Yesterday, I told Holden’s summer-school teacher—a newly minted one fresh from the halls of academia—that learning objectives are “shit.”
Yes, that’s the word I used even though I develop my curricula around learning objectives and love, love, love writing them for the university classes I teach. I even use them in my “daily” plans for class. Learning objectives are fun, fun, fun.
Except when they are shit.
For “special needs” children, Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are used to guide their learning. A whole team of professionals are involved in the creating of IEPs—parents, teachers, counselors, psychologists. When we meet to create the objectives for Holden’s IEP each year, I’m always frustrated. How does one set goals for a child whose disorder, by its very definition*, disrupts progress? His neuropsychologist explained Holden’s active LKS time as a “hiatus” from learning. Yet still, I think I see him learning: he develops new relationships with people and animals in his life; he builds on skills, especially with puzzles and videogames that require basic strategy (Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies); he memorizes books and scripts from cartoons and his favorite movies. Maybe these are exercising the abilities he’s sustaining and recovering; maybe he’s learning. One can’t easily test a kid with Holden’s particular manifestation of LKS.*
I remember feeling, as Holden’s summer school teacher may feel, the pressure of “objectives” and being a teacher whose students “meet objectives.” When I arrived at Tarsus American College in 1996, a newly minted teacher fresh from the halls of the University of Northern Iowa, I learned that I had to get my daily lessons plans approved by the Director (principal) each week. Furthermore, the Turkish government looked over them each year and stamped them with an official seal. This terrified me—such scrutiny!—until I learned that this was an exercise in bureaucracy. Our Director gave them a cursory glance, and some of the Turkish officials didn’t even read English.
Perhaps my experience in Turkey taught me to look for the “satisfying bureaucracy” element of educational policies. I do understand that Holden’s amazing teachers need some sort of guide to help him—so IEPs with measurable objectives are important—they just aren’t the Gold Standard. Learning objectives become “shit” when they get in the way of possible learning—when they lock down instead of open up by strangling the learning possibilities that bubble up from the organic/dynamic/alchemic synergy of teacher + student + material.
Certainly, my experience teaching for nearly two decades has taught me to “meet the student where he’s/she’s at.” And to look for those moments of “organic learning” when I have to throw out my objectives and plans because something different—and equally valuable if not more—is happening. I’ve thought a lot about “where Holden’s at.” My paradigm for his learning objectives is one of “exposure.” I expose him to learning opportunities and activities where he can engage with language, culture, people, and texts. Whatever gets traction—whatever gets and keeps his attention for more than a few minutes—well, that is what he gets “exposed” to. Will he remember? Maybe. Will he be able to tell me about it? Doubtful. But for right now, any other way sets both of us up for failure. Any other way, with LKS, is madness.
*LKS is a rare neurological disorder characterized by the sudden or gradual development of aphasia (the inability to understand or express language) and an abnormal electroencephalogram (EEG). LKS affects the parts of the brain that control comprehension and speech. Often, behavioral and neuropsychologic disturbances accompany the progression of LKS. Behavioral issues are seen in as many as 78% of all cases (Holden +). Hyperactivity (Holden –) and a decreased attention span (Holden ++) are observed in as many as 80% of patients as well as rage (Holden→ rare), aggression (Holden→ occasionally) and anxiety (Holden in regard to transitions). Impaired short-term memory is a feature recorded in long-standing cases.