Whatever Happened to Behavioral Objectives? (Second Time Around)

With much interest on the part of school reformers, district administrators, and boards of education in “competency-based learning” or “outcome-based education” (also Common Core curriculum standards), wannabe reformers and school people should  consider  that these “innovations” depend heavily upon the introduction of behavioral objects a century ago.

The links between the past and present are ever-present, especially when it comes to behavioral objectives. I published this post nearly three years ago and in that time, both “competency-based learning” and Common Core standards–using behavioral objectives–have emerged as popular reforms of schooling both in urban and suburban district schools including charters.

At the end of this post, I include comments from Laura Chapman, a veteran teacher, on the original post.

Whateverhappened to behavioral objectives? Not much. They are still around but often go by an alias.

Introduced in the early 20th century, behavioral objectives are like  wallpaper in a favorite room that is stripped and then re-papered with wallpaper of a different hue but closely resembling the discarded debris. In short, the phrase has different names today (e.g., performance objectives,  learner outcomes, competencies-based outcomes) but remains common across the educational domain as well as in business, medicine, and other professional work. They are now a permanent fixture of organizations but not called “behavioral objectives.”

Where Did the Idea Originate?

The efficiency-driven wing of early 20th century progressives, inspired by management innovator Frederick Taylor, educational psychologist Edward Thorndike, and other university-based academics saw the rational design of lessons as important. In the 1930s and 1940s, Ralph Tyler of the University of Chicago and head evaluator of the Eight Year Study championed behavioral objectives and scientific ways of assessing student and school outcomes. The advent of teaching machines and the work of B.F. Skinner advanced the breaking down of specific knowledge and skills into constituent parts that could be taught and measured. Instructional designers began pressing K-12 educators to adopt the idea of “behavioral objectives” as early as the late-1950s. They advocated that educators must state clearly and objectively exactly what they wanted students to learn, the conditions under which the students will learn specific content and skills, and how these educators will know students have indeed learned what was intended.

Psychologists who championed instructional design, many of whom were trained as behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner, Robert Gagne‘, Benjamin Bloom, Robert Mager,and others in the 1940s and 1950s–along with Tyler–see above–produced articles and books throughout the 1960s that laid out how teachers should and could compose and specific objectives for their lessons in terms sufficiently clear to determine whether or not students had learned what was intended in the lesson (see here).

What Are Behavioral Objectives?

Sometimes called “learning” or “performance” objectives, Robert Mager laid out the three parts that every behavioral objective must contain: what the learner will do (not the teacher or instructional materials), the conditions under which the learner performs, and the criteria to judge how well the learner has performed the task.

Examples of such objectives across academic subjects are:

*The students will be able to classify the changes of state matter undergoes when given a description of the shape and volume.

*Given four works of short fiction of contrasting genres, the student will analyze and

match each work with its correct genre.

*Using the washingtonpost.com Web site, the student will correctly identify and print out two examples each of a news article and an editorial regarding a topical new item.

*Given twenty examples of incorrect verb tense usage, the student will identify and correct a minimum of sixteen instances.

Sometimes, behavioral objectives can be put into words that young children can understand such as:

Description: c885d4d40ee71ae1e4c9f6bff26fedb--creative-activities-educational-activities.jpg

What Problems Did Behavioral Objectives Intend to Solve

Because behavioral objectives drive a lesson, according to those championing “performance” or “competency learning outcome”, these objectives are too often stated as to what the teacher does rather than what the student will do and learn . Even when objectives are phrased as what students will do, they use language that is ambiguous and hard to demonstrate that learning occurred.

Examples of such lesson objectives are easy to find: “teacher will read story to kindergartners,” “I will define the lunar cycle for students,” “teacher will interpret the meaning of Paradise Lost,” “students will develop a three-dimensional form through using wire and wood.”

Or consider a unit on colonialism in America that listed the following objectives:

Students will understand how learning U.S. history will help them

reach their goals.

Students will get an overview of U.S. history from colonization to the

Civil War.

Students will use maps to understand the process of colonization.

Students will learn about the geography of each group of colonies

and how geography affected their economies.

Students will review two persuasive essays about the centrality of

money in America and write responses.

Do Behavioral Objectives Work?

No one knows for sure. If “work” means their ubiquity in lesson and unit plans across the country, the answer is yes. But if “work” asks about their effectiveness in improving the quality of a lesson or what students learn, such research is slim to sparse. Linking academic improvement to the quality of behavioral objectives is, well, close to impossible (see here, here,  and here).

What Happened To Behavioral Objectives?*

Not too much. Under different labels, they are everywhere in curriculum manuals, district budgets, proposals to donors, and government agency programs.

