Teaching & Learning

Secondary Learning Objectives

I have alluded in several recent posts to Secondary Learning Objectives, but I have focused on Primary Learning Objectives for the most part. Lately though, many of the questions I get asked are on the topic of Secondary Learning Objectives.

When I speak, write or train teachers about learning objectives, one thing that I stress almost above all else is that there should only be one learning objective for each lesson. While this learning objective is composed of several elements, there should be one clear objective for the lesson in order to maintain focus and avoid confusion. However, this is with particular consideration to the primary learning objective. There is more specific discussion on how to choose and write your primary learning objectives here.

In this post, I’ll review the distinction between Primary and Secondary Learning Objectives, and I’ll elaborate more on the latter whilst trying to address some of the more frequently asked questions.

Two Types of Learning Objective

The primary learning objective is what new knowledge and skills you hope your students will learn from the specific lesson in question. It is derived from the subject matter. It is something about English for English teachers or something about Maths for Maths teachers. The primary learning objective is dealt with and then moved on from. This is not to say that it won’t be revisited, but a lesson plan is designed to meet the primary learning objective so that students will be able to master it and then move on to something new and distinct in the next lesson.

A secondary learning objective is quite different. A secondary learning objective is not directly derived from the specific subject matter. It is not bound to a single lesson, and as such it is not expected that learners will definitively achieve it in a single lesson. As such, secondary learning objectives are rarely written into the lesson plan. This is because secondary learning objectives are ongoing, spanning units, semesters, even years.

Rather than a particular subject, e.g. Science or Geography, secondary learning objectives are derived from the broader values and desirable qualities established by society. Secondary learning objectives rarely appear in black and white in textbooks or on curricula, though the majority of teachers in a given society would likely agree on what secondary objectives they aim to teach. And this is key, because secondary learning objectives are developed and addressed by the whole institution; not just one teacher teaching his or her students but a community of teachers with a set of common goals.

Identifying Secondary Learning Objectives

Examples of secondary learning objectives are developing social skills—such as respect for fellow classmates, helping others, cooperation—higher order thinking skills and professional and leadership skills. The list is endless, and it changes as trends in society shift, with different values becoming more or less of a priority depending on the mores of the day. One other thing you might notice about these is that they are not only developed by the teacher but also by the society from which they are derived. That is to say that, unlike Mathematics and History, for example, secondary learning objectives are also taught to the child by his parents and the community surrounding him.

Even though these secondary learning objectives do not appear on most lesson plans, they are arguably more important than many primary learning objectives on the grander scale. Primary learning objectives are concerned with developing knowledge and ability within discrete fields of study, but secondary learning objectives are concerned with developing the students’ very characters, personalities.

While each lesson planned should have one single very clear primary learning objective, there might be numerous unlisted secondary learning objectives. Sometimes they will be more explicit than others; occasionally they might even align themselves with the primary learning objective, such as when teaching students to manage their own finances in Business/Economics or teaching polite language in English. Some secondary learning objectives will be developed through the materials of a lesson, such as a text about drug abuse being used for a reading comprehension task, while others will be developed by the procedure of the lesson, such as collaborative activities where students must work together to complete a task.

Why Secondary?

I am often asked why I refer to these learning objectives as secondary. Is it because I consider them unimportant? I would hope that by now, it is clear that this is not so. Indeed, as I have said above, there is an argument to be made that the secondary learning objectives are in fact more important than the primary. A child can grow up to be quite successful without an in depth understanding of Pythagorus or long shore drift, but she will struggle quite notably if she does not develop her ability to work with others.

So why do I refer to them as secondary? It is simply because they are not directly related to the teacher’s specific interests. An English teacher is paid to teach English. It is from this point that he sets off with every lesson he plans. All of the materials that he chooses, all of the activities that he organises must be directed towards achievement of some objective related to the subject of English. If these objectives are not achieved each and every lesson, the teacher has failed. That is why I call these primary learning objectives.

Each teacher has his or her own set of primary learning objectives. The English teacher’s will differ from the Maths teacher’s and so on. They will be determined by the curriculum or syllabus, and they will be monitored by the institution through regular testing. In most systems, there will be unambiguous indicators and progressive milestones to be reached in predetermined timeframes.

