Learning Objectives Remixed as Pre-Conditions for Success

What does it take for course content to create a shift in the students who are learning that material?

The faculty team at Creating the Future is at that “developing content” point in building our new Catalytic Listening course. To guide that effort, we are using Catalytic Strategy to ask two core questions:
1) What do we want to be different for our students, when the class is over?
2) For the class to make that difference, what do the students need to know, believe, value, be able to do? What are their pre-conditions for success, that we want the class to create – through content, format, and anything else it takes?

Using Catalytic Strategy to Develop Course Content
Catalytic Strategy creates a critical path of cause-and-effect conditions to connect today’s reality to high-potential outcomes that might otherwise seem unattainabe. That path of causality is rich with interconnected pre-conditions that together create a domino effect, causing success to feel like it is just naturally emerging, domino falling upon domino, because that’s what happens when all the conditions for success are in place.

That’s why one of the two core tenets of Catalytic Thinking states that “Our ability to create amazing results lies in our ability to create favorable cause-and-effect conditions towards those results.” Create the conditions, and the result is likely to emerge without having to be forced.

As we consider that rich field of interwoven conditions and pre-conditions for success, we are able to readily determine actions that will create circumstances where success feels inevitable.

In developing a class, the “actions” we will take are to teach. The “teaching tools” we have at our disposal are content and format – what we’ll teach, and how we’ll teach it.

If we teach content in ways that create the conditions we have identified as leading to successful outcomes, we are creating an environment in which our students are most likely to create the difference we hoped the course would achieve.

When we first began developing our classes, we called those “pre-conditions for success” Learning Objectives. What we have found, though, is that when we called them Learning Objectives, that language led us to focus on those objectives rather than the ultimate “why” of the course – why it was important to achieve those objectives.

When instead we called those objectives what they really are – preconditions for clearly defined success – it was easier to remember to ask the “So what?” question. Why is it important that we learn these things? Ah yes, so that we can accomplish something amazing.

As an example, consider a high school calculus class. We might define the students’ ultimate success as, “Fluent in calculus to the point where they can use it in various scientific applications.”

Pre-conditions for the the students’ success in learning calculus might include

  • they must understand algebra and be able to apply it
  • they must understand geometry and trigonometry, and be able to apply both
  • they must feel confident and believe in their ability to “do math” at all
  • and a whole lot more

Looking at that first pre-condition for success, what must they have in place if they are to understand algebra? More pre-conditions…

  • they must understand the difference between a variable and a constant
  • they must understand what the symbols mean
  • they must see the practical application of algebra – how it applies in real life
  • and a whole lot more

Two things become obvious from this example:

1) If the students achieve all those pre-conditions for success, they are likely to fully understand algebra, putting them on the path to understanding calculus

2) Because our objective is to have the students learn all that stuff, those conditions for their success in the class are the learning objectives for the class – the things we instructors want them to understand and believe and know how to do by the time they leave the class. By calling them pre-conditions for success instead of learning objectives, however, we have been explicit not just about what we want them to learn (the learning objectives) but WHY those learning objectives matter – the so what? and the why does this matter?

Once we have defined those pre-conditions for students to successfully incorporate their new learning into their lives, we can easily identify the content that will help them create those conditions. We can also identify what format might be best for that learning (Group work? Individual homework? Discussion?) We can also identify what else they might need (Normalizing when they’re lost? Additional support when a subject is difficult for them to grasp?)

The power lies not in the words we use to identify these steps (learning objectives vs pre-conditions for success). The power lies in our realizing that “learning objectives” are not ends unto themselves, but means to the ultimate end result we really want our students to be able to accomplish. Those objectives are steps along the path of causality.

And so whether we call them objectives or conditions, they are in fact pre-conditions for success – steps along the critical path of causality between where those students are today and where they hope to be once the course is over.

Photo credit: NYTimes archive via Wikimedia Commons

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