Objectives vs Obstacles of Learning

zenEvery so often teachers should remember to take some time to reflect upon their classroom practices and consider whether simply "letting go" and giving up control over certain behaviors might actually help their classroom focus on learning. Take a few seconds to try and visualize what your ideal day of school would look like. Seriously, get your Zen on. Light some candles, dim the lights, slip into something more comfortable….maybe order a pizza….

Dude, don’t judge. Everybody’s “zen” is a little different, ok?

Take a few seconds, relax, take a deep breath and try to imagine what your PERFECT day of school would actually feel like. Go ahead, we’ll be here when you get back.

(awkwardly hums the Jeopardy theme song)

Now, answer these questions HONESTLY. You probably know the “right” answer or at least the answer you’d tell the principal if he or she asked you in a job interview. Screw that. Answer them honestly, nobody’s listening but you anyway.



What would you want your students to be doing in the perfect day of school?

A) Would you want them to be sitting in their desks appropriately?

B) Turn in work on time?

C) Come to class prepared?

D) Be quiet?

E) Cite their work?

F) Act their age?

G) Be positive, respectful and responsible?

H) Take pride in their work?

I) Score well on the MAP or EOCs?

J) Keep their hands, feet and other objects to themselves?

K) Have fun?

L) Get prepared for their next school? (Middle School, High School, College, etc)

M) All of the above?

N) None of the above?

O) Learn?



Unfortunately, the correct answer here isn’t “All of the Above.” You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too (though you should have ordered that pizza by now).

If you as a classroom teacher want to truly “Focus on Learning” the ONLY correct answer to this question is “O”. That’s it. No arguing, no “if’s”, “an’s” or “but’s” about it.

The reason is simple – the name of the class you teach isn’t “Be Quiet 101”. Our classes are named “Language Arts”, “Social Studies” or “Algebra” so we shouldn’t be spending 90% of our time preaching to kids to “Come Prepared”. Kids don’t leave second hour P.E. and head down to third hour “Responsibility” class.  Likewise elementary age kids don’t come in from recess, take out their books and “act their age.” If the name of the class is “Language Arts” then that’s exactly what students should be learning, and it’s the responsibility of the teacher to ensure that happens. For all of the fanciness surrounding school Mission Statements, the only true purpose of school is for students to LEARN.

Now, certainly if kids don’t abide by some of these basic classroom rules, then it is impossible to “focus on learning” but that’s exactly the point. All these other things aren’t objectives, they’re obstacles to student learning. Obstacles that can be overcome. In fact, everything on the above list is merely an obstacle of learning, a by-product of learning happening, or perhaps both. Consider the first three.



What would you want your students to be doing in the perfect day of school?


A) Sitting in their desks appropriately? OBSTACLE & BY-PRODUCT

B) Turn in work on time? OBSTACLE & BY-PRODUCT

C) Come to class prepared? OBSTACLE & BY-PRODUCT



You only care how they sit because it's dangerous and distracting to sit otherwise. It's an obstacle. Furthermore, happy students trying hard to learn usually sit pretty reasonably. Bored students however, who hate their teacher and their coursework, just can’t seem to keep a chair on all four legs.

Late work can be a HUGE problem at any grade level, but the only reason you as a teacher really care is because without completed work, you have no evidence of student learning, a rather serious obstacle. Similarly, the primary reason teachers bother with "coming to class prepared" is because the ill-equipped student isn’t prepared to learn.


learningTeachers should differentiate between what is an OBJECTIVE and what is merely an OBSTACLE. Focusing on the learning of course content while recognizing and overcoming obstacles of learning can generate significant improvements in classroom culture, or by-products of learning.Yet, students who are learning at a high level are usually happy to present evidence of this, meaning they don’t lose their work as much. Likewise, students who are eager to get to class, laugh and learn with their teacher remember their pencils far more than those who are busy dreading class during hall passing time. 

Both the "come prepared" obstacle and the "late work" obstacle tend to be a result of trying to “teach responsibility” which is one of the two things teachers focus on when they should be focusing on learning. Click here to read more. 

As for the rest of our list.

D) Be quiet? OBSTACLE

E) Cite their work? BY-PRODUCT

F) Act their age? OBSTACLE

G) Be positive, respectful and responsible? OBSTACLE

H) Take pride in their work? BY-PRODUCT

I) Score well on the MAP or EOCs? BY-PRODUCT

J) Keep their hands, feet and other objects to themselves? OBSTACLE

K) Have fun? BY-PRODUCT

L) Get prepared for their next school? (Middle School, High School, etc) BY-PRODUCT

M) All of the above?

N) None of the above?

O) Learn?


Whether it's intended or not, far too often the focus of a teacher's classroom becomes identifying and correcting problematic behavior. It's important to identify this behavior for what it is - an obstacle of learning - and remember that any while rules and procedures should certainly be taught to prevent these behaviors, correcting them is not the purpose of most classrooms. In fact, by simply focusing on the learning of course content, many of these behaviors simply fade away.

In an effort to help your classroom focus on learning, remember to treat classroom behaviors for what they are. If it’s a byproduct of learning, then allow it to happen while you’re busy trying to get them to solve multi-step equations. If it’s an obstacle of learning, then develop a rule or a procedure to help your students overcome it. Understand that many classroom obstacles can be overcome simply by the teacher letting go and trying not to control every aspect of their classroom, freeing them up to focus on learning.

So relax tonight, light some candles and call Papa John’s. Spend the evening reflecting  about your classroom and reflect on whether your attention could be better spent elsewhere.