Teaching music without learning objectives

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‘Sometimes I like it all to be a magical mystery tour – with surprises round the corner. How boring always to know where you’re going/what you’re going to do!’ (Lis McCullough)

At last week’s music teacher symposium here in Cambridge I dropped into the conversation that Robin Hammerton HMI had recently announced that there was no expectation that teachers use learning objectives.

There was one of those group gasps.

These were teachers well socialized into the technical rationality of contemporary schooling.

Learning objectives – non-negotiable as their managers would say and until fairly recently no objectives on the board meant a lesson observation being rated ‘unsatisfactory’. [1]

Without learning objectives how can learning experiences be planned, outcomes stated, criteria for success determined or assessment brought under control? All those things percolating through National Strategies, reinforced by Ofsted of the time and that have become part of the woodwork. [2]

No learning objectives! But doesn’t that mean no Bloom’s Taxonomy? No purpose, no direction, no way of evaluating the success of the teaching, no way of measuring the effectiveness of the learning? [3]

Presumably Robin Hammerton had behavioural objectives in mind, those objectives that are sufficiently precise for their effect to be visible and measurable. [4]

For Robert Mager ‘an objective is an intent communicated by a statement describing a proposed change in a learner – a statement of what a learner is to be like when he has successfully completed a learning experience.’ [5]

I am drawing from chapter 6 of Elliot Eisner’s ‘The Educational Imagination’. The chapter is called ‘ Educational Aims, Objectives and Other Aspirations’ and must rank as one of the most thorough investigations of the topic. [6]

Eisner comes to the conclusion that a curriculum determined by behavioural objectives would seriously reduce the view of what might be possible. In fact ‘to expect all our educational aspirations to be either verbally describable or measurable is to expect too little’. [7]

Eisner proposes three possibilities in designing curricular.

  1. Behavioural Objective ———–Behavioural activity
  2. Problem-Solving Objective——Problem-Solving Activity
  3. Expressive Activity—————Expressive Outcome

In the arts there will be a place for 1, but it is 2 and 3 and 3 in particular that would mark out creative arts practice as being distinctive.

Eisner again:

‘I believe that it is perfectly appropriate for teachers and others involved in curriculum development to plan activities that have no explicit or precise objectives.’ [8]

This would mean that there could be no specific formulation of what behaviour will be exhibited by pupils at the conclusion of the project. Rather like going to the cinema, the zoo or a musical event, we can’t specify what will be gained from the experience. The experience will of course yield much thought, conversation, questions, the exercise of judgement and associated criteria that help to make sense of what has been experienced and to suggest what may have been learnt.

So, teaching without objectives opens up interesting possibilities and encourages me to think in terms of extended projects with enquiry questions bringing together Eisner’s 2 an 3 above. [9]

Enquiry questions or what some refer to as essential questions help to create structure and direction.

I like the questions that pupils provide like ‘Why does Reggae exist?’ ‘What makes one composition better than another?’ ‘How does beat-boxing turn your voice into an instrument?’ ‘How many times is it good to repeat a musical idea? What is a musical idea, don’t you mean a riff?’ ‘Why did Jay-Z slow down that 1970s riff?

So now we are teaching without behavioural objectives but through critical enquiry and expressive activity and with scope for a dialogic pedagogy. This seems to me to offer the possibility of some musical depth and rigour and to give these weasel words some meaning.

But wait a minute. I would like my pupils to know how to talk well about their music-making and this means that I will need to create a behavioural objective:

Pupils will know how to conduct a group conversation giving each other a voice.

No doubt the true behaviorist will point out that this is too vague, not precise enough.

Nevertheless my critical enquiry-expressive activity is willing to give way to a behavioural objective as the situation calls for.

Enough of all this. We need a living example. I can only stand so much theorising. So, next week I go inside a school in Stratford, East London.


[1] Stories of music teachers playing the objectives game abound. Rarely it seems is the quality of the stated objective or its potential to generate worthwhile experience examined.

[2] This cat and mouse game of Ofsted calling the tune, changing the tune while fermenting bi-tonal conversations is becoming close to farce.

[3] The discourse of ‘effectiveness’ is usually tongue-tied when asked ‘effective for what?’

[4] Behavioural objectives are sometimes referred to as instructional objectives.

[5] Mager, R. (1962) Preparing Instructional Objectives, Fearson Publishers, Palo Alto, Calif., p.31.

[6] Eisner, E. (2001) The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programmes. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.: New York. Third Edition.

[7] Ibid. p.98.

[8] Ibid p.104. For 13 0bjections to learning objectives see http://www.lh.umu.se/digitalAssets/40/40552_inquiry_mckernan.pd

[9] See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/wpadmin/post.php?post=202&action=edit for discussion of the idea of the project.

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