The History of Learning Objectives and Glimpses of Post-Objective Education

If you are an educator, then there is little doubt that you are familiar with the idea of a learning objective.  Learning objectives have become so central to the field of education that many might argue they are essential to a quality formal learning experience.  And yet, the idea of learning objectives is not that old, at least not if we are looking at the entirety of human history…not even if we are looking at the history of formal education.  In fact, some point to a 1918 text called The Curriculum as the starting point for the modern idea of learning objectives.  The utilitarian approach to education asserted in this text (clearly informed by the industrial revolution) sought to design lessons and units of instruction by first analyzing humanity in society, breaking down the necessary skills and knowledge into “objectives” that can then inform what one teaches in the classroom.

Later, new movements challenged this utilitarian approach to education, but they also managed to further entrench learning objectives in educational discourse. All of this happened alongside a growing collective desire to improve the quality of schools and education by moving beyond rote memorization and tasks (think “progressivism”).  This called for assessment and evaluation.  In order to improve something, people argued that one needed to know how we define improvement.  In terms of learning, that led to very specific and measurable objectives. Behaviorism, which emphasizes the importance of observable behaviors in learning, helped provide the paradigm from which to think about such measurable objectives.  It is at this point that we see the introduction of the now well known Bloom’s taxonomy, a tool for creating clear, specific and measurable learning objectives; ones that make evaluation attainable.

In the 1960s, with the work of people like Robert Mager, behavioral objectives gained even more ground.  Mager’s work centered largely upon training for military and industrial settings, so his focus upon measurable objectives was, in many ways, a return to the initial utilitarian reasoning behind objectives. If you are an educator and you remember being chastised for writing a learning objective that started with “to know” or “to understand”, then you can thank Mager for that correction, given that he wanted objectives to focus upon observable behavior.  The story continues into the 1970s right up to contemporary times, with new ways of categorizing and developing various types of learning objectives.

In contemporary education, talk about learning objectives, outcomes, goals and standards are commonplace.  There are, of course, newer terms and phrases that people use for curriculum planning and lesson development, especially with the influence of Understanding by Design, where we talk about things like essential questions and enduring understandings.  And still, schools of all levels find themselves building curriculum on the basis of internal or external standards, breaking those down into smaller segments that are, for all practical purposes, learning objectives.

With the increased influence of digital culture upon learning theory and approaches to teaching and learning, I see more and more signs of post-objective perspectives on education beginning to take root. I must confess that I am a bit exited and intrigued by this development.  Objectives remain a part of the conversation, and they are likely to stay amid pushes for national standards, high stakes testing and the like.

At the same time, there are growing numbers who are choosing to push aside the emphasis upon objectives and devoting more attention to things like persistent engagement; cultivating rich and empowering learning environments; and discovering the many ways in which people grow, develop and learn outside of formal learning contexts.  I am thinking of contributions like Jay Cross’s Informal Learning, where he argues that professional development is more effective when it grows out of a culture of learning rather than periodic prescriptive workshops and training events.  I am thinking of George Siemen’s connectivism, public pedagogy, and growing discussion about paragogy, or the concept of ubuntugogy that seeks to re-describe eduction from a distinctly African paradigm.  I am thinking of Mimi Ito’s contribution to the concept of connected learning; increased attention to the power of play and games in learning, growing research on how people achieve expertise or rise to the highest levels of achievement within a discipline or profession.  I am thinking of the new literacy movement’s emphasis upon literacy as socially negotiated meaning rather than simply learning letters, words, and discrete reading skills.

Within these perspectives, learning emerges from exploration, social interaction, situated practice and experimentation, and cultivating diverse connections and relationships.  The purpose of an education is not simply the attainment of carefully defined goals and objectives, but rather participation in a series of discourses that shape and influence how we think, relate, and behave.

In pre-objective schooling, students learned a great deal.  In fact, I’m not aware of any evidence that they learned less in pre-objective schooling than in objective-driven schools of the past and present.  I am part of this objective-driven world of education, and yet and I am truly intrigued by the growing attention garnered by what I am referring to as post-objective and a-objective perspectives. Even as the digital world entices us to re-imagine humanity through zeros and ones, through highly mechanized perspectives on life and learning, it also appears to be simultaneously empowering us to discover or rediscover the power of learning beyond objectives.  Informal learning, free range learning, and connected learning are given new voice in this digital era.  I, for one, am honored and delighted to live in such a time.  It is indeed an uncertain but exciting time in history to be involved in the enterprise of education.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

2 thoughts on “The History of Learning Objectives and Glimpses of Post-Objective Education

  1. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thanks for the comment!

    The more that I think of learning as a process rather than an end result, the less I believe that learning can be measured. What does interest me, however, is verifying “progress”, looking for evidence of engagement and persistence, etc. Looking at objectives from an historical perspective, however, reminds me that learning objectives are an industrial revolution technology. There are plenty of industrial revolution technologies that still have a place in society today (e.g. production lines for cars), but I’m most interested in looking at schools (or learning communities) that are leaning on post-industrial technologies, processes, etc.

  2. Mary Hilgendorf

    I agree with the post-objective movement, but that doesn’t mean that learning objectives must be completely ignored. They serve as guides for teachers and students. However, as with many things in education, we tend to go to extremes, and behaviorism and the “science” of learning have become too dominant. Students are not Pavlov’s dogs, and the extremists who have dissected learning into small measurable actions are fooling themselves.

    There is an art to teaching and learning. Teaching and learning cannot be measured like a song on American Bandstand.

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