What’s the Use of Lesson Aims?

I have a confession to make.

Lesson aims scare me. Just a bit, not a lot, but they do scare me. My first exposure to them was during the miserable 6 months I spent training as a state-school teacher in the UK: not only were there aims, but there were objectives, which apparently were slightly different, and there had to be one aim and three objectives – or was it one objective and three aims? – differentiated by level to divide the students neatly into high, medium and low achievers. Oh, and they couldn’t contain any reference to what students would be doing, only what they’d be learning. But they couldn’t be too vague either. My aims were never good enough. I was told this often.

When I did the CELTA, I got into trouble again! The tutor actually laughed at one of my aims, saying that it didn’t require students to learn anything – if I remember correctly, this one had been phrased ‘Students will practise…’.

Fast-forward a sheaf of years, and I was on the academic team of a mid-sized teaching organisation, working with upwards of thirty existing workbooks and taking a lead in designing new ones. I found that my lesson aims were not alone in being variously vague, tentative, or contorted in order to try and fit around what the lessons were actually ‘about’. We already had plenty of aims that sounded a bit odd, or else didn’t quite match the lesson content, and yet rewording them took a lot longer, and caused more disagreement, than almost any other intricacies of course planning.

So here’s a blog post about aims, and why on earth we torture ourselves (or the educational establishment tortures me, anyhow) with the requirement to state them in lesson plans.

Aims are abstract. Even the wording tends to be awkward e.g. use of future perfect ‘By the end of the lesson, students will have improved their ability to…’. Note also the tentativeness and imprecision. We don’t dare say ‘students will have learned…’, or ‘students will know…’ because this comes close to the rookie error/ fatal heresy of assuming that what is taught equals what is learned.

Then there’s the issue of multiple aims: what if a text is used as a reading comprehension, a stimulus for debate and then recycled again for examples of a particular grammatical or lexical item? Should there be a main aim and several subsidiary ones, or a list of equal aims covering different skills? And if a lesson needs to cover multiple aims, how on earth do we fit the material around them in a way that’s user-friendly?

It’s much easier in practice to start with an idea and figure out the aims later.

David Nunan acknowledged this back in 1989:

“Rather than identifying a particular item, say ‘talking about oneself’, ‘nationalities’ and the verb ‘be’, and creating a text and a task to teach these items, one might find or create an interesting/ relevant text and task at the appropriate level of difficulty, and then identify which language items on the syllabus checklist can be introduced or taught through the text/task”. (Nunan 1989: p.19)

Nunan was writing here about the process of materials design. If a coursebook writer is likely to take inspiration from texts (or, nowadays, viral videos, news stories, personal experiences and the like), then how much more do teachers do likewise, aiming to find a suitable ‘hook’ to engage their students, deciding on how to use it in the lesson, and then deciding how this slots into the academic context of their learning needs. In recent conversations with UK-based language teachers, Tim Goodier found some evidence that “[t]he process of defining learning aims was often seen as a secondary step in lesson planning”. (Goodier 2016: p.27)

This ‘doing what works’ approach could be for positive reasons as much as negative: it can be seen as an opportunity for personalisation and creating interest among a particular group of students as much as the result of limited planning time, constraints to classroom resources, or lack of rigour on the teacher’s part. I have no doubt too that most experienced teachers are aware, in the background, of the students’ gaps in knowledge or further learning needs, even when applying the most short-term criteria to the selection of material for lessons.

Nevertheless, it seems eccentric or even perverse to choose the content of lessons first and only then to figure out the aims or purposes of this content in terms of increasing students’ learning!

But is this really what’s happening?

I’d guess it isn’t, and that’s because lesson aims as appended to lesson plans aren’t really the purposes of the lesson at all.


