Over the last few weeks, the topic of sharing lesson aims and objectives with learners has cropped up several times. I was recently having dinner with my brother, who is a member of the senior faculty at a British secondary school, when we got on to the topic of lesson aims and objectives. It is an understatement to say he was surprised and shocked to learn that some ELT teachers don’t share aims and objectives with learners at the start of the lesson.
The topic has cropped up several times since and I have come to notice there are two schools of thought: those who believe in sharing lesson aims and objectives with the learners, and those who don’t.
There are arguments for and against sharing lesson aims. This post will consider both sides of the coin.
Sharing Aims and Objects
Those who share lesson aims and objects with their learners most often do this by writing them in a column on the left-hand side of the whiteboard – often known as a Lesson Menu. Others present them as a slide on PowerPoint. They might be referred to explicitly, with the teacher going through each point one by one at the beginning and end of the lesson, or they might just linger there, on display for the learners to read at their leisure.
I asked my brother why teachers at his school share their lesson aims and objectives at the beginning of lessons. He provided quite a nice analogy as a response: “When you listen to the news, it starts with the bulletins, then it goes into the details of each story one by one, and then it finishes with a summary of each story.”
While this analogy is quite beautiful, it overlooks two key features:
- The format of the news is a particular genre and has little to do with classroom teaching.
- Very often, based on the bulletins, we decide which news reports we will skip over or turn off from and which ones we will focus on – probably because they interest us.
Ignoring Aims and Objectives
This notion of tuning out is particularly important in the classroom. When a learner walks in and reads “Present Perfect” under the aims and objectives, not only are we risking them writing the lesson off all together, stating ideas such as “it’s too difficult”, “not this again” or “we’ve done this, I know it”, but we are also risking the effectiveness of the lesson.
What is meant by the “effectiveness of the lesson” is best explained with an example.
Sticking with the topic of the Present Perfect, in order to teach this you will want to present the target language in a clear context – most probably a text. However, in order to make sure the meaning of the text is completely clear, so as to ensure the notion of the Present Perfect is there before you give them the actual English words, you need to check they understand the text. This is probably best done with a short gist task.
However, the second you put the text in front of them, they won’t do the gist task you have just given them, because they have seen “Present Perfect” on the board and will be scanning the text for that. Even if they don’t do this consciously, they will be doing it subconsciously.
Don’t believe me? Think back to your school days when you were told to read exam papers through from beginning to end before writing a single answer – the argument was to get your brain thinking about the questions. It is the same notion here.
The counter-argument to the one above is that by telling the learners in advance what they will be doing in the lesson, not only will they feel informed of the lesson’s aim and purpose but they will also subconsciously activate their previous knowledge about the topic. This way you will be getting them thinking about the topic before you even get on to it.
However, while that does stand to reason, it does make one wonder: why do have lead-ins then if the same aimed is achieved through sharing lesson aims?
Surely, if anything, you would be better of writing on the whiteboard the lesson aims as you go through them, after having aroused their interest and covered the topic. This would make the lesson menu a chronological record of what has been covered in the class, rather than a table of what is to be done.
Lesson menus can very often be poor in quality, in that they don’t actually do what they are supposed to. The original idea behind them is to share with the learners what the aim of the lesson is. However, most teachers end up producing lesson menus which provide a description of activities – a run-through of what will be done in the lesson, rather than why.
For example: it isn’t uncommon to see lesson menus like this:
- Revise the Present Perfect
- Read a text on travelling to New York
- Complete a gap fill
- Play a game
The ‘aim’ of the lesson is buried somewhere in those activities, but that is all they are: activities and procedures. They do not represent what the aim of the lesson is. By the end of the lesson, the learners might be able to say what they have done or completed, but they probably won’t be able to state what they have learnt.
Furthermore, if you don’t cover everything in the lesson menu, then the learners will walk away from the lesson thinking they and you have underachieved. This can lead to a number of negative knock-on effects, including the sense of failure and the notion of unprofessionalism on the educator’s part.
Recapping on the Lesson
Time and time again I see teachers finishing lessons with the short “What have we learnt today? Tell your partner!” activity.
Not only are the learners aware this activity is a complete cop-out and a mere time-killer to finish off the last 5 minutes or so, it is an unprincipled activity that is setting you up for failure, especially if you are being observed.
It is very difficult to truly learn something in a single lesson: language is acquired over time. What usually happens in lessons is that you gain knowledge and further practice in a given aspect of the language. So, asking learners what they have learnt is never going to reveal a true answer.
Furthermore, if you ask them to recap on the lesson during an observation and they aren’t able to state what they have learnt, then you are putting every thing in place for the lesson to look like a complete failure.