Bum buzz-phrase

November 20, 1998

Phil Race's "Give the students the big picture" (THES, November 13) cried out for a latter-day Henry Reed ("And today we have course validation documentation .... And whatever you do, don't call the bleeders 'students'. It is much better ..."). But, whereas the poet at least had a little sympathy for the sergeant naming the parts of a gun or talking about military distances, I had none for this educator's mechanisation of teaching.

Let us take the buzz-phrase "learning outcomes" itself: my feeling is that the word "outcome" is a non-count noun, so that you can no more have "outcomes" than you can have "advices". What is wrong with results, consequences, effects - anything, in short, in normal English?

"Do not try to teach anything if you cannot think of any intended learning outcome associated with it," says Race. I teach Aeschylus's play Agamemnon and the only justification for doing so is that, for some people, it might be worth experiencing. Its effect on me has changed over the years and I am much older than those I teach, so I have not the foggiest idea what the "learning outcome" might be, and I would not be so stupid as to predict it. There is no justification here except for believing that it is worth putting the best stuff in front of your students in a spirit of hope and explaining it as you see it. You will get more failures than successes, but the sure-fire way to get total failure is to try to make the process efficient.

As for "If it is important enough, it should be worthy of being measured in some way, and it should be possible to measure", I leave the last word with Albert Einstein: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

Michael Bulley Ashford, Kent

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