Why I struggle with learning objectives and success criteria

A strenuous soul hates cheap success.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Broadly, I’m in favour of sharing with students the intention behind what they are being asked to do. Anything that adds clarity to the murky business of learning is probably a good thing. However, an intention (or outcome, objective or whatever you want to call it) along the lines of To be able to [inset skill to be acquired or practised] or, To understand [whatever the hell the teacher wants her students to learn] is unlikely to be of much help. All too often our learning intentions are lesson menus; here is what you should know, or be able to do by the end of today’s lesson. Students are unlikely to do more than merely mimic the understanding or expertise we want them to master.

If instead we were to share our intention for students to struggle with threshold concepts, then we could tell them that it might take them weeks to wrap their heads around such troublesome knowledge. We could remind them that in this lesson they are making progress towards a goal and that there is no expectation for them to ‘get it’ in the next hour or even the next week. Lessons may be the unit of delivery but that doesn’t mean they must be the unit of planning or assessment.

Learning does not follow a neat, linear trajectory, it’s liminal. Students not only need to spend time in that confusing, frustrating in-between space, they need to know how important it is to stay there for as long as need be. If learning intentions rush or limit this experience then they might be doing more harm than good.

To a teacher, labouring under the curse of knowledge, the meaning behind our intentions is clear. But to students, standing at the threshold, not knowing the things we take so much for granted, our stated lesson outcomes are often impossibly vague. Consider this example:

Learning objective: To understand the influences that affect personal economic choices

Success criteria:

I can:

  • explain how limited resources create the need for choices
  • identify costs and benefits of a choice
  • identify and evaluate incentives
  • analyse choices and predict consequences.

This may be clear to an expert, but to a novice it’s a checklist of barely understood ideas that will lead only to shallow mimicry. The basic premise of letting kids know what they’re supposed to be learning is fine, but I do have a bone to pick with ‘success criteria’.

Dylan Wiliam recommends sharing mark schemes with pupils so that they will know whether they have successfully achieved the learning intention. ‘Student-friendly’ mark schemes are, he contends, “useful as students are introduced to a discipline.”[i] I’m not so sure.

Rubrics are inherently opaque and rarely provide anything meaningful to pupils. In subjects such as English this is especially pronounced: mark-schemes ask us to draw a distinction between such descriptions as ‘confident’ and ‘sophisticated’. One is apparently better than the other, but any difference is arbitrary. (Daisy Christodoulou calls this “adverb soup”.)  Exam boards are forced to provide exemplar work for teachers to understand the process by which they arrive at their decisions. Instead of wasting students’ time with vague, unhelpful success criteria, why not spend time deconstructing exemplars and modelling the expert processes we would use to complete a task.

Giving students detailed information about how to be successful can be enormously powerful. Bullet pointed ‘success criteria’ can be useful if derived from deconstructing an exemplar, patiently scaffolded and then practised, but all too often students are handed an inert checklist of what to include in their work. This is only likely to be useful if they already know what they’re doing.

Here’s an example of how success criteria can be used well:

First, give students an exemplar to deconstruct. In this example from Simon Scarrow’s novel Centurion, a battle is being described. As every Year 7 student knows, if you’re going to describe something then you have to use ‘describing words’ and a describing word is an… adjective. To disrupt this flawed chain of logic, I asked students to identify all the adjectives in the passage.

The mercenaries began to back away from the rebels, stabbing their spears frantically to try to create a gap between them and their enemies. As soon as some were clear they turned and ran towards Cato’s men, immediately endangering their slower comrades as the rebels swarmed into the gaps in the rapidly fragmenting line. A handful were cut off and overwhelmed, attacked from all sides as they desperately swirled around, trying to block the rebels’ blows. Inevitably, a blade darted in, and as a man staggered back from the wound he was hacked to the ground in a flurry of sword blows and spear thrusts.

