Meaningful Ain’t Always Measurable.

Lemme share a funny story with you.

Several years ago, a school that I was working in went through a trend where every teacher was required to post a SWBAT objective on the board every single day.  SWBAT stood for, “The student will be able to,” — and each objective was, like a SMART goal, supposed to end with some kind of measure of proficiency.

The system worked pretty flawlessly in linear classes with easy to measure outcomes like mathematics, where you’d see objectives like, “The student will be able to solve multistep equations four out of five times,” or “The student will be able to apply the order of operations with 80 percent accuracy.”

But teachers in subjects with less tangible, direct objectives — read: every subject EXCEPT mathematics — really wrestled with the requirement.  

It wasn’t that we were opposed to the idea of having clear learning targets for students.  We just couldn’t figure out how to turn objectives like, “Students will recognize the impact that living in the developing world has on economic and/or quality of life indicators” or “Students can explain the spinoff benefits of space exploration” into something that was easy to measure.

(Download original image here)

Meaningful > Measurable Slide by Bill Ferriter @plugusin


My favorite example of the challenge that teachers in subjects outside of math had at writing measurable objectives came from a former colleague of mine who genuinely TRIED to write good objectives on the board every day.  

One that I saw frequently posted on her board was:

“The student will be able to self-select silent reading material with 80% accuracy.”  

Think about that for a minute.

Have you caught the problem yet?

Does that mean that on two out of every 10 days, kids are mistakenly picking up staplers instead of books during silent reading time?

If so, we’ve got bigger problems than our test scores!


Now I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to call out my former colleague.  She was a great teacher who inspired kids and taught with a passion that was hard to match.  I have no doubt that her students were better off for having had her as a teacher.  They left with the ability to read texts with complexity, to write with articulation, and to interact in the kind of conversations that result in knowledge-building.

I’m trying to call out a system that simultaneously encourages us to pursue lofty goals like teaching students to critically think or to build consensus or to be creative while asking us to fit every goal that we pursue into some kind of measurable format.

The truth is that the things that are the MOST meaningful are also the hardest to measure.  

If you want kids to wrestle with meaningful objectives, you are going to have to back off your demands that everything be measurable in some way, shape or form.  If measurement is what you want, simple outcomes is what you need to settle for.



Related Radical Reads:

Is Your Team Identifying Essential Learning Targets Together?

Answering Common Questions on Student Friendly Learning Targets

Understanding Learning Outcomes.


8 thoughts on “Meaningful Ain’t Always Measurable.

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  4. Kyle Hamstra

    Bill, You bring up some great points. This topic really speaks to the foundations of learning, teaching, and the system of school in general. I think it’s very important for educators to know their curriculum thoroughly. Even if educators choose not to address the curriculum, at least they have a reference point for recommended (mandated) content. I know exactly what you mean–When I began tweeting curriculum resources, hashtagged with curriculum objectives, thru #Hashtag180, I quickly found that math and science objectives and examples were very straightforward, while it was much more challenging for me to specifically materialize relevant resources per each reading, writing, or even social studies objective. I think the ultimate challenge is to take a seemingly meaningless curriculum standard or objective and breathe life and meaning into it throughout our learning experiences. At the same time, we can’t make a science out of an art. I wonder if educators would be more willing to embrace specific curricula if it wasn’t tested, so that test-prep-pressure did not exist? I wonder if we could compose curricula that was always both meaningful AND measurable?

  5. loiseletchford

    I taught in a school where 60% of our students fell below the 30% in reading in THIRD grade. Writing daily goals on the board was to be our magic bullet. Thanks for this article!

  6. Bryant McEntire

    Bill, you are barking up the right tree on this one. And I’m in that tree! As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts as they inevitably make me think too. I usually think the hardest when I disagree with you. On this point though I have been struggling as of late and I appreciate you putting into words many of my sentiments. Trust you’re well over there and I hope we can catch a cup of coffee next summer!

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