Saturday, November 12, 2011

Can learning outcomes be Good?

Having learning outcomes is better than not having them, and if they are measurable and agreed upon, a set of learning outcomes significantly improves a student's learning.  By this I mean simply that a course or a curriculum designed to help students towards certain ends--the ability to think critically, or communicate well--is better than one that aims simply for an increase in knowledge, or understanding of content.

But I sometimes hear the value of learning outcomes put more starkly--that they make it possible to create an education that focuses on what a student can do, not what a student knows.  Here I have two concerns.  The first is obvious.  Education is about both what a student knows and what a student can do.  Learning is not content-neutral; communicating well in one discipline does not mean that a person can communicate well in all disciplines, in the same way that being smart about philosophy does not guarantee that you are also smart about biology. This objection is largely, I think, about the rhetoric of the learning outcomes movement, not about its actual approach to education.

My second concern is this: that learning outcomes may make an education more practical, more demonstrable, and better.  But they may not make it Good. Education, at least in its traditional sense, is not only about what a student knows, or does.  It is ultimately about what a student becomes.  And if a school is interested in its students becoming something--engaged citizens, moral human beings, disciples of a god, whatever--then learning outcomes aren't enough.  The school needs a mission, and a culture, that talk about the ultimate value of education, about what is Good, not simply what is good.

In the absence of that, learning outcomes become techniques or skills.  They are useful things to be sure.  But highly skilled people without a sense of what is Good have done a lot of damage in this world.  And college campuses, for all their rhetoric about making a better world, developing leadership, and transforming learning, are no better than the communities that surround them.  In some ways, they are worse.

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