The observant among you will recognise that the only words being used adjectivally are the comparative ‘slower’ and the participle ‘fragmenting’, both words describing movement. Here is a piece of descriptive writing which does not rely on adjectives in order to describe. There a plenty of descriptive words, it’s just that most of them are verbs and adverbs.

We talk about why Scarrow might have avoided adjectives and decided that because this scene is action, adjectives would just have slowed it down. Anyone stopping to notice ‘sharp swords’ and ‘shiny helmets’ would have had their head cut off. Is, we derived the following success criteria:

We were then able to consider how the sentence structure added to the effect of the passage and noticed that all the sentences are pretty long. Longer sentences mean fewer full stops. And full stops slow us down. From all this we derived the following success criteria:

  • Use longer & varied, complex sentences to help speed the reader up
  • Use powerful, exciting verbs
  • Use adverbs to describe action
  • Avoid using adjectives: they slow the reader down

From this we could then change context and think about how to apply these criteria to the description of, say, a sporting event.

The worst success criteria are those which misguidedly attempt to differentiate. There’s a requirement in many schools to break learning intentions down into levels or grades with students expected to access work at their target grade. This leads to both students and teachers anchoring themselves on data never intended for this purpose and gives tacit permission for low expectations.

Here’s an example of the sort of thing we should avoid:

Learning objective: To be able to work out meaning using clues

Success criteria:

  • C – I can explain what words mean
  • B – I can explore alternative meanings
  • A-A* – I can analyse and evaluate words and phrases to work out the writer’s intentions and impact on the reader

The assumptions made in this example are breathtaking. If you’ve already understood the concepts of language analysis and that writers use linguistic techniques to shape readers’ responses then this is, perhaps, a useful checklist. But if you’re a novice still struggling to integrate these ideas then it’s a recipe for superficiality and low expectations.

Once, when observing a lesson, in which students were made to copy down such an objective, I overheard one student say to another, “I think I’m just going to be C today.”

In summary:

  • Learning intentions: yes over the long term, never as neat, self-contained lesson objectives. And please God, let’s stop wasting everyone’s time by forcing students to write and underline them every lesson!
  • Success criteria: yes if they’re the product of teaching and clearly modelled, scaffolded and practices. No, if they’re a vague checklist of surface features.

[i] Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment p. 65

28 Responses to Why I struggle with learning objectives and success criteria

  1. Karol says:

    Thank you for this succinct analysis. It is spot on!

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    “Learning is not a neat, linear trajectory, it’s liminal.”

    We’ve been writing a history of great physicists, and we’ve come to appreciate that the accumulation of knowledge is primarily linear, with each discovery adding incrementally to what has already been discovered. Even what Thomas Kuhn refers to as ‘paradigm shifts’ are not as sudden as they seem; a heliocentric solar system was proposed by Aristarchus of Samos in 250 BC, and was a part of the scientific conversation from Archimedes right up to Copernicus and Kepler.

    I would argue that individual student’s learning progresses in a similar manner. I’ve recently written a literacy programme for Chemistry–one which uses a morphemic strategy to enable pupils to read, spell and understand scientific terms with Greek and Latin roots. The whole exercise was bedeviled by the lack of a coherent structure in KS3 science. The modules themselves are little more than catalogues of key definitions, and in practice schools deliver these modules in random order. I could have written a much better and much shorter programme had I been working to a structured syllabus such as the one we planned for the Phoenix project.

    Another example of ‘liminal’ thinking was the ‘psycholinguistic guessing game’ invented by Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith. By contrast, the synthetic phonics programmes which have thankfully replaced this are minutely structured, with each skill depending upon previous skills being mastered to the point of automaticity.

    Yet again, my worst subject was always French. The only time I made any progress at all was when I had a teacher who used an approach very similar to that used at Michaela: new learning built upon old, and the old was practised to the point of automaticity.

