Thursday, August 6, 2009

Making the Shift, Part 1: No More Objectives

The following statement preoccupied my thoughts for several hours: “As a result, a large gap separates the skills and strategies taught in school from the executive function processes needed for success there and in the workplace.” The basis for this conclusion, the cause, is education’s focus “on the content, or the what, rather than the process, or the how, of learning.” Our teaching frequently fails to emphasize executive functions—the cognitive processes that enable goal setting, problem solving, organizing, attention shifting, and metacognition.1

In introducing the Purview Project, I wrote about the shift to a more thinking-centric emphasis in education, and in a recent post focused on thinking within the disciplines, I described how researchers illustrated the difference between knowing what and knowing how by contrasting AP social studies’ students and practicing historians results on differing types of assessment. Despite the recent discussion of national standards in the US, I believe this shift is underway, necessary, and inevitable.

A shift in what we emphasize requires shifts in our own thinking about teaching and learning. If we teach more process and less content, textbooks will either change or become obsolete. If we emphasize how rather than what, assessment will need to engage students in demonstrating how to do rather than what to memorize. If we want to develop students’ executive functions, we need to reexamine every aspect of our practice. We need to close the “large gap,” beginning with one of our most ingrained ideas: objectives.

What we know and believe about objectives depends somewhat on how long we’ve been educators. I was trained to develop “behavioral” objectives that specified what students would specifically do and to what percentage of accuracy they would do it. Wording was a major concern and everything had to be measurable. (You can still see this philosophy being emphasized in current discussions.) Researchers then divided behavioral objectives into three types: cognitive, psychomotor, and affective. We were told to display the objectives for students to see. Then, for a time, behaviorism and its objectives became “yesterday’s news” and "outcomes" became the focus. These were followed by objectives addressing student “emotional quotient” or “EQ.” Next came different objectives for each of the learning styles and/or multiple intelligences, and objectives based on various taxonomies of thinking. In many schools, more emphasis was placed on form and wording than imagination.

That’s right, imagination. Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”2 School-based learning happens as a teacher’s envisioned future becomes a student’s reality. If we are shifting to a greater focus on developing students’ executive functions, our notions of objectives need to be replaced with something more imaginative, something more forward looking than what we can measure tomorrow.

But what? What can provide a guiding vision that will focus our teaching?

In his book Think Better, Tim Hurson introduces the concept of “Target Future,” an “imagined future” so “powerful and compelling” that it generates motivation to achieve it. It generates “Future Pull.”3

That sounds great, but how do you develop one? Hurson suggests an act of imagination; he suggests telling yourself a story. Before you succumb to the temptation to write this off as too involved or requiring too much time, allow me ask a simple question: When you envision your students using the thinking processes you’ve taught them, when they’re applying such thinking on their own, what do you see? Stretch that vision, seeing your students utilizing the thinking they’ve learned in multiple scenarios outside of the classroom. Hurson suggests making this vision, this story as “vivid and sensory” as possible. How would your students feel? How would their use of the thinking influence their work and their interactions with others? Imagine all this as reality. That’s a “Target Future.” That’s what you’re teaching for—what you work to make real.

What’s the difference? Objectives tie us to schools, to classrooms, to limited contexts for our students to put their learning to use. “Each student will be able to answer two-digit addition problems with 85% accuracy.” See how that pulls you into the classroom. We feel like we are teaching for a classroom-based assessment that features an easily determined rate of accuracy. The problem is that we are not educating students to live successful lives in a classroom. We’re trying to close the “large gap” between school and successful living in the real world.

Wording a “Target Future” so that it satisfies those who insist on objectives may be a challenge. (Something for which you can offer suggestions in the comments!) However, we won’t educate for the real world until we envision our students operating within it, using the executive functions we’ve helped them develop.

In future posts, I hope to explore additional shifts we as teachers can make that will aid the inevitable shift to more thinking-centric education. For now, consider opening your next lesson with, “Students, let me tell you a story, a story in which you are the main characters…” Then use all your teaching ability to make that story their reality.
  1. Meltzer, L. (ed.), Executive Function in Education, (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007), xi-xiii.
  2. Einstein, A. Albert Einstein Quotes,
  3. Hurson, T., Think Better, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 127-141.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're on to something when you say that instructional goals need a heavy dose of imagination. Imagination, as James Marshall (2000)has pointed out, is characterized by openness, tolerance for ambiguity, willingness to explore, creativity, the consideration of multiple perspectives, and groundedness. These are all the qualities that allowed the historians to succeed and the AP students to fail in the example you gave earlier.

We need to focus clearly on the role imagination plays in the future lives of our students and design classroom environments that can nurture the imagination.

Sumara (2002) emphasized that imagination is a critical component for achieving interpretation and insight:
"To imagine, then, is to create interpreted bridges between what is held in memory, what currently exists, and what is predicted about the future. From this perspective,imagining is not a special act limited to certain persons or certain situations. Rather,imagining is central to human cognition" (p. 5). Imagination is not something limited to the 'child with a big imagination'. It's more common and central than that.

Further, your blog post suggests that imagining is central to motivation. Both for the teacher's planning and the student's learning, developing a Target Future has power to develop plans to engage students in learning.

J.K. Rowling's Harvard Commencement Speech goes a step beyond the cognitive and motivational. She suggests that imagination enables empathy:

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power which enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Thanks for blogging.


Warren Nickerson

Sumara, D. (2002). Why reading literature in school still matters: Imagination, interpretation, insight. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Marshall, J. (2000). Research on response to literature. In M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, P.D.
Pearson, & R. Barr, Handbook of Reading Research (Vol.3, chap. 23, pp. 381-401).
Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.