Posted by: principalsintraining | March 2, 2014

Moving Beyond Task-Completion: Conscious Engagement With the Moment


I ran into a high school acquaintance at a basketball game recently; turns out his wife is assistant principal at our “rival” school.  We had a great time catching up – he’s a biology teacher at our alma mater – and having a little bit of “teacher vs admin” fun (oh, and also some serious skepticism on his part toward Twitter as an educational tool; no hurt feelings, I felt the same way for a long time!).  One point he made stuck with me though: the administrative expectation that teachers write the day’s Learning Objective (LO) on the whiteboard.  His beef with it?  It feels like a “checklist” item for the occasional (or, in some schools, virtually non-existent) admin walkthrough.  He knows what the learning objectives are; he tells his students what they are.  He asked the rhetorical question: if they’re not written on the board, does that mean there isn’t clarity of purpose for the day?  Does that mean that students don’t know why it is they are doing what they’re doing?

I’ll start with a confession (no shame) – I have thought for some time that displaying the LO for the day is an important set-up for a successful class session.  It means the teacher has thought about what they’re going to do, and that the work of the day is grounded in a deeper purpose (key point here: LO is NOT a series of tasks – that’s the agenda).  As an administrator, observer, and evaluator, this information is something I do look for in a classroom setting, and when I run meetings I am mindful about establishing the objectives with those present to establish a mental framework for our time together.  But my friend’s challenge got to me (in a good way – after all, I’m writing this because of his challenge!) – if I want students and staff to continually move beyond “how we’ve always done things” kind of thinking, then I’d better act the same way.  I need to question my own assumptions about what constitutes a highly-effective learning environment.

I agree in part with my friend’s frustration: having a written LO on the board can be another standard, unexamined practice (desks in rows, or having desks, period!) that doesn’t elicit any deeper level of thinking.  A teacher could write it up as a matter of form, but not do anything to necessarily engage students in the process of reaching toward/beyond that objective.  A passing administrator, who, compared to the teacher (and students), spends very little time in that one classroom, could see the objective posted and think all was well.  No administrator I know walks around with a compliance checklist, nor do they walk into a learning space primed to ding the teacher as many times as they can – that said, I understand that there are administrators and school leaders out there that do.

So how do we collectively move beneath the surface layers of the day’s tasks to better help students experience purposeful, engaging, and self-driven learning?

There ARE in fact a few things that are far more important than communicating the LO to students in a variety of ways:

  • Involving students in creating the Learning Objectives for the day – and the curriculum that drives it.  Here are a few excellent posts from Starr Sackstein and David Hunter on including students in curriculum design.  In fact, the reflection post I wrote on the #slowchatED I moderated a few weeks back (“Students As Co-Workers”) is ALL about this.

  • Taking time EVERY day to reflect on the learning happening (or struggling to happen) DURING class. Make sure to save some minutes at the end of the “learning session” to have students reflect (in pairs, as a whole class) on how the day’s learning went.  95% of all classes I observe (and certainly that I taught – I will not cast stones!) end with a summary of what comes next.  Well, what comes next doesn’t help each student (or teacher) reflect on the experience they just had.  Who cares if we have to interrupt something going on?  Rushing out of this class to hurtle into the next one doesn’t allow the synapses to connect – it’s like doing an awesome workout and then failing to properly cool down and take in the necessary nutrition for recovery.

  • Make time for every student to articulate their understanding of the learning objective.  This is sure to come out differently for every kid, but the exercise has many benefits: 1) “Knowing” something because you’ve seen/read it is one thing; articulating it in your OWN words is something else.  Think of it as embedded practice in public speaking.  2) We learn socially.  The thoughts, insights, and phrasing that our peers use influence and deepen our thinking – even if (especially if?) we don’t agree.  The more kids hear OTHER kids’ thoughts the more exposure they will get to different ways of approaching the same issue/challenge (innovation in the making)  3) Formative feedback for the learning community (not just teacher) – e.g., “How clear are we all on WHY we’re doing what we are doing and what that entails?”  Our coach Jim May recently took my school’s New Tech teacher cohort through this exercise with students in one of our pilot New Tech classes; it was a powerful experience for 15 adults to debrief these interviews and discuss what it takes to ensure that ALL kids go deeper than just task-completion.  Another key point: this exercise was NOT a referendum on if the teacher had the LO written or not – the LO was available in many places.  It showed us that having the LO displayed is no guarantee that kids know the purpose of their learning.

  • Mindfulness.  There is a movement afoot to incorporate this into standard classroom pedagogy; teacher/instructional tech coach/CANadian Victoria Olson discusses such a program they use in her elementary school in a recent Techlandia podcast.  Another organization working with schools is Mindfulness Without Borders.  This is a key foundation for good learning/presence and brings us back to a better grounding in Maslow – as people (kids AND adults) we need to have certain conditions met (physical, psychological, emotional) to enable high level executive functioning.  This doesn’t have to be guided by any specific protocol by any means; the simple act of providing a few minutes throughout the day to pause, breathe, and re-establish our connection to what is happening NOW (and not last period, yesterday, etc.) seems to me to be one of the most effective tools (albeit underutilized) to increase engagement and interest.  (School leaders – this is no less relevant to you as you plan your next meeting or professional development session)

So I need to get back in touch with my old high school acquaintance.  I want him to know that I thought about his challenge, and that ultimately he and I agree on a lot – writing up the learning objective is not, in isolation, a sign that good learning is happening (I still support it as a practice).  But our conversation isn’t over; I’m upping the ante (in the spirit of #eduRIVALRY) and asking him how he knows his students have that deeper grasp of the purpose beneath the tasks.  Just like we can’t let our administrators assess successful teaching and learning from behind a clipboard checklist, we need to push teachers and students to consciously engage in multiple strategies and practices to create, implement, and evaluate the learning going on each day.



  1. I don’t have a problem with writing a LO on the board. The problem is when the LO is expected to be a specific standard. There are some days when my lesson might have to do with developing a Habit of Mind, or exploring a concept, or inspiring my students, or learning a LIFE skill. Limiting me to a standard is where I drag my feet and heart.

    Additionally sometimes the LO is a surprise or secondary objective, I think the best thing you can put on the board is a question, whether it’s the LO or not.

    • Yesyesyes. Or maybe it’s one of your “Cool pictures to use” that serves as the foundation for the day. And why just one? Have a driving premise (standard or not) and then have kids come up and write a question they have, or a goal. And as the question/wonder gets “answered,” then maybe they go up and erase it and others take its place. So maybe the whiteboard just needs to be this constant mashup of questions – like the wooden telephone poles that have countless layers of stapled fliers crusted onto them. Oh yeah and the teacher putting up the things s/he is wondering about too. Thanks as always for reading and taking a moment to share your thoughts.

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