    Indeed, your notion of ‘liminal’ concepts harks back to the bad old days of Gestalt Pscyhology, and seems totally inconsistent with everything we know about cognitive load. You quite rightly point out that it is almost impossible to gauge how our pupils have absorbed what we have taught them and used them to build their individual schemata, and I would argue that this is just as well. Why should we be trying to do this? I think teachers should be content with more modest objectives: it is not that difficult to convey declarative knowledge, or to determine whether it has been mastered and integrated into an understanding of an area of the curriculum. Alas, the profession has become so obsessed with the upper reaches of Bloom’s pyramid that there is usually virtually nothing at the base to support it. For instance, the new Physics GCSE presumes that pupils will have mastered simple algebra and can recall basic formulas like Ohm’s law. In fact, very few have. Our science A levels are no harder than the O level of a generation ago; such difficulties as they pose are often as not due to the turgid prose favoured by our examination boards.

    • David Didau says:

      Tom, yet again you seem to have wilfully misunderstood everything I’ve written. I believe, as you appear to, in the passing on of organised, sequential bodies of domain knowledge. I’m not arguing for some sort of hand-wringing mysticism, I’m just pointing out the stupidity of saying, I’ve taught a thing therefore you’ve learned it. A student’s individual learning progresses in a predictable manner only in that it is predictable unpredictable. We can, and should, seek to predict those things they will struggle to incorporate into schema and teach them recursively. This is a process undermined by the learning objective as it fools students into believing that they have learned something which they are, in fact, only beginning to wrestle with.

      To suggest that liminality is cognitive load is like saying clean water is inconsistent with having clean hands. Liminality is totally complematary with CLT. The bottleneck caused by overloading working memory is analogous to students’ mimicking partially understood answers becuase they have stored enough information in long term memory to think well enough about a problem. This is liminal space. The way through this threshold between knowing and no knowing is to use worked examples, carefully scripted instruction and provide plenty of opportunity for practice.

      Like you I’m a supporter of what the team at Michaela is trying to achieve, but unlike you, thankfully, they seem to understand both the sense and the spirit of what I write 🙂

  3. As a ‘foreigner’ to the world of education, it seems like everything is unnecessarily convoluted. I can never work out whether this is because I am a newbie and really naive, or whether people are just trying to make a meal out of everything in order to make teaching look like a branch of the Freemasons. I’m sure if I started thinking intensely about every little bit of the lesson (planning, resources, differentiation, marking, what exactly the LO says, what exactly the SC are, what my walls are saying, etc) I would actually go nuts. I’ll be honest, it was a bit of an eye-opener to be hearing about all this learning intention and success criteria business when I started teacher training and I initially thought, “Why can’t we just have a title and be done with it, like the old days? Why does everything have to be so fandangled and special?”

    Personally, I like to show the children how to do things or introduce them to some knowledge, and then I get them to practise either the skill or practise recall of said knowledge. Then, at regular intervals, I test them and give them feedback on how well they’re doing. At all times, I try to put myself in their shoes in order to think about how simply I can pass the knowledge or skill on. I’m a no-frills teacher and this is the only way I can stay a teacher without losing the plot or having to go part-time.

  4. At last – some sense in all the LO and SC nonsense!!!

  5. julietgreen says:

    I agree with David and also with the comments. They’re not contradictory. Aspects of knowledge acquisition are linear, but learning is not because it is subject to multiple stimuli and sources of information. That doesn’t mean we can’t design clear, linear trajectories for the things we want to teach – just that we can’t expect the subjects to follow them exactly. Anyone who has ever worked with any animals, not just humans, knows this.

    I agree that the sharing of objectives and ‘success criteria’ (there seem to be several different definitions of what they should be) has become a meaningless ritual. By all means, make the learning transparent and offer models and examples so that intentions are clear, but as you say, this is not always reduced to a simplistic listing of criteria, particularly when they are as vague as those in the descriptors.

    Isn’t the key issue always the same? What matters is the subject knowledge of the teacher. I was in a discussion on Friday about simplifying our weekly lesson plan format. My suggestion was that it could be rectangular shaped, but that it didn’t have to be.

