Objectives and Aims

Proponents of Child Study recognize the learning process as an inspired and natural act.  At its best, according to these theorists, education is an uncontrived process among individuals engaged in “a natural way of teaching [and learning], one that we all experience outside of formal learning contexts.” (Schubert, 1996, p. 173)  It is possible- even necessary- to bring this natural way into the formal context of a school if we wish to make the child’s education meaningful, life-oriented, and relevant.

We become lost and disconnected from the real world when we reduce the ongoing dynamic reality of education to the ossified machine we have come to know as “education.” We have come to accept this reified conception of education as though it were real, setting up an official, sanctioned schooling enterprise that frequently does little more than systematically and mechanistically train our younger human subjects in the competence of numerous disconnected subjects inside these boxes within boxes we call classrooms within schools (Jackson, 1990). This state of affairs is partly the result of the movement towards scientific curriculum-making, which took place in the latter part of the 19th century.

Bobbitt (1918), its chief apologist, argued that we need a scientific approach to education to counter the aims of “a vague culture, an ill-defined discipline, a nebulous, harmonious development of the individual, an indefinite moral character-building, an unparticularized social efficiency.” (p.16) I find it interesting that an individual’s “harmonious development” is included among the negative outcomes of our so-called “undefined purposes.” (Bobbitt, 1918, p.16)  This kind of assessment clearly points to a premise which disregards the humanity –indeed the emotional lives – of children.  It is a premise with which I disagree wholeheartedly but by which I am not surprised, because, as Bobbitt (1918) himself claimed, his central theory regards the substance of human life to consist merely “in the performance of specific activities” (p. 17).  He proceeds to conclude from his reductionist summation of the individual that the ultimate purpose of education is to prepare the student “definitely and adequately for these specific activities” (1918, p. 17).

Kliebard (1975) criticizes the social efficiency paradigm for framing the question of educational purposes “in terms of high survival value and functional utility rather than in terms of intellectual virtues” (p. 59) and argues that this model ultimately transforms the individual into a manufacturer (Kliebard, 1975). I agree with this assessment, but  regardless of the value we place on the importance of a human being’s inner life, we need to question not only the virtues of such a transformation but its very legitimacy.  The outcome of human-as-manufacturer emerges from the result of an error in the so-called scientific method of these curriculum-makers: the exclusion of data.

The data that are excluded include the elements of human experience that are not quantifiably measurable but which nonetheless can be observed.  Kliebard (1975) articulates this beautifully when he imputes the illegitimacy of the social efficiency model to its “failure to recognize the complexity of the phenomena with which we deal” (p. 60). The phenomena to which he refers can be observed within the totality of the learning context, including the feelings, interests, and unique intellectual capacities of the child and adult alike; and the dynamic interactions taking place among them from moment to moment.

If we were to include the complex phenomena that occur in a real classroom, we could embrace the pursuit of utilitarian aims and quite possibly make the process pleasurable for our students.  A child, after all, has to learn something specific in order to accomplish even the projects that are born from his own interests.  But, it might be helpful for us to ask ourselves: to what end?  A kindergartner must learn to count to ten.  A sixth grader must learn to use meta-cognitive strategies to attack a difficult non-fiction text.  And all children who wish to survive socially and economically in the 21st century must become digitally literate at least to some degree.  However, if we do not acknowledge the joys of learning, and if we neglect to appreciate the process of discovery for its own sake, then we are missing the point; specific learning activities should be fulfilling and meaningful.

The sad, dehumanizing legacy of social efficiency finds its modern expression in the present-day obsession with measurable educational objectives.  While I agree with Popham (1972) that those objectives “stated in terms of measurable learner behavior…. promote increased clarity regarding educational intent” (pp. 93-94), I do not accept his conviction that the majority of our objectives should be “of a measurable nature” (Popham, 1987, p. 95).  Eisner (1967), in his brilliantly-articulated critique of the “rational approach to curriculum development” (p. 107), cautions us to keep in mind the “kaleidoscopic” nature of the teaching situation, eloquently describing the many variables that arise during the organic process that takes place in classrooms every day.  “The changes in pace, tempo, and goals,” he reminds us, “are dynamic rather than mechanistic in character” (Eisner, 1967, pp. 107-109).  This has been my experience.  While I have found the specificity of behavioral verbs to be quite useful in determining the outcome of the specific objectives I might devise for my students e.g. their ability to distinguish an expositional passage from a descriptive one, I have not found measurable aims to be useful in my overarching quest to discover what is meaningful for them.  And I certainly have not found measurable objectives to nurture a love for learning in my students.

When taken as an absolute necessity in every learning context, measurability is at worst dehumanizing.  At best, it reveals the thoughtlessness and lack of insight in those who insist on the validity of a mechanistic view of the world and of the child.  Ralph W. Tyler (1949) said it best: “Its persistence is a source of embarrassment” (p. 25).

A Pedagogy of Possibility