However, effectively speaking, all teachers share the same set of secondary learning objectives regardless of their subject matter. They might not be elucidated by the curriculum, and they likely won’t have standardised indicators or be tested for. They also do not need to be achieved on a lesson-by-lesson basis, but rather students are expected to show developmental progress over time. As long as the general behaviour of students tends towards the expectations and norms of polite society, then the teacher is on track.

The reason I refer to these as secondary, then, is simply that they are outside of the well-defined scope of each teacher’s individual job description.

Testing for Secondary Learning Objectives

Secondary learning objectives is an area that I have seen become rather contentious of late. I was recently impressed to see that the latest updates to the Indonesian national curriculum made clear reference to the importance of secondary learning objectives. They didn’t use that terminology, of course; the Ministry for Education described them as Affective Learning Outcomes and provided a long list of the objectives it considered essential.

Unfortunately, in Indonesia, everything depends very heavily on standardised testing and numerical or percentage-based scores (which I have written about here). As such, with the introduction of the new curriculum, teachers were mandated to include scores on the students’ report cards corresponding to these values, values such as Religiosity, Entrepreneurship and Cooperativeness.

As important as I believe secondary learning objectives to be, I do not believe that they can be so easily reduced to scores on a report card. Each of these things constitutes a spectrum, and while it might be reasonable to hope for our children and students to move in a certain direction along each of these spectra, a plain fact of life is that all people have very different personalities and embody very different combinations of these characteristics, without it being at all clear that any one combination is better or worse than the next.

That is, I believe, another reason for referring to these as secondary learning objectives: because they do not fall within the parameters of normal testing. Nor should individual teachers be held accountable for these qualities in the same way that they are or should be for the students’ strengths and weaknesses regarding the subject matter. No one teacher can be responsible for her students’ development in these areas; the whole institution forms a community that models good behaviour and guides the students towards positive values, such that if a student is found to be demonstrating a lack of any one of these qualities, the whole faculty should address it together.

But as much as we want to develop these qualities, it is not so simple to test for them—nor should it be. These values arise from belief, tradition and norms of society, all constantly shifting planes with different understandings from one person to the next. When I am tasked with writing a syllabus, it is uncontroversial for me to state what is correct or incorrect about the boiling point of water, say, but what authority shall we trust with determining precisely what makes a good or bad person? Will everybody agree that there is one correct way to be a good leader and that all other approaches are wrong, or even less right?

Incorporating Secondary Learning Objectives into Your Lessons

There are two ways that we can address secondary learning objectives when planning and teaching our lessons. Sometimes we can be proactive and other times, perhaps most of the time, we will be more reflective. Proactive planning of secondary learning objectives happens when our subject matter obviously relates to certain values.

For example, if the Science syllabus has a unit on pollutants, then this will obviously be a good time to develop environmental awareness amongst your students. You can choose materials and set tasks that not only preset your students with the raw scientific data but also encourage your students to think about the consequences and develop their opinions and stances on the matter.

Much of the time, though, your secondary learning objectives will arise naturally from the procedures and the events of the lesson. Putting your students into groups to work on an exercise will support the development of their cooperations skills; encouraging your students to check their own work before they submit it will help them develop their ability to self-evaluate; getting students to speak aloud to the class will engender self confidence; disciplining students when they laugh at one of their number for giving a wrong answer will promote a more supportive classroom culture.

These things might not be explicitly stated in your lesson objectives, but if you look over your lessons and your plans, you’ll see countless examples of secondary learning objectives woven into all of them. If you spend some time reviewing your lessons and plans each day, you will begin to identify opportunities for highlighting certain values or focusing on developing certain skills and qualities that are secondary to your target material.

The more aware of these opportunities you become and the more practised at leveraging them, the more valuable will be the education you are providing your students. As a teacher, you should strive to teach much more than that which is on the syllabus, and if you do so, your students will be eternally grateful for it.

Read more about Secondary Learning Objectives here and here.


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