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  7. Absolutely fantastic that someone high profile is able to say this. A lesson of mine was recently criticised because the objectives and outcomes were not of the right ‘language'(I don’t want to identify myself by being too explicit).
    I once worked in a school where every objective had to be written as “I can [verb] …” But you were allowed to use ‘understand’ as this would indicate you were a lazy teacher. I used to get sick of the lies, and occasionally for mischieve see if the kids noticed that it said “I can’t add fractions” which was more accurate at the start (or even end) of lesson. A colleague at the time was braver than me and would say even to an LA advisor that his aim was they knew more at the end of the lesson than they did at the start. This ties in nicely with the recent blog. https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2015/12/05/the-return-of-the-most-annoying-question-in-education/
    I’m in favour of scrapping target grades and tracking because this wastes so much time and detracts \ distracts from actual teaching and learning. I also feel the same about objectives. Wouldn’t it be great if teachers were trusted to just get on with the job rather than suffer interference from non subject specialists (who don’t seem to have enough to do)

  8. Ahmed J says:

    I’m struggling with this at my school currently. The need to write the LO every damn day, even if it’s a continued piece of work.

    I’ve asked many times, why? No one can really provide an adequate answer, so they hide behind, we’re teaching them about presentation.”

    I’m also in favour of deconstruction and reconstruction because the lessons that have been most memorable to the children and useful are the lessons we shared what a good one looks like and can we do better.

    Thank you for this, I’ll keep asking why we are writing the LO every lesson.

  9. NainiS says:

    ground in a flurry of sword blows and spear thrusts…. I came up with two more adjectives …”sword and spear in this case (though they may seem to be nouns!)

    Naini Singh, Tokyo

  10. Lots of common sense here David – good to read. I especially like your focus on sequences of lessons rather than the single lesson. It’s the single lesson mentality that we must work hard to stamp out.

  11. I came across the CBA scheme recently in a school visit. The students had renamed it Can’t Be Arsed objectives ever time the teacher asked them to “check their CBA’s”.

    Out of the mouths of babes and all that.


  12. Nicky says:

    They are noun phrases

  13. I like the idea of a success criteria as it helps the students decide where they stand in regard to the learning objective. It would be easy to have them rate themselves before I give them the official assessment.

  14. Adrian says:

    Actually from what you have written David you actually don’t have an issue with Learning Intentions and Success Criteria you have an issue with how they are used by some teachers. You don’t have an issue with cars if they are driven poorly do you?

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  20. Tina Courtenay-Thompson says:

    I totally agree, David. The best way to plan a lesson is to start with the text and move outwards. Then, miraculously, the learning objectives write themselves.

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  22. Steve T says:

    I love your blogs and I would love to put them into practice. It would have to be in trial form as my school has very rigid requirements for differentiation, objectives, etc.

    The only problem, and one I come across all the time, is that the vast majority of these kinds of posts are written by humanities teachers, primarily English teachers.

    I then struggle to see how I could translate all of these, IMHO, excellent ideas into my own subject. I teach computer science and IT and I would love to have my kids deconstruct an exemplar, but how to do that when the majority of lessons I teach are not skills based but knowledge based.

    I am currently teaching my year 9s about networks and the internet. Part of this is knowing what a network is and what the advantages and disadvantages are. How then, do I apply your techniques?

    An exemplar would surely be the finished product. I need a way for them to gain the knowledge and the only way I – and anyone else I have ever worked with – can think to do this is to tell them what they need to know and then make sure they know it. It always ends as a list of success criteria, fancied up with some form of Bloom’s but still a list.

    There is very little writing I can find on pedagogy by science teachers and I can’t help feeling that this is because it is simply a completely different ball game.

    I hope I’m wrong. I don’t like the way I teach. I just can’t see any other way to do it.

  23. C. Forth says:

    I read your article in trying to find help with responding to this question on my evaluation:

    “When thinking about Success Criteria and the special needs of your students, how could using the Success Criteria support the working memory of your students?”

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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