Leader: Restate the statements of intent

Learning outcomes' laudable vision has been obscured by bureaucracy and the market: it's time to return to first principles

November 29, 2012

It all started with such laudable intentions. In 1995, Robert B. Barr and John Tagg, colleagues at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, were widely acclaimed when they demanded "a new paradigm for undergraduate education". The great change would shift universities from "providing instruction" to "producing learning".

Their landmark paper in Change magazine, "From Teaching to Learning - A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education", was inspirational. "To say that the purpose of colleges is to provide instruction is like saying that ... the purpose of medical care is to fill hospital beds," they wrote. "We now see that our mission is ... producing learning with every student by whatever means work best." Under the approach, they wrote, students would be empowered and each class would "learn more than the previous graduating class".

The paper helped change the language of pedagogy: to change the paradigm, the authors said, you must talk about "learning outcomes".

The mantle was taken up by Lord Dearing in his inquiry into higher education in 1997. He said: "Our vision puts students at the centre of the process of learning and teaching. They need clear statements about the intended outcomes of programmes."

Who could possibly argue with that? Well, in our cover story this week, Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, makes a compelling case that "learning outcomes" have become not only a contemptible bureaucratic imposition but also an actual threat to good teaching. They "promote a calculating and instrumental attitude where responsibility becomes equated with box-ticking" and "diminish what would otherwise be an open-ended experience for student and teacher alike", he argues.

Indeed, so contemptuous is Furedi of the documents he is obliged to produce (and his colleagues may wish to avert their eyes) that he openly admits he "makes them up and ignores them".

This is not what Barr, Tagg and Dearing had in mind. Even allowing for the excesses of Furedi's polemic, it is true that something malignant has infected the original vision - the dreaded touch of excessive managerialism.

Trevor Hussey, emeritus professor of philosophy at Bucks New University, has mapped how learning outcomes in the UK quickly became a "questionable fad, favoured more by managers than by teachers". Today, with £9,000 tuition fees putting students' consumer rights at the top of the agenda, it is easy to see how statements that were once conceived as a springboard for joint exploration between students and staff have been reduced to an instrumentalist series of boxes to tick.

For Furedi, the statements should be abolished, but surely this is a step too far. Clear information for students setting out what they are expected to know and understand after a course of study can be an appropriate part of the "voyage of intellectual discovery" that Furedi demands. There can be no going back to darker days.

In their 1995 paper, Barr and Tagg wrote: "For many of us, the learning paradigm has always lived in our hearts. As teachers, we want above all else for our students to learn and succeed." Academe must fight against the pressures of the market and consumerism to reassert that original, laudable vision.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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