‘Aims’ aren’t really the aim

Let’s look at these short-term criteria in more detail: what do teachers think about when planning a lesson for a class they’ll be teaching imminently? I’d suggest that the considerations can be quite broad, and not necessarily related to learning. For example:

  • Ease of planning (Is it ready-prepared? Have I got the textbook? Are there extra resources to cut up?)
  • Accessibility (Not just the overall level, but the balance of skills – can the students cope with any listening material/ texts in the lesson?)
  • Cultural accessibility (Will they have anything to say on this topic? Might anyone find it sensitive?)
  • Age and maturity level
  • Teachability (Do I know how to teach this? Can I give clear instructions?)
  • Classroom management (Will it cause problems with rowdy students? What can I do if nobody wants to talk?)
  • Practicality (Will it work?)
  • Timings (Can I fit the activities in? Do I even know how long they’ll take?)
  • Flexibility (Can I replace some of the lesson if it doesn’t work? Am I taking a risk here? Do I have a plan B?)
  • Career (Might anyone observe me? Do I need to play it safe? Can this lesson save me from student complaints? Will this lesson help me to expand my own skills or reputation?
  • Enjoyment (for the students, and sometimes the teacher!)

Aha – you might have thought – these are considerations for teaching not learning! True, and I’ll concede they’re not ideal from the point of view of maximising the effectiveness for students. As Michael Lewis complained, a few years after the Nunan book which I quoted earlier, “Teachers look for lessons or ideas that ‘work’. Little or no analysis is offered of why they work, and whether other things might work better”. Lewis doesn’t hold back on the condemnation, referring to such lessons as “recipes and gimmicks”! (1993, p.190-191)

Perhaps it is for this reason that lesson aims have become institutionalised as a kind of written manifesto or contract, ‘proving’ that the teacher or lesson writer’s primary purpose was indeed linguistic after all. Weekly planners, schemes of work and differentiated objectives have thus become reified as a means to force teachers to demonstrate fidelity to learning over teaching.


Whose Aims?

At this point, we should take a sideways step to consider who chooses the content of the lesson. It seems to me that despite decades-old moves and techniques to increase learner autonomy, the teacher is still usually expected to ‘come up with the goods’, perhaps partly because of their privileged position as mediator between institutional expectations (syllabi, end-of-year exams etc.) and the individual needs of students.

However, giving students more input into what happens in lessons is an attractive idea, and hard to argue against on its own terms. In many situations, I’ve been encouraged to consult students at the start of the programme of lessons, to find out which areas of skill or language they would like to improve. Rarely, though, has this led to a straightforward or tidy process of planning lessons which satisfy students, ticking off their aims one by one, and completing the course in line with their initial stated aspirations. A complex web of pitfalls (to mix a metaphor) seems to get in the way:

    • The students’ aims may be far too generic (to speak better), unrealistic or difficult to realise (to understand song lyrics), or may relate to activities rather than learning (to play more games, to do fewer worksheets). This shouldn’t be surprising, as most students are not educationalists and so cannot be expected to come up with a workable set of aims on their own.
    • Wanting to be able to do something isn’t the same as wanting to go through the effort of learning to do it. For instance, a student whose aspiration in coming to class is to have better pronunciation may not necessarily appreciate working on phonetics; a student who dreams of being more fluent may be reluctant to take part in role play activities which are specifically intended to increase fluency.
    • Students don’t necessarily know what they don’t know. This would naturally create holes in any syllabus written by students. Even the most generic of aims that they may state at the beginning of the programme are likely to be based on their previous learning experience – thus, even if a group of students agreed together on a complete, coherent syllabus for the things they’d like to learn, it would make sense for the teacher to apply discretion to add in further ideas, either at the planning stage or during the delivery of the course.
    • Not all students want the same things, so negotiation is necessary in order to give an entire class something that will ‘work for’ every student.
    • How, when and how often students are consulted will most likely have a significant effect on what they say. Near the start of a course, when the classmates don’t know each other and are just getting used to a new teacher, there are considerations of face-saving, politeness, the desire to make a good impression, which could skew the outcome of any negotiation of aims.

Naturally, there are ways to mitigate these issues, with guidance from the teacher (or potentially a school curriculum planner etc). I have previously suggested some recipes for how to manage the students’ input into the course: however, it is clear that the more that students are guided to give competent input, the less authentically student-led the resulting lesson aims will be.

