Objective setting for Tools for Learning

Nov 2012
Illustration of people sitting round a table

Specific and Measurable or broad and flexible - Which serves the learners best?

There are some good rea- sons why we often start the planning of a training or non-formal learning activity by expressing the objectives or goals. It demonstrates that we know where the activity fits in the bigger picture of policy or strategy; it gives us something to evaluate or review against; it enables us to demonstrate how prepa- red we are; it adds a robustness to our planning. But what are the disadvantages of formal or strict objective setting, and how can we tune our approach to objec- tive setting so that learning is maximised? In the 1980s a friend of mine worked ex- tensively with groups of young people who were sent on his courses instead of going to jail, or who were seen by the authorities to be so much at risk of committing crime that they needed some special experience to help them change.

When the groups arrived, my friend and his colleagues ex- plained that they had a fleet of canoes, some tents, ropes, helmets and harnesses and that they knew the rivers, lakes and mountains of the area very well. Food and accommodation were arranged but the programme was not prepared.The young people were encouraged to say what they needed and wanted to do and to co-design the programme with the trainers. 

If you had asked the participants in these courses to define the objectives, I guess they would have given one of three responses:

  • To get the authorities off my back
  • To avoid going to jail 
  • To survive the week without getting too wet in the rain
  • To learn how to paddle a canoe or climb a mountain
  • To have a good laugh

If you had asked the trainers, they might have said:

  • To develop interpersonal skills
  • To change attitudes to authority 
  • To develop team working skills or
  • To generate a sense of hope and purpose 

And the authorities might have said:

  • To reduce offending or criminal behaviour
  • To get “them” off the streets for a while 
  • To build their character
  • To try to get some sense into them

So which ones are the better objectives?

Maybe there are all equally valid and just represent positions of the different stakeholders? None of them particularly follow the old mnemonic of SMART (see below). The outcomes from the programmes were genuinely difficult to measure. They were like beauty – difficult to define but we know it when we see it. So if the learning experiences or the tools for learning that we are planning have outcomes that are hard to define, how do we manage the demand for a crisp and clear set of objectives?



What exactly do you want to achieve? What learning do you want to see? 


How will you know it has been achieved? What can you measure or observe? 


Given what you know about the people involved, how likely is that they can achieve this in the time available and with the resources available? 


How realistic is this objective? What other influences and circumstances might affect the likelihood of success?


What are the timescales? When do you want to start? When do you want to finish? What other factors will affect the timing? 

Image Credits: 
Siiri and Tanel of Joonmedia - http://joonmeedia.blogspot.com

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