The learning outcome conundrum

Nan Bahr

A teacher’s job is to provide for the development of selected students’ knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes. The goal is to prepare students for potential future and roles in society. There has been a long and angry public tussle about who gets to choose the things that need to be learned and therefore to have priority as essential or even just desirable in contemporary schooling. The chest-thumping has become high profile and very political. Yet, even if the politicians, industry leaders, professions, tertiary institutions, and the public agree on what matters, and they don’t, there is one issue that can never be adequately accounted for… we can’t know what the future will require of people. Yet the contemporary approach to designing for learning is outcomes-based.

Outcomes-based learning design is an approach that takes students on a learning journey toward a vision of the future. This future is can be an idealized or demonized representation of contemporary society. The desired skills, knowledge, and attitudes to be learned are extrapolated from a utopian, Laputan, or dystopian projection from the values of those with a voice in the deliberations. Initially built for an industrialized society, the framework for schooling is ill-equipped to provide for an unknowable future. The fundamentals must be reshaped to enable the human qualities and values we will always need to shine through …compassion, empathy, kindness, community, humour, and family. If the future is unknowable in detail, why can’t we design education that creates the type of society we will always need?

Outcomes-based learning design focuses on predetermined and demonstrable attributes. These are made visible through performance on assessment tasks. I assert that assessment, whether formative or summative, externally administered, or school-based, for learning, of learning, or as learning, cannot attend to the development of humanistic values. Values are exposed in how problems are conceptualized, enacted upon, and decided. Yet assessment plans look to the result of the product … the outcome. Why do we assess?

We assess to sort and rank people. It’s as simple as that. Even formative assessment, which notionally provides feedback on weaknesses and strengths direct to the learner without further scrutiny, leads to specified outcomes imagined for the tasks and roles of an unknowable future. We sort and rank people because we value competition. We value competition because we assume that the best of us are at the top of the tree for our contemporary endeavours.

I suggest that the best of us are generous, service-oriented, altruistic, and socially committed. Let’s let loose the bands of assessment in schooling and simply provide growth and engagement experience to our learners. Is this even possible? Would this dramatically change the role, of teachers?

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