November 27, 1998

The use of learning outcomes such as employability skills seems to be gaining respectability (THES, November 13; November 20), yet they embody aims and values that are the antithesis of what many academics see as the essence of higher education.

Learning outcomes are limited to a narrow range of cognitive behaviours. How could a love for a subject discipline, the formation of democratic values and independence of thought be expressed in outcomes form?

A university should be a community of scholars (both students and teachers) not a training establishment where one group imposes a set of limited skills on another.

Education is a process, and most of the essential benefits derive from the process. Students must learn how to do things, of course, but they should also be ready to critically reflect as they practise their skills in the real world and be prepared to modify actions and knowledge as they work.

The advocates of learning outcomes always want to replace "know" and "understand" with behavioural terms, because the former are not measurable. If they could be reduced to a bundle of cognitive skills, then problems of teaching and learning would have disappeared.

Much is made of the practical nature of outcomes because they indicate what students can do. The downside is that it is limited to what they can do in the classroom. How would the development of values and creativity be assessed? People in work face moral choices: an instrumental, teacher-dominated system of outcomes is not conducive to the development of an independent individual.

Brian Kemp Kingswinford West Midlands

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