Conversely, even if the aims are ‘imposed’ by a teacher or coursebook writer, students are quite capable of taking a lesson in a different direction – all this needs is a teacher willing to be flexible, and a reasonable consensus among the class. I’d guess most teachers could come up with multiple anecdotes on this point! One perfect example is the teacher interviewed by Kathleen Bailey who completely abandoned a planned lesson in response to student questions about the recent primary elections:

“And we started talking about the Primaries, and it got to ‘What is the electoral process?’, and we dropped the whole lesson plan, and explained the electoral voting system. … what we were gonna do was an info. gap activity, which is all very well and good, but this was true information exchange. They really wanted, they wanted to know.” (‘Joyce’, quoted in Bailey 1996: 28).

What of the aims of Joyce’s lesson? We could say that they changed and developed during the course of the lesson in negotiation between teacher and students; we might alternatively say that the aims remained unfulfilled along with the original lesson plan but that learning took shape nonetheless. Either way, it is clear that a worthwhile lesson can take place somewhat independently of whichever lesson aims have been stated or set in advance. Additionally, the aim is at the mercy of the human forces involved: it can be modified or negated through the actions of the teacher, the students, or a combination of the two.

By extension, an aim should be just that – an aspiration for what gain may accrue from the lesson to be taught – rather than any kind of contract or indeed institution. Furthermore, the aims do not belong to the lesson but to the humans involved. Any sentence starting with ‘The aim of this lesson…’ is suspect at best: whether we define a ‘lesson’ as a set of materials in a coursebook, a plan written by a teacher the night before meeting the class, or the period between 12.00 and 13.30 on a Tuesday, it is clear that these are just things and do not have an aim unless one is ascribed by a person, be they the lesson writer, teacher or group of students.


What shall we do with lesson aims, then?

Having read this far, you might be wondering if I’m going to say ‘Let’s just do away with lesson aims’. I’m not intending to go that far – the fact that something is complex, even problematic, does not mean it has no purpose. However, I do feel that the ‘institution’ of lesson aims could be unpicked a little, to see if aspects of it could be repurposed, reworded or replaced. To do this, I want to look briefly at three situations in which lesson aims are often recorded.

1. Let’s consider first the category of ‘off-the-peg’ published materials, in textbooks or online. Clearly, the main users of lesson aims here will be teachers, who may be dipping in looking for a particular language point, function or skill, or in the case of a complete course may need to know what’s coming next for their students in order to plan ahead. In textbooks, it’s very often the table of contents that performs this function, while the aims themselves may be listed under the teacher page for the individual lesson. The contents table often refers to the types of activities or functions included, in addition to the grammar/ lexis/ pronunciation to be practised. In this way, it works more as an ‘abstract’ of the lesson, compared with the ‘manifesto’ approach often used in writing aims. I suspect that it is the contents table that teachers refer to more often, and would find more useful.

Students often get an abridged version of the lesson aim, an ‘I can’ statement or similar. Tim Goodier compares examples from Headway and English Unlimited, and is heavily critical of both, including wordings such as ‘talk about memory’ and ‘talk about complaining’ which do not match the main communicative goals of the lessons they describe (Goodier 2016: p. 42). Neither of these are particularly idiomatically worded either – we’d more often say ‘describe a memory’ or ‘make a complaint’, or if the goal really is more abstract, ‘talk about how to make a complaint’. I would suggest that lesson writers and particularly publishers, who have more time to consider the wording of their texts, could do more to ensure that everything on the page provides a model of usable, idiomatic English. Looking through my lesson aims on this site (which are intended for teachers or independent learners alike), I realise I could do more in that regard.

2. In some teaching contexts, there is a bank of lessons written by teachers for teachers. I’ve written a fair few such lessons. In this case, too, a good system of filing lessons by content is useful. Categories of ‘video-based lessons’, ‘getting to know you lessons’, or ‘last-minute no-prep activities’ are often of more practical relevance than language-based concerns such as ‘lessons for talking about imaginary possibilities’.

