The Big Question: raising challenge by dropping objectives.
My new school, like many schools, has twilight sessions dedicated to staff development. Each session is led by a member of staff and focuses on an aspect of T&L. I elected to lead the group on “Stretch and Challenge”. The idea is that the groups meet three times over several weeks. The first session involves a presentation by the group leader followed by a discussion around the topic, before members agree on something they can work on in their teaching. In the second meeting, the group discusses their successes and problems and work out how they will present their ideas to the whole staff in the third meeting.
In my presentation I banged on about raising expectations, making things harder in lessons, and providing more targeted support to help students meet the challenge. I talked a bit about the danger of capping aspiration and the pitfalls of differentiated objectives, and finally introduced a strategy that I hold dear, that of replacing objectives with big learning questions. I began doing this about this time last year, and I saw the benefits straight away. We had the county improvement chap in and he’d just been observing my lesson. His key suggestion was the replacement of traditional learning objectives with big questions. My LO had been something like “To explore and analyse the author’s use of language in the article” and his suggestion was to reword it to “How do the author’s language choices affect the reader?” Initially, I was thinking “why? What’s the point? This seems daft!” But then I tried it and was amazed at the results. And this was the same, on the whole, for my T&L group members.
At our second meeting, we held a round-the-table discussion about how the introduction of learning questions had affected our lessons and the learning of our students. An Art teacher started us off. She said that she had used the questions with a range of groups and had seen profound changes. For a start, students were just more engaged by the objective because it instantly forced them to think about answering the question, rather than working out what the objective meant or was telling them to do. They instantly knew whether or not they could answer it, and if not they were exploring ways of providing an answer; all challenging and stretching stuff. Where this teacher had really added something though was in that she allowed the students to add their own questions underneath the main question, thus giving them more ownership over the lesson and their learning. She felt that this had massively enhanced her plenary sessions and given them much greater focus in their debriefing discussions as they focused on the questions that had arisen throughout the lesson and were visible on the board, as well as the big learning question.
This was echoed by a Maths teacher who had posed the question “Why factorise equations?” This seems almost too vague, but she felt that the dialogue and discussion it had produced was way above what students would normally engage with. Objectives would normally be about outlining what students had to do; this meant they had to first be able to do it before then being able to debate why they were doing it in the first place. This is clearly giving the students the space and opportunity to work at a much higher level than normal.
A Society and Ethics teacher had posed the question “Who is God?” to his year 7s, where normally he may have posed an objective “to understand different views of God”. Again, the debate that this fired up was far more passionate and engaging than usual because students had such strong views, but views that wouldn’t necessarily have been tapped into by the posing of an ordinary objective question.
An English teacher said that in his view the introduction of learning questions had really “raised the bar” in his lessons, and that after a while students were trained into the habit of trying to answer the question as soon as they enter the room. Clearly this gets the lesson and the learning underway very quickly and avoids the need to plan for instant challenge and starter activities, should you be that way inclined.
I added to this by showing the group my year 10 books, so that teachers could see how each learning episode had been geared towards ensuring students had a comprehensive understanding of a novel and its language, context, structure and viewpoint, and how this was preparing them to answer their controlled assessment question at the end. I also tried to show that getting students to provide written answers to their learning questions allows the teacher to stretch and challenge the students through differentiated feedback that students then respond to in their own way.
The overall consensus was that, by their very nature, learning questions invite engagement and are less alienating than objectives. Objectives tell you what you must do, whereas questions invite you to answer them. They are inherently less threatening and more democratic and they force engagement without being overtly coercive. There is also the fact that a step is removed that can hinder the smoothness of a lesson: usually the teacher has to mediate to ensure the students understand an objective. The question eradicates this and allows students of any ability to jump straight in and have a go, leaving room for teachers to differentiate intuitively and reactively where needed rather than trying to anticipate where the differentiation will need to take place before the lesson has begun. Clearly, not everyone would agree with the learning question approach, but I’m confident it’s improved the learning of my own students over the last six months and the feedback I’ve received from the members of my group would also suggest that there’s a lot to be gained from framing our lessons in this way.