Behavioral Objectives and the Good Life

I should not dabble with moral theology, ed but I really believe that one way to get a person to live the good life instructionally is to make it very easy for him.
(Popham, patient 1971, p. 80)

A few months ago I received an email that stated, “The point here is not to be philosophical, but rather, to get on with it.”  I remember staring at those words, transfixed by the power of them.  They were leveled with such perfunctory authority that the common sense message convinced me that indeed, this wasn’t a moment about philosophy, this was a moment about getting on with it.

And then, thankfully, the radical in me kicked in and roared, because this wasn’t a random decontextualized comment (these kinds of comments never are).  This was a comment that was directly related to the department curriculum committee that I chair – the purpose of which is to read over proposed classes and their accompanying syllabi and vet each of these before they move on to the college committee.  This was essentially a comment sent from above for which the underlying message was, “Buck up and write behavioral objectives, this isn’t the time to question the purpose.”

Being aware enough to recognize that this wasn’t a battle I needed to enter, but rather one that called for conversation, I tucked the comment away for this moment, for this forum.  But this is a conversation that needs to happen on my own turf and finding the ‘right’ moment and a way to bring the conversation around is remarkably difficult and creating the time for such discussions, impossible.  This isn’t an excuse.  Well, maybe it is.  Because just as words can be delivered as performative speech acts that essentially describe and enact particular sets of responses, this excuse of time seems similarly problematic and powerful.

What is the place of philosophy in curriculum?  What is the power and authority, indeed performativity of words and how do these seemingly innocuous statements come to dominate, dictate, and indeed, stop time?

The general intent of this column is to provide a forum from which to address curricular issues and perspectives of relevance from within and without music education.  As coordinator of this ecolumn I will be presenting topics that pique my interest, push my buttons and generally call to attention the multiple issues that inform curriculum and curricular decisions.

I am hopeful that as this column moves along you (the careful reader) will comment on the issues raised and make suggestions as to what needs to be addressed.  Unlike Popham (May 1971), whose belief in behavioral objectives ran deeply:

Among memorabilia of my love affair with behavioral objectives are the bumper stickers I had prepared, saying, “HELP STAMP OUT NONBEHAVIORAL OBJECTIVES!”  I gave these to my students and they put them on their cars (if they wanted an A).  (p. 78)

I believe that the “good instructional life” ought not to be made “easy” for us.  In fact, I believe that the moment we first suspect a “good life” IS being made easy for us we need very much to consider who stands to gain and what it is we are giving away, an issue, I would contend, that has everything to do with philosophy.

I would like to report back to you that I have broached the conversation of behavioral objectives with my colleagues and indeed I have, but not as a battle and not even as a “formal” conversation.  Rather I (and others) have taken opportunity in small moments in which wording has been suggested that shifts, extends and grounds “learning goals” in theoretical concepts that provides something more than a “measurable shift” in student behavior.  As such, these became moments in which all of us, as a consequence of the discussion, rather than the “instruction,” came to see the learning process as something more fluid and less uni-directional.

Ahhh, I suspect more on learning objectives is to come, but for now it seems enough to leave us with one final Popham (Sept 1997) quote that portends future conversations:

Then a small voice called out from the crowd, “But the emperor’s not wearing standards at all; he’s wearing old objectives!  (p. 21)




Popham, J. (May, 1971).  Practical Ways of Improving Curriculum Via Measurable     Objectives.  NASSP Bulletin, 55 (355), 76-90.

Popham, J. (Sept., 1997). The Standards Movement and the Emperor’s New Clothes.  NASSP Bulletin, 81 (590), 21-25.


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