3. Finally, the dreaded ‘lesson plan proforma’ as used on CELTA programmes and in preparing for observed lessons. In contrast to the preceding two situations, there may be some actual benefit in having the lesson writer state aims in ‘manifesto’ style, so that the observer/ trainer can gain more information about the teacher’s thought processes during the planning stage. However, there are other aspects of the thought process which could also be useful – not just ‘What is it your intention for the students to have learned by the end of the lesson?’, but ‘How does this new material relate to what the students have learned already?’, ‘Why did you choose this lesson material, and why now?’, ‘What is it about the content or activities in this lesson that will motivate your students?’. All of these can be covered just as well via a pre-observation discussion as through the artificial process of writing them in separate boxes on a proforma, to be filed and silently perused by the observer. (I’ve previously blogged about what I believe needs to be done about observations to make them more honest).

If a proforma has to be imposed, why not at least enliven it a little by changing some of the ‘educationese’? Out with the future perfect and careful choice of verbs. Out with convoluted sentence heads like ‘students will have improved/ learned’. Let’s assume that any new stuff will be learned and old stuff will be improved: if the lesson’s effective then that will happen, and if the lesson’s deficient then a nice set of lesson aims won’t improve it. How about the following:

What’s the lesson about? (a very brief summary)
Teaching Aims: (e.g. have students been struggling with a language point? Has it been six weeks since they last did any extended listening? Have they asked about a particular cultural topic? Or is the lesson intended to get to know each other better or to help manage a difficult student?)
New language: (can be grammar, lexis, functions) Skills covered: (e.g. reading for gist, speaking in a discussion)
Recycled language: (as judged by the teacher based on what they know of the students) What will motivate students? (e.g. personalisation, games, topics of interest, upcoming exams…)

I reckon that most teachers would find this a lot easier than filling in lesson aims or objectives: with the exception of recycled language in the case of a new or newish class, there ought to be something to write in each box: if there isn’t, then that’s a sure sign that the content of the lesson plan needs looking at again. Most of the categories lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, for instance with ‘New language’: this could be a smattering of vocabulary if it’s a reading-based lesson, or a whole functional area such as ‘ways of making a complaint’. This openness to interpretation is intentional, in order to accommodate different approaches and to avoid covertly nudging teachers in the direction of structured grammar-based lessons to the exclusion of task-based methods, or vice versa.

Of course, the wording here could be tweaked in various ways. I’ve recently been reading Judy Willis’s explanations of how learning involves creating new connections (dendrites) between items stored in the memory (neurons), facilitated by positive emotional affect (which activates the limbic system), and considering how these could be applied to lesson planning (Willis 2006). Unscientifically, and at the risk of gimmickry, we could then make some changes to the wording of the proforma above. I suggest this not as a way to terrify new teachers with unfamiliar terminology, but as an experiment, a possible way to provoke experienced teachers to think again about ‘what works’.

What’s the lesson about?
Dendrites and Neurons (new language and its relation to what students have learned already) Input types (visual, auditory etc)
Limbic food (personalisation etc.)

Summary

  • Writing lesson aims is an unwieldy process.
  • It’s natural for teachers or lesson writers to ascribe lesson aims retrospectively, having already decided on the content of the lesson.
  • A ‘lesson’ can be a set of resources and ideas or a span of time in which students are taught. Either way, it does not have an ‘aim’. The aim is ascribed by a human, normally the teacher. However, the students can influence the content of the lesson by negotiation with the teacher.
  • If a lesson is written by one person, to be taught by others, then an ‘abstract’ or table of contents is more useful than a written aim.
  • In the context of teacher development, the content and purpose of the lesson could be recorded in a clearer, more honest and more user-friendly way without wording them as aims.

 


Bailey, K (1996): ‘The best laid plans: teachers’ in-class decisions to depart from their lesson plans’ in Kathleen M. Bailey and David Nunan, ed: Voices From the Language Classroom, Cambridge University Press.

Goodier, T (2016): Working with CEFR can-do statements: an investigation of UK English language teacher beliefs and published materials, Masters Dissertation, King’s College London.

Lewis, M (1993): The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a Way Forward, Language Teaching Publications.

Nunan, D (1989): Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom, Cambridge University Press.

Willis, J (2006): Research-based strategies to ignite student learning, ASCD.

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