Is it Time to re-think our use of Learning Objectives ?

For many years I have been encouraging schools to re-think the often non-negotiable policy of writing a ‘learning objective’ or ‘learning intention’ on the board at the start of the lesson, and of requiring children to copy it into their books. I have even heard arguments defending the poor L.O. along the lines of “Otherwise how are they meant to know what to learn?”

I would argue that we have come a long way, and some schools have seen the light. Worryingly, many teachers have confessed to me that they agree BUT they would be ‘failed’ if they stopped doing this. It is a sorry state of affairs if teachers can no longer have an honest debate about good and bad practice without being seen as trouble-makers. We rightly call ourselves a profession, yet too often professionals are prevented or discouraged from behaving as such.

This article is designed to explain why I think this policy needs to be re-visited carefully. If you are in a school that still insists on it no matter what, then I hope this article will provide a measured argument to help schools look at this a little differently.

I will outline four concerns. (Admittedly there were only three until I spoke to Anna, a KS1 teacher, recently, who reminded me of #4.) You may agree with all, some or none at all of what follows, but I hope it will at least stimulate some debate.


First: Concept or Label?

In every lesson I teach, I need to have a learning objective. If not, I have thought more about teaching than learning, and as we know from Gattegno, teaching must always be less important than learning. Whether or not I need to reveal it my learning intention to the children before the lesson is highly questionable. What if I have more than one? Surely that must be acceptable, and even desirable, since mathematics is, to quote the National Curriculum2, ‘highly inter-connected’.

Suppose my intention is to teach children about prime numbers. Simply saying ‘learn about prime numbers’ will not help children grasp the concept of a prime, and for two groups of children it risks doing them a dis-service.

The first group is children who already have a working definition of ‘prime numbers.’ They decide before the lesson even begins that this lesson is not for them, since they already ‘know’ about prime numbers.

The second group are the children who are nervous, and who have no idea what prime numbers are. For them reading the L.O. merely confirms in their own mind what they are already thinking – maths is hard, and full of words and ideas I don’t understand.

Instead, we might give children 6 square tiles and ask them to make as many rectangles as they can. They can make just two, and the dimensions of these rectangles (1,2,3 and 6) can be seen as ways to split up 6. In mathematical language, these are known as the ‘factors’ of 6. We might then give the children one more tile and ask them to repeat the exercise. This time, with 7 tiles, they find that they can now only make 1 rectangle. Give them another tile – again they can make 2 rectangles, with dimensions 1,2,4 and 8, meaning that 8 has four factors. Give them another tile and now they will discover that they can make two rectangles once again, but one of them is a square! Later on, at a time when children are ready, we can explain that 9 is known as a square number because they were able to make a square from it. 7 is one of the numbers from which it is possible to make just one rectangle – these special numbers have a special name – they are called ‘prime numbers.’ And so on. The difference is clear – in the first example, the LO creates either complacency or fear, while the second allows deep understanding for all, and a hands-on approach that aids the learning. Only after learning the CONCEPT should we presume to ascribe a LABEL – the L.O. has this totally the wrong way round.

Second: ‘Only awareness is educable’.

Caleb Gattegno famously said that ‘only awareness is educable’. If this is true (I believe it is) then this has profound implications for the way in which we teach. This includes those of us who are privileged enough to teach teachers. As I reflect on this more and more, I continuously change the way I do CPD; this inevitably means that I think harder about the tasks that I will give teachers, and I aim to speak less and listen more.

How can pre-determining my learning sit easily with this philosophy? The short answer of course is that it cannot; to learn means firstly to become aware of something I do not yet understand (Gattegno again), and to work in such a way as to build my understanding. This could not be further from the ‘here’s a statement, now learn it’ approach, and puts the responsibility to learn firmly where it belongs – with the learner.

Third: The joy of discovery.

If I asked you to accompany me on a journey, and promised you a great view at the end – but then showed you a picture of the destination instead – I have effectively deprived you of making a wonderful discovery. For example, if I tell you that Pi is equal to 3.14, and then show you how to use it to work out some areas, circumferences and so on, I have in essence taken away any sense of discovery or joy of achievement from you. Far better to refrain from any learning objective such as ‘learn that Pi is approximately 3.14’, and move instead to the sports pitch, getting children to measure around and across centre circles, then divide one result by the other, and discover that the size of the circle makes no difference to the result of this division –in other words, the ratio is a constant.

Fourth: it frees up teachers to plan and teach rather than spend time ticking boxes

What’s more, it doesn’t waste pupil or TA time (either writing out or sticking in) objectives that will be forgotten all too soon. I have been in countless classrooms where the teacher feels duty-bound to get children to have a copy of the learning objective in their book, and this can waste a disproportionate amount of valuable lesson time. As Sir Ken Robinson has noted, teachers spend too much time proving rather than im-proving, and I am convinced that removing the need to make a learning objective explicit in EVERY lesson will help with this.

So what do OFSTED think? Often I hear comments such as ‘Yes I agree but OFSTED won’t like it’. If ever the cart was before the horse, it is in comments like these. But I have good news. In their excellent document, Made to Measure, OFSTED report that it is not always necessary to reveal learning objectives at the start of the lesson. In writing!

In conclusion – lesson objectives are, at best, your hopes for how the lesson will go. Some children will learn things you never dreamt they would learn – embrace that. Often it is better to withhold your reasons for choosing particular tasks, in order to give children the time to raise their awareness of a new idea.
Finally, never forget the joy of an undiscovered piece of reasoning, or a surprising relationship – such patterns are the building blocks of maths, and should never be rushed.
Enjoy your maths – and your children will do the same!


1. Department for Education (2013) Mathematics programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2 National curriculum in England
2. Gattegno, C. (1987/2010) What we owe children. New York: Educational Solutions Worldwide.
3. OFSTED, (2012), Made to Measure.