The philosophy of learning objectives

In learning and education there is nothing that causes as much debate as learning objectives. Use the word ‘understand’ to articulate a desired outcome in a learner’s skill or knowledge and the room erupts into booing, hissing and alarms going off.

So what’s wrong with ‘understand’. Understanding in everyday language makes perfect sense. To understand something is good, right? A definition here is helpful:


perceive the intended meaning of (words, a language, or a speaker).
“he didn’t understand a word I said”
interpret or view (something) in a particular way.
“as the term is usually understood, legislation refers to regulations and directives”

Here’s a few clues as to why the learning and development mafia go crazy at this seemingly inoffensive word. ‘Perceive’, ‘interpret’ ‘in a particular way’ are the issues. They cannot be objectively measured. The excellent classic on instructional objectives by Robert Mager describe this particularly well. Performance, condition and standard are a well used standard in training. In this domain understanding cannot be measured objectively.

Introducing some philosophy can help us to understand the performance, condition, standard paradigm and how understanding does not have to be thrown out of the room as soon as the bad word is uttered.

Epistemology and ontology look at the study of knowledge and our being in the world respectively. Both of these look at the philosophy of what can be considered to be knowledge and it’s not always as straight forward as observing a learner being able to do something. Within epistemology, there are objectivist and constructionist thinkers.

Objectivist thinking looks as the world as an objective ‘thing’. It is the same to all and exists outside of our minds. It is the same for everyone and the world exists without any interpretation or perception (see the definition of ‘understand’ above). This has very close ties to the behaviourist psychologists of the 20th century. This makes sense from a learning objective example if someone is required to do something exactly the same as the next person, say in a factory without any thought for their values, past experience or existing knowledge.

In contrast to behaviourist learning is cognitive and constructivist approaches. Constructionist (or interpretive) thinking in epistemology say that the world exists within our minds. Each of us perceive the world and interpret based on our own values, experiences and knowledge. If we think like this then understand is quite an important verb to use in a learning objective.

Objective thinking versus constructionist thinking is not a box you need to put yourself in. Maybe, for some learning, an objective philosophical approach to objectives may be appropriate. For example, if someone is required to fix a widget to a particular standard within 3 minutes, somebody can measure and say that this has been successful. On the other hand if someone is required to use a particular model of communication or problem solving in their role, then a fair bit of perception and interpretation needs to go on inside that individual’s head to understand the new found knowledge in relation to past experience and knowledge – it’s constructed.


This famous quote, illustrates this idea nicely. From an objective behaviourist approach, learning only occurs if someone can see and measure it. Verbs such as apply, describe, create are used by the performance, condition and standard model of learning objectives. Coming from a more constructionist and cognitive approach, we only know the tree has fallen when we hear it, the learning happens in our head and we have perceived information from our senses. The learning objective with ‘understand’ here then makes sense as all of the cognition is going on inside the head, making connections with existing knowledge.

So, next time somebody has a melt down at the word understand, try and find out what is trying to be achieved and the model that should be used.

Or you could stand up and do the tree quote. It could go one of two ways, heralded as a great philosopher or looked at blankly and told to stop using understanding, you fool!


One response to “The philosophy of learning objectives”

  1. An Alternative View Avatar
    An Alternative View

    It’s not that behavioral is the total of all possible learning. It isn’t. It’s just that, until the technology exists to peak inside people’s heads, some observable metric(s) demonstrating that learning has occurred is needed. That is, if the extent of learning has value that supercedes the learner and impacts other people or objects /processes that are important to others (sorry about the incomplete sentence). Behavioral objectives seem to have as an underlying tenet that we are part of a social network and must employ what is learned in the presence (seen or unseen) of others. The only way society has until mind-reading technologies are developed is to examine observable and agreed-upon indicators that allow us social beings to nod in consensus that Suzie Student really does know her stuff and can be trusted to make decisions that will benefit us or the things we value.


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