Sunday 19 December 2010

Beyond Learning Outcomes

I've been thinking about the examination and assessment of musical performances. Much depends on being 'convincing', 'correct', 'accurate', 'fluent' in the style and manner of performance. Indeed, in the rubric of music examinations will often use these sorts of words. But of course, these aren't (and can never be) objective assessments. It depends on creating a relationship with an examiner; it depends on communication. When we say "this is a convincing performance" what are we saying? Are we saying "what I experience on hearing this is a feeling which I associate with the feeling that I have had when listening to performances which I know to be good"? There is the whole question of 'family resemblance' that Wittgenstein was so fond of pointing out... "This performance feels like one of the family of the 'good and true' performances which I know..."  How does a skilled performance become 'one of the family'? How does a radical performance define itself and gain acceptance outside the 'received' family, but starting a new one of its own? To me, these questions highlight the deficiency in our current thinking about 'learning outcomes'.

The organisational benefits of learning outcomes are significant: they have contributed to the educational institution having a conversation within itself about how to organise education. They have also become embedded in the inspection regimes of government authorities who audit public expenditure on education. However, the important question to ask is "what have they done for learners?" This question will I believe become more important because understanding the learner's problem is going to be central to institutional survival as the new fees regime comes into place.

Learning Outcomes are basically a behaviourist take on education: that the black box of the learner, through conditioning, can be shown to have acquired new behaviours which can be objectively measured, and which can be the basis of assessment of the aptitude of the learner, and the effectiveness of the teaching. The confusion which has surrounded the issues of "what has gone on in the learner?", and "was the teaching any good?", together with the utility of learning outcomes for organising curricula into modular units so that learning can be organised across institutions more easily, has in effect shrouded the fundamentally behaviourist ontology which lies behind it.

If we look at the issue of learner needs, and what the best teaching can do, then I think there is something going on which relates to unpicking double-binds. Indeed, the worst teaching can reinforce the double-binds of the learner, whilst maintaining a stable relationship - and adhering to the rhetoric of learning outcomes. Often the most fundamental question a teacher can ask of a student desperately trying to meet a learning outcome is "why are you doing this?". By organising our system around learning outcomes, we've created an organisational structure where that most basic of questions is not only a challenge for the learner, but also risks putting the teacher at odds with the policy of the institution. Increasingly it takes a brave teacher to ask such a basic question.

The problem seems to be that however useful learning outcomes are for the internal conversation of the institution, they may be pretty useless as a measure of learning in terms of freedom from double-binds. They tend to be at the heart of the autistic conversation in the institution. Worse, they can make it increasingly difficult for teachers to ask the powerful questions that are necessary to really help learners. They can be a barrier to empathy. They lead teachers to judge that a skilled performance is or is not 'one of the family' on shallow criteria without allowing them to really consider what being 'one of the family' means.

Is there a way forward?

What if you could pin learning outcomes to learners' double binds in some way? Obviously this is a bit ambitious, but I'm thinking about extending my questionnaire of computing students ( in a way which might help the process move forwards. The issue seems to be the transparency and objectivity of the process,  which makes itself available to inspection, and the meaningfulness to learners. Maybe in this way the meaningfulness of learning outcomes might be more evenly distributed between learners and the institution than they are now....

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