This is a version of a letter that I wrote to the editor of the THE, which they did not publish, further to Frank Furedi’s rant against learning outcomes.
I am the course leader for Oxford Brookes University’s Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education. We were very pleased to see that when Professor Furedi (apparently) Googled “Learning Outcomes”, Oxford Brookes University comes top of the list. It is not my intention to enter deep into argument, here. Furedi sets up, then knocks down a straw man. I suggest that the straw man is a product of – not a cause for – cynicism.
There are big problems with the creeping instrumentalism of education. But, I fail to see a problem with being clear about what a teacher might want students to achieve. And, I suggest it is healthy that these intentions might be expressed in clear language that helps us decide what to teach, how to teach it and allows for some empirical assessment. Would Furedi be similarly opposed to making marking criteria explicit? Without criteria – however imperfect – judgement becomes wholly subjective and might lead simply to the replication of people who think like me, or worse.
I hope that my students might “understand” the expression of learning outcomes is a highly nuanced form. But, I have no direct access to the psychological states of others. I need my students to do something: to explain, to analyse, to argue from multiple perspectives, to demonstrate that the expression of learning outcomes, while problematic, may have benefits – or not – for teaching and learning. As Gabriel Egan was heard to say, a perfectly well expressed outcome of this debate might be:
Present to your tutors unexpected questions, unanticipated problems, and novel avenues of intellectual exploration arising from this topic.
Furedi suggests learning outcomes are a recent “fad” which results in increased cynicism. The article from which he quotes on our website was written in 2001. I have been engaged in the “learning objectives debate” since 1986. How recent is recent? There is an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument about when “objectives” transmogrified into “intended outcomes”, and what the difference might be. Not my idea of a good time. Learning objectives or “intended learning outcomes” are a part of a much wider, pragmatic, quality and standards movement that has had mostly beneficial consequences for society, as well as admitting jokes about European standard bananas – or poorly expressed, cynically written, learning outcomes. Learning objectives go back at least to Dewey. In the 1970s learning outcomes, with a number of other initiatives, had – in part – the aim of challenging a system of educational privilege that reproduced – and granted limited access to – a social elite. As Karl Popper said so well, all observation is theory laden. Learning outcomes ask us to make our intentions and their underlying foundations explicit. That is – again in part – what higher education is about. And, an outcomes-led approach is not the only way to teach,of course.