In visiting classrooms throughout Silicon Valley in 2016, I often saw listed on a whiteboard, the agenda for the day. Usually, the first item was the lesson objective. For example, in an Advanced Placement Physics class at Los Altos High School that I observed in September 2016, the teacher had written on the whiteboard the following objective for the lesson: Students will be able to (SWBAT) create instructional videos using whiteboard animations in order to demonstrate problem solving skills and provide instructional support to peers.

For those eager to “personalize learning,” one way is to list the skill and content competencies that students will learn at different paces, usually through software, in a unit and lesson. These competencies are behavioral objectives in disguise (see here, here and here).

Educators may not call them “behavioral objectives” today but they are commonly built into daily lesson plans, student assessments and teacher evaluations.*


* In another post, I described a parallel innovation within private and public organizations called “Management by Objectives” (MBO). Authored by management guru Peter Drucker in the mid-1950s, it spread rapidly in the late-1960s in federal agencies under the Nixon administration aimed at holding agency officials accountable for outcomes they had specified. By the early 1970s, MBO has become the organizational reform du jour among private and public sector leaders. By the early 1980s, it had become passe’.

If behavioral objectives were for teachers, MBO was for CEOs, federal and state agency heads, middle managers in the private sector and principals, superintendents, and school boards in K-12 and higher education. In K-12 schools, MBO and behavioral objectives were joined at the hip in laying out a format for the introduction of accountability for assessing student, school, and district outcomes.

Such efforts would have brought a smile to the faces of Progressive era reformers a century ago who were hell-bent on making schooling more efficient.

For the earlier post on behavioral objectives, I include Laura Chapman’s comments with links to other sources.

The Reform Support Network, a marketing arm of USDE for Race to the Top grants, promoted “student learning objectives” (SLOs) and “SMART goals”—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-oriented and Relevant, and Time-bound for accountability. The SLO template required teachers of “non-tested” subjects to meet about 27 criteria in a writing assignment intended to serve as an alternative to the value-added metrics developed for teachers of subjects for which there standardized tests. The SLO writing exercise required the teacher to predict gains in scores on tests, usually tests developed at the district level.

William Slotniks’ Boston-based Community Training and Assistance Center put SLO’s into play Denver, in 1999, while shaping of the Denver pay-for-performance scheme. The Community Training and Assistance Center is still active in promoting SLOs, in spite of empirical evidencethat these writing exercises for teachers have no value for every grade and subject were they are required. I have written about The Marketing of Student Learning Objectives (SLOs): 1999-2014 in some detail. http://vamboozled.com/laura-chapman-slos-continued/

One of the best criticisms of MBO can be found in West, G. E. (1977). Bureaupathology and the failure of MBO. Human Resource Management, 16(2), 33-40.


Filed under school reform policies

4 responses to “Whatever Happened to Behavioral Objectives? (Second Time Around)

  1. Bill Sowder

    “Misbehavorial Subjectives” (1969 – excerpts)
    from Coming on Center, Boynton/Cook, 1988 – James Moffett

    Some goals in English imply overt behaviors and some do not. In insisting that desirable behaviors be observable, the behavioral approach rules out a great deal of learning—too much to merely mention in a cautionary note prefacing the goals. Consider, for example, what may be happening in a more taciturn member of a discussion group. The effects of certain reading, acting, and writing on a student’s social, emotional, and cognitive growth tend to be long-range and inextricable. Although it helps to acknowledge that many of these effects will occur years later and often out of school, in practice these effects will either not be observed by evaluators or be falsely attributed to more recent school treatment—or, most likely, be ignored because they cannot be causally traced. The greater the time-space span, the less likely it is that effects can be ascribed to their proper causes. A behavioral approach will tend to favor short-span, well-segmented teaching fragments, because observed “responses” can then be more easily related to the applied “stimuli.”

    . . . The kind of curriculum that I have been trying to evolve in collaboration with others could not be successfully evaluated by measures derived from behavioral goals. . . . What I have proposed is to settle on a handful of general verbal processes that, if only from a purely logical standpoint, can’t fail to develop the growth of thought and language because they are basic sending-and-receiving activities that can be varied in infinite ways, and to back these activities to the hilt without asking either teachers or students to engage in other activities merely or principally for the sake of evaluation. . . .

    . . . I would be willing to trust that years of small-group discussion would, if teachers knew how to run the process well, naturally cause students to itemize evidence either individually or collectively. I would never be willing, however, to program a curriculum so minutely as to ensure that every student gave observable proof at every developmental stage that he could list someone else’s evidence. . . . In fact, most major drawbacks to the present curriculum stem from just this self-defeating effort at systematization. Instead of reading, talking, acting, and writing for real, students are taking comprehension tests, doing book reports, writing “critical” papers about literature, parsing sentences, filling in blanks, etc., to make their learning visible to the teacher. Thus the main impact of behavioral formulation in English will be to perfect the error of our present ways. . . .

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Bill, for the excerpt. I had not seen it. The issue raised by authors has been constant in the literature around behavioral objectives especially when it comes to the humanities.

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