Thursday, 23 October 2014

Leaning Outcomes and STEM

I had an interesting meeting with a senior colleague yesterday to talk about the STEM agenda. For those institutions wishing to develop Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths education there are rich pickings from government grants at the moment. This is (of course) at the expense of funding for arts and humanities (which already no longer attracts any HEFCE money). The STEM agenda is also a non-STEM agenda. If we were to be uncharitable, this looks like an attempt to de-politicise education: remove those areas of the curriculum which challenge authority and encourage critical questioning, instead focus on the fostering of technical skill under the banner of ‘employability’ and justifying the costs (now borne by students) of education. In whose interests? The interests of corporate culture, of which now it seems increasingly ‘corporate’ educational institutions are forming an intrinsic part.

If I was to look for parallels, it's rather like the rise of econometrics in the 1950s, where universities in the US (under threat from McCarthy) ceased to trust anything that looked political or critical (and what is economics if it isn’t political!?) and instead cast economics in the guise of a pseudo-science, with mathematical modelling at its heart. Today econometrics lies at the heart of the discipline – even Cambridge (where some of the finest critical contributions to the subject came from) now pummels its students with mathematical modelling from year 1, and the trend is continuing. In a department hoping for the next Nobel Prize to come from one of its econometricians, only Tony Lawson stands against the tide; once he would have been supported by the likes of Keynes, Hayek, and many other in deploring bad maths and bad social science.

If the STEM aficionados get their way, where will we end up? The fear is that we replace those once-prized academic skills of disputation, critical thought and challenge with a mechanistic assessment of technical learning outcomes. The fear is that we neuter education, dispense with inquiry, remove challenge and critique all in the name of ‘employability’ – a concept which will always elude those at the bottom of the pile, however many learning outcomes and competencies they tick: those at the top will always take the good jobs unless we stop them. We might wish to believe that our egalitarian society works on the principle of merit, achievement and recognition of qualifications, but it is a blind faith: the primeval forces of social privilege win out unless it is overtly opposed. Nobody overtly stands against anything with STEM and STEM doesn’t contain any capacity to critique itself.

Part of the problem is learning outcomes. It is their inexorable march which has led to a tragic flattening of education, and the belief that a science is an equivalent rather than a complement to an art. It is important to remember however that learning outcomes were conceived as a progressive move. The intention was to free teachers and students from the constraints of obscure and specific activities of assessment (i.e. essays), whose criteria for success were obscure, towards a more transparent method of assessment which also made the means of assessment more flexible. Students who might once have had to write an essay could now could theoretically demonstrate their knowledge of particular learning outcomes in a variety of ways. In theory.

In reality, learning outcomes achieved a reification of an abstract idea of learning, and (worse) legitimised the process of reifying meaningless targets as part of a new movement towards what were effectively ‘assessment contracts’. Indeed, once the mechanism of easy reification of the ‘assessment contract’ was presented, so new courses became possible preparing students for new imaginary careers. On the plus side, this meant teachers could be transparent with learners as to what they had to do to pass (i.e. fulfil the contract), but the down side was that what they had to do to pass would do them little good with regard to the educational priorities that really mattered. Learning outcomes made it easy to ignore the basics: literacy, numeracy, self-confidence and reasoned argument all tended to get left out: it was in the interests of both the teacher and the learner to say if the outcome had been ‘hit’, the learner could be passed – on to the next module and next set of meaningless outcomes.  The situation is particularly bad in STEM subjects. There, outcomes are easily specified ("you must appreciate the need for and be capable of implementing maps and enums"), but creative teaching and learning which encourages inquiry and critique appears irrelevant. If all the student has to demonstrate is a capability of implementing maps and enums, why do anything else? How dull is that?!

The whole education system has geared itself around learning outcomes. Validation processes which assure the academic quality of courses focus on the measurability and production of learning outcomes. Yet few academics query specific learning outcomes in validation processes – they are after all ‘specialised’ to particular modules. Yet so many are badly written in such a way that they practically specify the method of assessment.  But even better-worded ones still end up carving-up chunks of knowledge which inevitably steers delivery in ways which poorly fit the real needs of students. What does a teacher do coming to a module and being faced with this? The obvious thing is to teach to the learning outcomes. The obvious thing is to assess according to the learning outcomes. And the basics? Ah… we need a skills module! With ‘skills’ learning outcomes. And an employability module, with employability learning outcomes. And so on. There’s no escape from this madness.

Learning outcomes have resulted in us straight-jacketing teachers. As professionals most understand the deep needs of their students. Yet rarely have they the flexibility to do the things that they might judge to be right (like teaching them to write properly) because the schemes of assessment won’t let them. To do so would be to put their own jobs at risk. Fear within teachers, grounded in bureaucratic nonsense around quality (not to mention all the other managerial pathologies!), is killing creativity in teaching and learning. It is killing quality, but of course it also kills critique and challenge. We are blindly continuing because nobody is prepared to lift the floorboards right at the bottom of the educational process in universities. We are in a positive feedback situation because the more this goes on, the more the capacity to ask difficult questions is obliterated. Learning outcomes sit at the foundation of our quality processes, and ironically, it is those quality processes which preclude asking difficult questions about them: that’s the way with ‘quality’ – hear no evil; see no evil.

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