to students and encourage them to explore to learn more. Knowing what questions to ask isn’t always easy, and experience is the best teacher for it; but something simple like “What does x tell you?” or “What do you think about x?” of “Why do you think x happened?” are easy starting points—really, they can be the same kind of questions posed in the initial task, this time applied to the students’ new learning.
  • • Teachers should brainstorm in advance ways in which students may find answers on their own. Modern technologies offer great possibilities for this both in the classroom and beyond. The most obvious, of course, would be to plan research tasks or whole research projects, but there are always opportunities to extend learning if we allow for it and are prepared for it.
  • • Administrators should encourage teachers to go beyond the measurable objectives so as to encourage courses being more than just “test-prep”.
  • • Administrators should also encourage experienced teachers to plan and present professional developments aimed at helping newer teachers go beyond the measurable objectives. A lot of progress was being made in the 1990’s, before the imposition of NCLB, and there are many teachers still teaching who benefitted from what they learned then.

I realize some of this may not be easy to visualize. After all, this isn’t exactly what is expected of us right now. But we have to decide, are we here to train, or to teach? What kind of a nation do we want to live in, one in which we all have been trained, or one in which we have been encouraged to learn and will continue to learn?

(NOTE: This post one of a set of four posts, which, altogether, describe four dangers I believe are facing 21st century public education in the United States. The others are: “Traditional Equals Bad: The Dangers of Definitions,” “Allowing for Known Unknowns: The Dangers of Ignoring Reality,” and “Sponges and Bombing: The Dangers of Keeping Up Appearances.”)